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100 Plants to Feed the Birds
Turn Your Home Garden into a Healthy Bird Habitat
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The mission of Storey Publishing is to serve our customers by publishing practical information that encourages personal independence in harmony with the environment.
Edited by Deborah Burns
Art direction and book design by Erin Dawson
Indexed by Samantha Miller
Cover photography by © CatLane/iStock.com, front, r. 2 c.l.; © David Pool Photo/stock.adobe.com, front, r. 1 c.; © eqroy/stock.adobe.com, front, r. 2 r.; © frank mcclintock/EyeEm/stock.adobe.com, front, r. 1 r.; © Holcy/iStock .com, back, b.r.; © inho Lee/iStock.com, spine; Joshua J. Cotten/Unsplash, front, t.; © Laura Erickson, back, t. & b.l.; © Maria Brzostowska/stock.adobe.com, front, r. 1 l.; © Mary Lynn Strand/stock.adobe.com, front, r. 2 c.r.; © Mircea Costina/stock.adobe.com, back, b.c.; © nd700/stock.adobe.com, front, r. 2 l.; © Nina/stock.adobe.com, front, r. 1 c.l.; © seven75/iStock.com, front, r. 2 c.; © TOMO/stock.adobe.com, front, r. 1 c.r.
Interior photography credits
Maps and icons by Ilona Sherratt © Storey Publishing, LLC
Text © 2022 by Laura Erickson
Ebook production by Slavica A. Walzl
Ebook version 1.0
December 20, 2022
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This book is dedicated to my grandson, Walter. May his generation inherit all the natural beauty and biodiversity that my generation did.
It would be impossible to acknowledge the hundreds of birders, conservationists, and friends who shaped my understanding of the inextricable ties between plants and birds. And a great many people have taken me to their patches throughout the country, showing me how very much habitat work is being done on local, state, regional, and national levels, and why this work is so necessary.
I must mention one, Ali Sheehey, my go-to authority on California birds and habitats, who gave me helpful suggestions on the manuscript and prepared the list of native plant organizations for each state and province. I am in awe of her expertise, her willingness to help a friend in need, and her passionate commitment to living up to her high standards of conservation ethics.
Part I: Creating Habitat
Bird-Attracting Features of Different Plants
Part II: Plants That Support Birds
- 1. Bald Cypress
- 2. Cedar, Juniper
- 3. Cypress
- 4. Douglas-fir
- 5. Fir
- 6. Hemlock
- 7. Pine
- 8. Spruce
- 9. Tamarack, Larch
- 10. Alder
- 11. Aspen, Cottonwood
- 12. Basswood
- 13. Beech
- 14. Birch
- 15. Cherry
- 16. Crabapple
- 17. Desert Willow
- 18. Hackberry
- 19. Hickory, Pecan
- 20. Madrone
- 21. Maple, Boxelder
- 22. Mountain Ash, Dogberry, Rowan
- 23. Mulberry
- 24. Oak
- 25. Redbud
- 26. Sycamore
- 27. Tupelo
- 28. Walnut
- 29. Willow
- 30. Bluestem
- 31. Indiangrass
- 32. Little Bluestem
- 33. Sideoats Grama
- 34. Spartina, Cordgrass
- 35. Switchgrass, Panic Grass
- 36. Vetch
- 37. Aster
- 38. Beebalm
- 39. Black-eyed Susan
- 40. Blanketflower
- 41. Blazing Star
- 42. California Fuchsia
- 43. CardinalFlower
- 44. Columbine
- 45. Cup Plant, Compass Plant, Rosinweed
- 46. Fireweed
- 47. Goldenrod
- 48. Hyssop
- 49. Iris
- 50. Ironweed
- 51. Jewelweed
- 52. Joe-Pye Weed
- 53. Lily
- 54. Lupine
- 55. Mexican Hat
- 56. Milkweed
- 57. Penstemon, Beardtongue
- 58. Phlox
- 59. Purple Coneflower
- 60. Rocky Mountain Bee Plant
- 61. Salvia
- 62. Strawberry
- 63. Sunflower
- 64. Thistle
- 65. Violet
- 66. Wild Geranium
Plants That Grow on Trees
- 67. Lichen
- 68. Mistletoe
- 69. Spanish Moss
- 70. Beautyberry
- 71. Blackberry, Raspberry
- 72. Blueberry
- 73. Buttonbush
- 74. Coralberry, Snowberry
- 75. Crowberry
- 76. Desert-thorn, Wolfberry
- 77. Dogwood
- 78. Elderberry
- 79. Hawthorn
- 80. Hazelnut
- 81. Holly
- 82. Honeysuckle
- 83. Leadplant
- 84. Manzanita, Bearberry
- 85. Rhododendron, Azalea
- 86. Rose
- 87. Sagebrush
- 88. Saw Palmetto
- 89. Serviceberry, Juneberry, Shadblow
- 90. Sumac
- 91. Viburnum
- 92. Wax Myrtle, Bayberry
- 93. Clematis
- 94. Trumpet Vine
- 95. Virginia Creeper, Woodbine
- 96. Wild Grape
Cactus and Yucca
- 97. Cholla and Prickly Pear
- 98. Hedgehog Cactus
- 99. Ocotillo
- 100. Yucca, Joshua Tree
Favorite Plants of Common North American Birds
North American Native Plant Societies
Interior Photography Credits
Feed Your Love of Nature with More Books from Storey
Share Your Experience!
