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Chesapeake Native Plant Gardens: Outdoor Dining for Feathered Friends

Turning your garden into a giant bird feeder

Do you hang bird feeders in your garden? Each year, we fill tube feeders with niger seed in anticipation of goldfinches. They truly are such cheerful garden visitors. More recently, I read bird feeders need to be disinfected with a 10% bleach solution once a week to prevent feeders from being conduits for an eye disease prevalent in birds eating from feeders. Then, it occurred to me -- do we even need bird feeders since we have these native plants?

Turns out we did not need them to attract goldfinches. We did not hang feeders this summer and still had finches. Instead of watching them congregate at the feeder near the kitchen window though, we watched them flit from black-eyed susans in the back to coneflowers planted in the side garden up to the sidewalk where sunflowers grew. It was like their own little work out loop. Other visitors to our 1/8 of an acre urban garden: small woodpeckers, bluejays, doves, cardinals, nuthatches, titmice, juncos, robins, wrens and a very occasional pileated woodpecker, likely straying from a major park nearby. Nothing exotic or unusual, but still pretty cool.

Menu for Creating a Giant Bird Feeder:

Add plants with berries

Shrubs and trees with berries feed birds well into winter and the thing about native berries is they provide the type of fuel birds need at just the right time. Certain berries are higher in fat when certain birds specifically need that. Others are higher in nutrients when other birds need that. Nature has it all figured out -- all we have to do is plant. Trees for berries include dogwood (Cornus Florida), eastern red cedar (Juniperis virgniana), hawthorne (Crataegus viridis "Winter King') and serviceberry (Amelanchier canadensis). For shrubs with berries, check out beautyberry (Callicarpa Americana), blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum), chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia), coralberry (Symphoricarpus orbiculatus), viburnum, and winterberry (Ilex verticillata).

Add perennials with seed heads

Perennials provide seeds for birds long after the flowers are gone. This is why there is a national movement to forgo traditional fall garden 'clean up' and leave perennial flowers and grasses standing through winter. They give birds seeds and insects overwintering spots in places like plant stems. Black eyed Susans (Rudbeckia), coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea), ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis), liatris (Liatris spicata), penstemon (Penstemon digitalis) and goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) are just a few of the many choices.

Plant trees and shrubs that support caterpillars

Caterpillars are a huge buffet for birds. Dr. Doug Tallamy of the University of Delaware says a pair of breeding chickadees needs 6000 cateprillars to rear one clutch of young birds. That's a lot of caterpillars. Click here to review a few of the top plants for producing caterpillars.

Encourage insects

I know, I know. This is a good thing though! Think of this as a supreme bird buffet. Leaves of native plants get eaten and this is the point of native plants, supporting insects that feed the food chain in your garden. You can also leave snags (dead trees) if safe, add old wood logs and let fallen leaves remain wherever you can. Leaf litter is basically a winter hotel for insects. You do have to forgo mosquito spraying too --there is nothing that distinguishes between beneficial insects and mosquitoes.

Add water

Birds gravitate to water. If you can provide water year round, all the better. If the water is not moving, it should be changed at least every three days to avoid growing mosquito larva.

Add or leave wood

Leaving the base of a dead tree, a snag, or throwing a couple of old logs into a woodland garden bed, or making seats out of felled trees adds places for insects and wildlife to live. A small brush pile is recommended by experts to provide shelter during the wintriest of days.

Cornell's Lab of Ornithology is a great resource for all things birds. The FAQs are a great place to start. If you plant it, they will come. It's a sure thing!


We want you to be as excited about planting Chesapeake natives as we are. “Plant This or That” gives you a native alternative to popular plants. Other posts highlight really fabulous fauna native to the Chesapeake.

Nuts for Natives, avid gardener, Baltimore City admirer, Chesapeake Bay Watershed restoration enthusiast, and public service fan.

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