Attracting Migrant Birds

Each spring and fall you can have a multitude of unusual birds in your yard

Every spring and fall millions of birds fly hundreds of miles across the country to either return to their breeding grounds or to go back to their winter home. Some birds may have to fly over the desert while other birds may have to fly over urban areas or large bodies of water. Development of natural habitats is contributing to the decline of some songbird species such as thrushes, warblers, and vireos. Anything we can do to help make their trip easier would be welcome by the avian community.

Usually when we “Landscape for Birds”, we are helping local birds that we tend to see all year round. Migratory birds however need a few amenities to stay alive on their long journey north and south.

Migrating songbirds need to put on large amounts of fat to stay alive on their long journeys. Most species cannot do that all at once and must stop along the way, rest and refuel themselves. The places they stop along the way must be full of fruits and bugs to sustain them on their long journey. If these places are not available to them, they will most likely grow weak and die before they complete their journey.

Scientists have studied nesting and winter habitats for years, but have only recently begun to study the impact of “stopover” habitats. Research has shown that these migratory birds will not only use large areas covered with vegetation, but smaller areas as well. This is certainly one instance where a little help can go a long way.

What we can do in our own yards is to incorporate as many different types of plants in our landscape as possible and stop using pesticides. We not only need tall canopy trees, but we need under-story trees, bushes, vines and ground covers as well. Choosing native varieties will ensure that these plants are blooming or fruiting at the right time when a migratory bird needs them most. And stopping the use of pesticides will ensure there are plenty of bugs for the birds to eat. Once you have established your yard as a suitable spot for migratory birds, you can be sure that they will return year after year as long as their needs are being met. Have you ever noticed that if you regularly provide a nectar feeder to hummingbirds and then move your feeder for whatever reason that the hummingbirds will continue to return to the old spot for a short time until they discover the new location? Well, it is generally the same for most migratory birds.

While observing migratory birds, it seems they are not so concerned with the exact variety of plant being grown in your yard as they are by the feature of that plant. For instance, oak trees are attractive to most birds because these birds will eat the larvae of butterflies and moths that are also attracted to the oak tree. Sap and nectar drinking birds are attracted to flowering trees that produce fruit such as cherry and crabapple as well as trees that have a sugary sap like sugar maple and birch. Birds that feed on the ground will be attracted to ground covers, brush piles, decomposing leaves and compost because that is where the bugs are.

Now before you freak out and think, “Oh my gosh: my yard will look like a jungle”, just remember that anything you grow in your yard will be helpful. Not all of us can grow large trees like oak and elm, but most of us have room for a dogwood or magnolia tree. And if those are two large, surely you can find room for a shrub or two. And if you have lots of room and want to get adventurous, you can put in a pond that is surrounded by plants that would attract even more birds and critters.


Before you go planting anything, I suggest you find out what migratory birds might be flying over your part of the world and then put in plants that are more to their liking. Our friends over at eBird have some fantastic maps. Just click on a bird and then a map will come up that shows where that bird migrates to and from and at what time of the year. The link to their maps is here. Also, eNature has a map where you can click on your region and then it will show you approximate dates and bird types that will be flying thru your area. That link is here.

If you don’t feel like doing all that research, here is a list of plants that can be grown all over the country that will be helpful to most migratory birds, no matter what their species:

Red Cedar
Willow (Including Pussywillow)
Virginia Creeper
Wild Grape
Bleeding Heart
Coral Bells
Virginia Bluebells
Cardinal Flower

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Attracting Bluebirds

Learn what food and shelter that they like to help attract bluebirds to nest in your yard.

Attracting Hummingbirds

Learn what plants hummingbirds like to help attract more to your yard this summer.

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