Gardening for Birds

The resources on this page focus on all the ways we can support birds. Please use and share our informative brochures and bird-friendly landscape designs to help you give birds the four basic things they need: 1) Water, 2) Cover, 3) Nest sites, and 4) Food. Brochures and Designs are located in the Informative Brochure section of this page.



If you are lucky enough to have a river, stream, or other natural water body on or adjacent to your land, birds are likely to visit. Make sure the stream side vegetation is healthy. These areas provide corridors for wildlife to travel, nest in, forage, and raise their young.

A healthy riparian area will have:

  • A variety of mostly native plants
  • Dead trees (standing and fallen)
  • Abundant leaf litter
  • Undisturbed soil
  • The wider the vegetated area is, the better.


If you choose to construct a pond, or have one already, here are some important points:

  • Add native aquatic plants. Incorporate submerged, floating and emergent native aquatic plants to the pond for food, cover, nesting materials and to provide for insects.
  • Add native terrestrial plants to the edges! Plant native trees, shrubs, flowers, and grasses around the pond for waterfowl.
  • Create Shallows. Certain waterfowl prefer to bathe and feed in water that is 2-3” deep.
  • Vary the Surroundings. Plant different habitat types around the pond. For example, trees and shrubs on one side and grasses on another.
  • Keep it Clean! Provide aeration and steady water flow. Avoid algae and weeds.


Hosting birds means keeping a clean source of water.

Tips for the best bird bath:

  • Near, but not under, shelter. Place it close to woody brush and feeders, but avoid falling debris that mucks up the water.
  • Fountains or streams! Mosquitoes don’t like to lay eggs in running water. Also, the sound of running water attracts birds!
  • Warm it in winter. Add a heater to keep it useful year-round.
  • Keep it filled. Remember to add water regularly so the birds can rely on it.
  • Keep it clean! Rinse and scrub with nine parts water to one part vinegar but avoid soaps: they can strip oils from birds’ feathers.



Wildlife need shelter from bad weather and hiding places from predators. Cover takes many forms: Trees, dense shrubs, tall grasses, rock and brush piles, hollow logs, a stack of firewood. The more choices you offer, the more inviting your yard will be.

The vegetative structure checklist:

  • Native grasses provide cover from predators and winter insulation.
  • Include plants of differing heights and foliage.
  • Include a combination of mostly deciduous trees, shrubs, and understory plants.
  • Large trees, dead or alive, provide wildlife with vantage points.


Overgrown grassy reeds, dried flower stalks, and shrubby fruit-filled branches provide food, cover, and protection in the fall and winter for birds.

Best ways to encourage a messy garden:

  • Leave your leaves on the ground.
  • Allow dried flower heads to stay standing.
  • Let grass grow tall and seed.
  • Build a brush pile with fallen branches.
  • Bare earth patches benefit dust-bathing birds.
  • Don’t use chemicals.
  • Leave snags (standing dead trees) in place.
  • Delay garden clean-up until spring, after several 50 degree F days


Birds need at least two places to find shelter from weather and predators:

  • Wooded area
  • Bramble patch
  • Ground cover
  • Rock pile or wall.
  • Cave
  • Roosting box (not for rearing of young but for multiple cavity-nesting birds to shelter at once)
  • Evergreens
  • Brush or log pile
  • Dead trees, standing or fallen
  • Meadow or prairie
  • Dense shrubs/thicket
  • Water garden or pond

Nest Sites


Birds need places to engage in courtship behavior, mate, and then bear and raise their young.

Provide the Right Places:

  • Native trees
  • Meadows and prairies
  • Wetlands
  • Caves
  • Host plants for caterpillars
  • Dead trees or snags
  • Dense shrubs or thickets
  • Water gardens or ponds
  • Burrows
  • Nest boxes


Nest building birds use a variety of materials. You can grow plants that offer the materials, or you can provide the materials themselves

Providing Nesting Materials:

  • Use Native Plants. Incorporate at least 70% native plants into your garden for birds to have the best success.
  • Twigs. Trees and shrubs with branches less than 4” long.
  • Fluff and Moss. Birds use mosses and lichens, fluff from cottonwoods, maples, willows, and other trees with catkins;
  • Mud. Swallows, swifts and robins favor mud as a nesting material.
  • Dry Grass. Songbirds from sparrows to robins often build with grasses.
  • Don’t use laundry dryer lint. It can soak up water and contain unhealthy chemicals.


Nest boxes encourage cavity nesting birds to move in to your yard.

Tips for Nest Box Success:

  • Right Bird, Right House. Different birds have different nesting needs. Check out Cornell Lab’s NestWatch Right Bird, Right House website for plans!
  • Quality Counts! Wood should be at least 5/8” thick, not treated with chemicals, and include drainage and ventilation holes.
  • The Right Place. Morning sun and afternoon shade is best. For safety, ensure clear flight path. Position box 6+ ft high.
  • Deter Predators. Don’t include perches, install predator blocks to entrances, and place metal flashing on roof.
  • Keep it Clean! Remove last year’s nesting materials as soon as spring birds head out.



Most native plants will be better adapted to your garden site than others, and don’t need fertilizer or much irrigation once they get established. Plant many species of trees, shrubs and flowers, and plant single-species clusters to help with foraging efficiency.

  • Include plants with seeds and berries
  • Include flowers with nectar and pollen
  • Include an array of leaf types

Some great native plant choices:

  • Big-leaf Maple
  • Bleeding Heart
  • Blue Blossom
  • Douglas Aster
  • Douglas Spirea
  • Hookedspur Violet
  • Oregon Grape
  • Oregon White Oak
  • Red Flowering Currant
  • Salal
  • Showy Milkweed
  • Snowberry
  • Vine Maple
  • Yarrow


Minimize pesticide use in bird-friendly landscaping to give birds the opportunity to feed on grubs, ants, aphids, gnats, and all types of flying insects.

Native plants have evolved alongside our native birds and insects. They support greater insect diversity than non-native species. host many caterpillar species that are a vital source of protein for birds, especially during the breeding season.

Provide for insects to provide for birds!

  • Native trees such as oaks, willows, birches, and maples
  • Native herbaceous plants such as goldenrod, milkweed, and sunflowers


Nourishment for wildlife should come primarily from natural food sources such as native plants. Feeders should only be supplied to complement birds’ natural diets. Clean feeders regularly and watch for mold. Seed preferences vary. Incorporate a variety of bird feeders to meet the dietary needs of different bird species.

The most popular supplemental foods are:

  • Sunflower seeds
  • Millet
  • Nyjer
  • Peanuts
  • Suet
  • Mealworms
  • Safflower seeds
  • Mixed weed-free seed
  • Nectar
  • Jelly
  • Peanut butter
  • Cracked corn

Related Resources

For additional information, we recommend:
  • Bird And Tree Bingo 2021

    These delightful prompts are designed to inspire you to get outside and explore nature with young people. Do five in a row for a BINGO or challenge yourself to do them all!

  • 2021 Bloom Time And Flower Color Gantt

  • Analyzing The Effects Of Urban Noise And Light Pollution On Avian Communities

    Lauren Pharr discusses some of the ways we can help birds avoid urban impacts of noise and light pollution.

  • A Bird-Friendly Garden Plan

    This double-sided handout includes a garden design by Signe Danler and a list of native plants that support birds.

  • Bird Needs 4 Sheets

    This 4-page handout created by Benton SWCD summarizes the kinds of Food, Cover, Water, and Nesting Sites to provide for birds.

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