• Part I •Creating Habitat
More than 50 million North Americans feed birds, which is enjoyable for us and can be valuable for some popular species as well. But suet, sugar water, and birdseed provide food for only a fraction of our backyard birds, and our feeders don't offer a complete and balanced diet for any of them. We can see a much wider variety of birds, and support them much more comprehensively, when we add a good assortment of locally native plants to our landscaping.
This is a guide to some of the most important plants for supporting North American birds in the healthiest, most natural way possible.
Improving backyard habitat to sustain birds does not need to replace bird feeding—a gratifying hobby that makes life a little easier for our backyard birds and can even save lives during severe winter weather. But even the best feeding stations can't match the importance of the right plants for bird welfare.
Plants produce seeds, fruits, nectar, and other essential foods. They host the caterpillars, aphids, and other insects almost all songbirds and a great many other birds need for protein; they also provide nesting and roosting sites and nesting materials. Many birds first discover feeders when they are drawn to a yard by an attractive tree or other conspicuous plant.
Some birds are inextricably bound to specific types of plants, and sometimes their names reflect that relationship, as with Pine Warblers, Oak and Juniper Titmice, Pinyon Jays, Cactus Wrens, and the two species of sage-grouse. Acorn Woodpeckers spend their lives near oaks, gathering and stashing away acorns in large, communal "granaries."
Plants may not be reflected in the name of North America's tiniest warbler, the Northern Parula, but in the Southeast it nests almost exclusively within clumps of Spanish moss, a bromeliad; in the Appalachians and northern forests, it nests within clumps of the Usnea lichens called "old man's beard."
Red-cockaded Woodpeckers of the Southeast nest in longleaf pines. They disappear as these pines are cut, even if the trees are replaced with other kinds of pines.
Some plant references in bird names aren't very appropriate. In 1810, Alexander Wilson shot a brilliant warbler out of a magnolia tree in Mississippi and named it for the tree. But Magnolia Warblers nest in conifers far north of the range of magnolia trees and don't seem especially drawn to magnolias, either during spring or fall migration or on their wintering grounds in Central America and the Caribbean.
And a full 98 percent of all Palm Warblers breed in Canada's boreal forest, more than a thousand miles from the nearest palm trees. Palm Warblers winter in the Caribbean, along the Gulf Coast, in all of Florida, and along the southeastern Atlantic coast, so many do spend time near palm trees. But they forage mostly on the ground, not in trees, making the name inappropriate in any season.
Kirtland's Warblers nest only on the ground beneath the lowest branches of young jack pine trees. As those trees age, they lose their bottom branches and can no longer shelter the warblers' ground nests. Jack pine cones open to release their seeds only following the high-intensity heat of fires, so jack pine stands need to be burned periodically to allow new seedlings to take over and thus restore the warblers' nesting habitat.
Florida Scrub-Jays require scrub oaks. Baltimore Orioles once preferred to build their nests in elms, but as Dutch elm disease wiped out American elms, the orioles adapted to sycamores, maples, and other large trees.
Red Crossbills are very dependent on pine cones—spruce, tamarack, and other cones aren't nearly as attractive to them—while White-winged Crossbills feed on those other cones far more than they do on pine cones. Many populations of Red Crossbills wander from area to area as local pines produce bumper cone crops, even breeding in winter when pine seeds are abundant.
Although a handful of birds are extreme specialists, dependent on a single species of plant for food or nesting, most are less particular. Still, even some generalists do best around particular plants; here are some examples.
- Evening Grosbeaks are especially attracted to maple and boxelder seeds, and redpolls to birch seeds.
- Pileated Woodpeckers are drawn to aspens, because these softwoods are vulnerable to heart rot just as the trees reach an optimal girth for the birds to dig out large nesting and roosting cavities.
- American Goldfinches not only eat thistle and milkweed seeds but also incorporate these soft, downy seed fibers into their tightly woven nests.
Succession describes the process of change in natural communities, beginning with pioneer species and ultimately reaching a stable climax stage. Backyard landscaping can include plants from different stages of succession.
Starting a bird garden can be tricky. To begin with, species names can be most confusing. When the American Ornithologists' Union published the first Check-List of North American Birds in 1886, they included an English name and a Latin scientific name for each, to foster clear communication for both ornithologists and amateurs. Despite the many checklists and guidebooks published since, bird names are still hard to keep straight.
