Birds and Plants

Birds and Plants

Text and photos by Dan Gleason © 2009

Like other hummingbirds, the male Rufous Hummingbird feeds on flower nectars.

By spreading their wings and taking to the air, birds have the freedom to move from place to place. Despite the freedom to choose their locale, many birds are restricted to particular habitats. Such restriction may be dictated by a bird’s structure, by its food habits or a variety of other reasons. For example, the beak of a crossbill allows it to easily open conifer cones and remove the seed but is completely inadequate for probing into the mud for invertebrates, so it is restricted forested areas. Acorns are the primary food source of Acorn Woodpeckers, thus these birds must live in oak woodlands and will not be found in Douglas-fir forests. Some birds, like American Robins, are generalists and can range over a wide variety of habitats.

Wherever birds are found, plants play an important role in their lives. Plants may provide food, shelter, a place, or the materials to build a nest. Some birds are tied to specific kinds of plants or species while others are tied to the complex of the habitat rather than one or two specific plants.

Plants provided in your yard may not form a complete natural habitat but they are important to the birds that visit and to some extent, even determine the kinds of birds that you will find frequenting your yard.

Birds visiting your yard need safe places to which they can retreat. Shrubbery provides shade from the heat of the day and a secure place to rest without being visible to potential predators. If the vegetation cover is sufficient, some birds will find a good location to build a nest. American Robins build their nests on tree branches while Song Sparrows or Spotted Towhees prefer the dense shelter of low bushes. Individual, isolated bushes are less useful or secure for birds than are hedgerows and brushy thickets, as isolated shrubs provide too little cover and too easy access to predators such as cats, raccoons or possums.

Snowberries provide winter food for some birds.

Birds may also be attracted to your yard to feast on fruits or nuts provided by your plants. In this respect, we should carefully think about what we plant in our yards. Some plants available for purchase have fruit that is very attractive to birds but the plants themselves may be invasive and have a negative impact on our native habitats. English holly is one such example. Often touted as a plant that attracts birds because of the bright red berries, holly seeds are spread by the birds’ droppings and readily germinate in forested areas. Holly tolerates forest shade but unfortunately, its rapid root growth takes more than its share of water from the soil, stressing or killing native herbaceous forest plants nearby. If you want a similar look to holly, consider planting Oregon-grape. This native plant has the small, prickly leaves, attractive clusters of yellow flowers in the spring, blue-colored berries that birds enjoy, and it will not out-compete other native plants that share its environment. European Hawthorne and Mountain Ash are two other popular ornamental trees often planted to attract birds, and their berries certainly do attract birds. But, like English Holly, these plants quickly spread to surrounding areas via the birds’ droppings, and can grow more successfully than native trees, forming dense thickets. If you want hawthorne, please plant Douglas Hawthorn, a tree native to the Pacific Northwest. It looks very similar to the European tree and will be just as attractive to birds without putting native habitats at risk.

Many plants have flowers that attract insects, especially bees, but flies, butterflies, moths, beetles and other insects are also attracted as pollinators. In tropical and subtropical regions, bats pollinate many night-blooming plants. Fewer plants have evolved to attract birds as pollinators but some exist and are found in this area. Columbine is a perfect example: its bright red flowers are adapted to attract hummingbirds, and the flowers hang upside down which makes them unattractive to butterflies which like to feed from the top. The red color attracts hummingbirds that hover below the flower, probing their long beaks up into the long, tubular spikes at the back of the flower to reach the nectar found there that is unavailable to most insects. In the process of sipping the nectar, a hummingbird’s head is dusted with pollen by the long anthers hanging from the bloom. When the hummingbird moves to the next flower, it carries this pollen where it is deposited, fertilizing the neighboring plant. This process allows the columbine to produce its next generation and the hummingbird is rewarded with sweet nectar.


Larkspur (Delphinium) is another beneficial, and very attractive native plant to consider planting in your garden. The beautiful blue flowers are adapted to attract bumblebees, whose weight is enough to open the flower, allowing access to the pollen and nectar. Since hummingbirds are also attracted to these flowers, you will get to enjoy the beauty that a bed of these flowers can provide and you may also have the fun of watching a hummingbird delicately sipping from these blossoms.

Give careful consideration to what you put into your garden as you create beauty for yourself while also providing food and shelter for birds to enjoy. Thoughtful plantings will also assure that the surrounding, natural environment is not harmed – a winning combination for all concerned.

For more information about responsible planting, you can go to the websites of the Emerald Chapter of the Native Plant Society of Oregon or Lane County Audubon Society, which also has a list of native plants that attract birds.


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