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Good Growing

Landscaping: It's for the Birds!


Attracting birds to your backyard can go beyond setting out birdfeeders.

Creating a landscape that welcomes birds by providing critical pieces of habitat will not only benefit birds, but other wildlife as well. And it is a great way to introduce young people to nature and have something the whole family can share. According to Cornell, with nearly 80 percent of wildlife habitat owned privately and 2.1 million acres converted each year to residential use – it is critical we create bird-friendly landscapes.

When designing a bird-friendly space, it is always best to start with a plan. As you begin to put pencil to paper one of your goals is to have a diverse landscape. The typical foundation planting, often comprised of yews and daylilies, fails at providing the three things birds need: water, shelter and food. Utilize native or well-adapted plants and design for year-round attractors.

You need to visualize your landscape in layers!

Birds don't simply live in the tree tops. In fact, most species of birds require a variety of layers during their lifecycle from the low to medium to high. You can categorize these layers as groundcovers, herbaceous plants, understory shrubs and trees, and overstory trees. Layering provides cover for birds and protects from predation both from the ground and from above.

Leaving dead limbs and tree snags and brush piles are all great sources of food and shelter for certain birds. What a great excuse for the messy gardener! Don't tidy up the planting beds in the fall. Leave those seed heads for birds to eat over the winter. Instead of bagging up your fall leaves, shred them and place them beneath your shrubs as mulch. Fall leaves harbor overwintering insects that birds will find delectable and come spring your leaf mulch will become a flurry of birds as they search for nesting material.

What plants are recommended? Cornell has a wonderful website called All About Birds and is a wealth of information. Here is a sampling of their recommended bird-attracting plants:


  • Overstory- Oaks (Quercus sp.), hickories (Carya sp.), walnuts (Juglans sp.), beeches (Fagus sp.)
  • Understory – Serviceberries (Amelanchier sp.), native dogwoods (Cornus sp.)
  • Coniferous – Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana), spruces (Picea sp.)
  • Shrubs – Shrub dogwoods (Cornus sp.), winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata)


Water is another critical component to have in a bird-friendly landscape. Incorporating a birdbath or water garden in your landscape can provide a wonderful focal point or pleasing space in your yard.

Birds are attracted to moving water. Installing a small pump in a water feature will add interest in the garden for both you and the birds as the sound of moving water attracts species of all types. Birdbaths should be 2 to 3 inches deep and 2 to 3 feet wide with an edge for perching. Clean the birdbath once a week with soap and a thorough rinse of water. Keep your birdbath full of fresh, cool water and sit back and enjoy the sight of birds making your backyard their home.

There are many wonderful resources to help you create a bird-friendly backyard. University of Illinois Extension can help get those resources in your hands. Contact your local county Extension office today! Another great resource would be your nearest Illinois Audubon Society group. Check Illinois Audubon's state website for local chapter information.

Good Growing Tip of the Week: Evergreens are an important source of cover for songbirds, especially in winter when predators like sharp-shinned hawks or house cats are known to stalk bird feeders for a meal. According to Cornell, place your feeders within 10-feet of protective cover. This distance can be adjusted depending on what common predators are in your yard.



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Chris Enroth is a horticulture educator with University of Illinois Extension, serving Henderson, McDonough, Knox, and Warren counties since 2012. Chris provides horticulture programming with an emphasis on the home gardener, landscape maintenance personnel, and commercial landscapers. Additional responsibilities include coordinating local county Master Gardener and Master Naturalist volunteers - providing their training, continuing education, advanced training, seasonal events, and organizing community outreach programs for horticulture and conservation assistance/education. In his spare time, Chris enjoys the outdoors, lounging in the garden among the flowers (weeds to most).