Plant names are even less standardized; in fact, botanists and horticulturists often use different vernacular names for the same species. For example, North America has no true cedar trees, which belong to the genus Cedrus and are native to the mountains of the western Himalayas and the Mediterranean region. Our "cedars" belong to several different genera: Calocedrus, Callitropsis, Juniperus, and Thuja.
A great many plants are known by multiple names, and landscapers and greenhouses in the same state may use different names for the same species. Compounding those difficulties are the countless cultivars developed by horticulturists.
Advice on Local Species
This book lists each recommended plant's genus, along with one or more species representing some good choices for different parts of the country. There are usually a great many more possibilities than just those we included. State and local birding and gardening organizations can provide excellent lists of the best locally native species and varieties—meaning those that are native to your particular location, not just to your continent, state, or broader region—and they can warn about locally problematic species. (See here for a list of North American native plant societies.)
Some local gardening stores may also have helpful suggestions. Make sure, however, that the people you talk to are aware of wildlife and ecological issues. A great many nonnative plants become invasive—that is, they grow so abundantly that they crowd out essential native plants while providing few or none of the benefits native plants do.
Some stores continue to sell such invasive exotics as purple loosestrife, multiflora rose, and black locust. Some even continue to recommend one dangerous exotic, heavenly bamboo (Nandina), saying that its red berries attract birds, even though those berries are toxic to birds!
Ecologically Harmful Invasive Plants not to invite into your backyard
Some Native Plants You Won't Find Here
A few wonderful native plants can be inappropriate in backyards for various reasons, and so they aren't included in this book.
In California, a state filled with stunning natural wonders, sequoias and redwoods may be the most magnificent of all. The old-growth forests that both trees depend on provide vital habitat for Spotted Owls and Pileated Woodpeckers. Marbled Murrelets nest only on the branches of old-growth conifers, especially coast redwood.
Sequoia and coast redwoods grow very fast in their first decade, however, so neither is a good choice for yards even within the trees' natural ranges, unless the property is large and contiguous with old-growth forests. These trees must be planted far from any buildings, powerlines, or other infrastructure that could be damaged if they toppled.
The Saguaro Cactus
An icon of the Southwest, the saguaro is invaluable for birds in its native range, the Sonoran Desert of Mexico and southern Arizona, extending a bit into California. But saguaros grow extremely slowly at first, often taking 5 years or more to reach a height of 5 inches (13 cm). In places like Saguaro National Monument, where summer rainfall averages 16 or so inches (41 cm) a year, a saguaro takes 30 years to reach flowering size. Where rainfall averages only 9 inches (23 cm) per year, such as Organ Pipe National Monument, plants may not bloom for the first time until they are 75 years old. Several birds use large, mature saguaros for nesting, but, again, that can't happen until the cactus is many decades old.
Saguaros are declining dangerously, and it's critical that we plant them now to ensure that there are healthy mature plants well into the future. Young saguaros' value for birds is limited, however, and they require a great deal of care and attention to thrive. Supporting the organizations that are tirelessly working to protect this wonderful natural resource is an excellent alternative way for backyard bird gardeners to make a difference.
If your property can serve as a good site for a saguaro long into the future, these organizations will have tips on ethical sources for seeds and small plants and the information you'll need to grow your plant properly.
North American Classics
The American elm and American chestnut, both of extraordinary value for birds, are also critically endangered, in both cases because of diseases that have decimated them. Researchers are working hard to develop resistant cultivars. Supporting their work is important. As with groups trying to save saguaros, the organizations working to develop resistant elms and chestnuts can help you find good sources for the most resistant trees so far developed, and tips for helping them thrive.
Planning Your Bird Garden
Our backyards will be the most valuable for the widest variety of birds when we take all four seasons into account in our planning, and when we consider how the plants themselves will change from one year to the next. Our human life-span averages much longer than that of our backyard songbirds, but it is much shorter than that of some of the plants in a good landscaping project. As more and more birds adapt to quality backyard habitat, we take on a responsibility to protect that habitat for the long haul.
“The best book I've seen on planting to attract birds. Packed with useful information and beautiful photos, written in a lively and accessible style, it's an essential reference for anyone who wants to improve an outdoor space anywhere in North America.”
— Kenn Kaufman, naturalist, author of Kingbird Highway, and editor of the Kaufman Field Guides
"Kudos to Laura Erickson for bringing a macro-level understanding of the world of interrelationships between birds and plants. Using native plants is the key to creating that healthy world. Informative, practical, and beautifully done, this book will help birders make backyard bird Edens wherever they live."
— Lillian Stokes, co-author of the Stokes Field Guide to Birds of North America
- On Sale
- Dec 20, 2022
- Page Count
- 256 pages