How to attract birds to your garden with native plants

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Planting natives is the best way to attract birds to your garden while supporting conservation efforts. Gardening with native plants creates a sanctuary for birds that will return year after year to feed, nest, shelter and raise their young.

Birds will appreciate and seek out the habitat you provide, especially since their natural habitats have become limited. Native plants require less maintenance and are more profitable than non-native plants.


Butterfly Weed blooms all summer. It attracts butterflies and other pollinators.

Help fight habitat loss

Insectivorous birds mainly rely on caterpillars as their primary food source. The caterpillars lay eggs and feed on native plants. As natural lands are developed and replaced with non-native plants, the number of insects and caterpillars decreases, leading to a decrease in the food supply for birds and a decrease in the bird population.

Landscapers, HOAs, garden centers and homeowners have created artificial landscapes devoid of native plants and insects, causing food shortages for residents and migrating birds. Habitat loss is a major factor in the recent decline of songbirds.

Native plants are easier to care for
Help restore grassland habitats by planting natives like the Black-eyed Susan and Black-eyed Daisy pictured here.

Bird food

How many native plants are needed to support breeding birds? Consider that a songbird must feed its chicks hundreds of caterpillars every day.

A yard with seventy percent or more native plants is needed to produce enough caterpillars for a breeding pair of songbirds. Native trees, such as oaks, can harbor 534 species of caterpillars. Native plants can be an abundant source of insects and caterpillars, while non-native plants usually produce none or very little. Native trees, such as oaks, can harbor up to 534 species of caterpillars, the primary food source for breeding songbirds.

The Redbud tree is native to Virginia
Redbud trees are a springtime favorite due to their beautiful blooms.

Adult songbirds need a mix of seeds, berries and nuts that are high in nutrition. Planting a variety of native plants that produce these three foods will provide birds with a year-round food source.

Goldenrod and aster are beautiful perennials that produce seed every year. Berry-producing natives, such as partridge berry and common winter berry, are rich in nutrients and safe to eat. Flowering plants, like Virginia Sweetspire, are a food source for pollinators and nectar-eating birds, like hummingbirds.

Not just for the birds

Native plants do more than provide food. They maintain important ecological roles by filtering rainwater and producing drinking water sources, mitigating runoff, flooding and erosion, producing oxygen and removing carbon, supporting pollinators and attracting wildlife. Frogs, turtles, butterflies, bats, and fireflies are some examples of wildlife in Virginia that depend on native plants.

Another good reason to choose native plants is that they require less maintenance and are more economical than non-native plants. The natives return year after year without the need for fertilizers, pesticides, additional watering or mowing. Take cues from the surrounding habitat. What kind of native plants grow on or near your garden? What soil conditions do they need to thrive?

Columbine is originally from Virginia
Wild columbine prefers the shade and moist soil of rocky forests and well-drained forests.

Five factors to consider

There are many factors to consider when choosing native plants for your garden. These factors will determine the type of plants to choose. The right plant must be chosen for the right place.

1. Space. Native plants can adapt to any space, whether you have acres of land or no land. Some plants need a lot of room to grow or spread, like wild hydrangea and witch hazel, while others can fit well in a container, like wild strawberry or threadlike coreopsis. Avoid overcrowding by spacing plants according to the size they will reach at maturity.

2. Sunlight. Note the area of ​​your yard that receives morning and afternoon sunlight and the areas that receive little or no sunlight. Many native plants, such as Turk’s Cap Lily and Butterfly Weed, will thrive in full sun while others need full shade, such as Virginia Bluebells and Wild Red Columbine.

3. Humidity. Humidity is just as important as sunlight. Wet areas in your garden can support moisture-loving plants, such as swamp milkweed and blue wild indigo. Other plants prefer well-drained or generally dry soils, such as prickly pear and wild blue flox.

4. Soil type. Virginia has a wide range of soil types, including sandy, rocky, loamy (wet clay), high and low acidity, nutrient-rich, humus-rich (decomposed organic matter), and calcium-rich soils. To better understand the type of soil you have, take cues from the surrounding habitat. What kind of native plants grow on or near your garden? What soil conditions do they need to thrive?

5. Variety. Choose a variety of natives that will attract different birds. Planting a variety of grasses, shrubs, trees and flowering perennials will attract the most birds. Red chokeberry or early dwarf blueberry will attract fruit- and berry-eating birds and wildlife, while cardinalflower and trumpet honeysuckle are favorites of ruby-throated hummingbirds.

Three resources

1. The Virginia Native Plant Researcher is a site that helps you find native plant species that meet your needs. You can enter your region and garden factors into the plant finder and it will suggest native plants for your garden.

2. The Native Plant Society of Virginia has chapters across the Commonwealth. Find the chapter nearest you and contact them for answers to your questions and information on sales of native plants in your area. Find a local chapter here. https://vnps.org/

3. The National Audubon SocietyThe Plants for Birds program provides many online resources. Some local Audubon chapters offer free on-site assistance with gardening and landscaping projects. Native plants require no fertilizers, pesticides, supplemental watering or mowing. Information can be found here.

Turks Cap Lily is originally from Virginia
Turk’s Cap Lily has large and numerous flowers, attracting birds and butterflies.
They can thrive in a variety of soils and settings.

Start with a plant

Creating a bird sanctuary in your backyard doesn’t have to be overwhelming. It can be as simple as starting with a plant. Over time, replace non-native plants with native species.

For those who want to make a conservation effort while attracting birds, simple changes make a big difference. Gradually fill the lawn or empty space with native plants. Adding a few extra plants each year will help create a thriving habitat.

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