Managing Your Landscape for Birds

— Written By Eli Snyder and last updated by
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We all have different aesthetic preferences in our flower gardens and home landscapes. Some prefer a tidy, manicured look and others don’t mind a little bit of brown foliage in the mix. This time of year in particular we notice our untrimmed annual flowers and our herbaceous, or non-wood, perennials, as most have experienced a few frosts and the greens have turned to brown. But, when left in place, many of these plant “skeletons”- the dead foliage, stems, flowers, and seedheads- provide important resources for birds and insects over the winter.

Some songbirds we see such during the warmer months are migratory and travel to warmer habitats for the winter. Buntings, thrushes, and tanagers are examples of migratory species. But there are many birds that stay in North Carolina or come to the area for winter and forage in our backyards. Cardinals, chickadees, and robins are common winter residents in North Carolina. Winter resources can be scarce for these resident birds, which is why many of us put out bird feeders.

dried foliage in the landscape

Flowers and seedheads left in the garden can provide food and habitat for wildlife, and also add texture and beauty to the winter landscape.

Leaving plants that produce a fruit or have gone to seed in the late summer or fall can provide an inexpensive source of bird feed during the colder months. Birds will also collect leftover plant fiber to build nests, and some will use shrubs and foliage as protection from weather and predators. These leftover frosted plants lend texture to the winter landscape, and berries and evergreens add color.

Birds need to eat all year, so an ideal songbird habitat includes a variety of plants, trees, and shrubs that flower and produce fruit and seed throughout the year. Plants also provide habitat for insects and spiders which are another important food source for birds, in particular for young birds. Birds nest at different vertical levels in the landscape, so an ideal habitat contains canopy trees, midstory trees, and shrubs. Generally, native plants provide a better resource for birds as they are adapted to eating these plants and using them for cover. Native plants are also less likely to be invasive in the landscape. Common native plants that produce seed in late summer or fall are goldenrod and tickseed or Coreposis spp., and grasses such as bluestem. Pokeweed or pokeberry, which many consider a weed, is a native that produces berries late in the season. Winterberry and Chokeberry are deciduous native shrub species- they lose their leaves over winter but produce berries in late summer and fall. American Holly and Eastern redcedar are native trees that produce berries late in the season, and also provide habitat and color over the winter since they are evergreen.

Leaving plants on the soil surface provides habitat for beneficial garden insects and covers the soil, which helps prevent soil erosion and compaction. This helps keep topsoil and nutrients in place, allows for better root growth, and is good for water quality. Decomposing plant material also adds organic matter to the soil, which helps to retain soil nutrients and improves water movement in the soil.

It is important to clean up a flower or garden bed in spring to reduce disease pressure in those beds next year. Pay attention to what birds are present in your yard, and notice any potential nest sites for those species. Many birds will be nesting in March through June, so to avoid disturbing them, complete pruning of trees and shrubs before March.

So, this season, if you haven’t already done so, don’t worry about tidying the garden right away. Consider leaving frosted flowers and native seed and fruit-bearing plants standing. You can explain to your neighbors or family that you are protecting the soil and providing an important resource for wildlife. Enjoy the holiday season with friends and family, and choose a warm sunny day in late winter to clean up the landscape for spring.

See more information on managing landscapes for birds and choosing birdseed. For specific questions about your garden or landscape contact the Caldwell Extension Center at 828-757-1290 or visit us anytime online at //caldwell.ces.ncsu.edu.