Planting gardens for birds
Birds require food, cover and nesting sites to survive. Careful choice of
plants and provision of other features such as ponds, will help you create
a haven for wildlife in your garden.
The more varied you can make your garden, the better it will be for wildlife.
Inclusion of shrubs, a hedge, climbers, and trees will create habitats to
suit many different birds. Herbaceous plants and a lawn are other valuable
Choose a selection of shrubs and trees that provide insect food, and berries
or fruit for as long a period as possible. Inclusion of thorny plants and
some evergreens provide shelter and safe nesting sites. This leaflet lists
some of the useful shrubs, trees and climbers for a wildlife garden. Due
to limited space, growing conditions and flowering and fruiting periods are
not given. These can be gleaned from many good gardening books.
Avoid planting non-native, invasive species which can cause a conservation
problem if they spread into sensitive habitats. Non-native pond plants are
a particular problem, as they can be moved into watercourses by birds, cats
and dogs, travel many miles and may blanket large areas of water or riverbank.
Never tip garden rubbish into a semi-natural habitat as the seeds can spread.
Compost your green rubbish and take the rest to a local tip, where it can
be disposed of properly.
Native trees are preferable, since most of them provide insects in the breeding
season as well as seeds in winter. Oaks and beeches grow into big trees and
are only suitable for large gardens.
Alnus glutinosa* or non-native A incana
and A cordata are suitable for damp or wet sites. The 'cones attract
siskins, goldfinches and redpolls in winter. Alders produce long, hanging
catkins in early spring.
Birch Betula pendula* supports good quantities
of insects, including caterpillars, which attract many birds. The seeds attract
redpolls. Birch grows best on well drained sites.
Willows - goat willow Salix caprea* and
S daphnoides produce catkins in early spring, attracting insects eaten
by birds. Willow leaves, particularly those of the goat willow, are eaten
by many kinds of caterpillar.
Oak Quercus robur supports a rich variety and quantity of insects,
including mahy caterpillars which provide food for young tits and other birds.
The acorns are eaten by wood pigeons, jays, great spotted woodpeckers and
Beech Fagus sylvatica* supports only
small quantities of insects, but the 'masts' (nuts) are eaten by tits,
chaffinches, bramblings, great spotted woodpeckers and nuthatches.
Rowan/mountain ash Sorbus aucuparia*
the normal red-berried form is best for birds.
Whitebeam Sorbus species are small trees with silvery undersides
to the leaves. They produce white flowers in May and red berries in the autumn.
Free fruiting species include S intermedia, S x kewensis and S
June-berry Amelanchier leavis is a small tree that produces white
blossom in spring and is best grown on light, acid soils. The blackish purple
fruits ripen in July and are especially popular in dry weather with thrushes
and warblers, such as blackcaps.
Crab apples Malus sylvestris* , varieties
'Golden Hornet', 'John Downie', 'Lady Northcliffe' and M sargentii are
all good sources of food.
Cherries - bird cherry Prunus padus* and
wild cherry P avium * are amongst the earliest
fruit to ripen, and are sought after by many species of birds.
European larch Larix decidua is a deciduous conifer with seasonably
abundant insects that attract finches. In autumn and winter the cones attract
siskins and crossbills.
Scots pine Pinus sylvestris* can attract
coal tits, gold crests and crossbills. Since it grows tall and has very shallow
roots, it is best planted well away from buildings.
The following shrubs will provide shelter or food, many of them both.
Barberry Berberis species have spiny branches, which provide good
cover, and have bright red fruit and foliage in autumn or blue-black fruit
in summer. Berberis aggregata, B gagrepainii, B vulgaris, B stenophylla
and B thunbergii are all suitable. For small gardens, B
wilsoniae is ideal. B darwinii has evergreen, holly-like leaves
and orange flowers.
Cotoneasters are a large group of shrubs and trees. All of them are good
for wildlife, with the exception of Cotoneaster conspicuax decora
whose berries birds will igmore. Consult gardening books for size, type and
Firethorn Pyracantha is a thorny shrub that provides good cover
and produces masses of white flowers in may. The handsome show of berries
in autumn/early winter is very popular with birds. Varieties that produce
red berries are best for birds. It can be grown as a hedge, against a wall
or a fence.
Hawthorn Crataegus monogyna *can be
a hedge or a clipped bush for cover, but should be left unclipped for the
berries to develop. Plant the native form.
Holly Ilex aquifolium* is grown for berries.
Plant female plants of the normal wild form, but for good fruiting there
should be a male tree nearby.
Roses - Rosa canina* and R rubrifolia
are among the species which fruit freely and attract greenfinches.
Elder Sambucus nigra* produces black berries
and S racemosa red berries.
Spindle Euonymus europaeus* robins take
the fruit of the native spindle.
Dogwood Cornus sanguinea* is a deciduous
'shrub whose berries are taken by a wide variety of birds.
Butterfly bush Buddleia globosa attracts large quantities of
insects, which in turn are taken by birds. B. davidii is invasive.
Juniper Juniperus communis* supports spiders
and other insects, and provides well protected nest sites.
Gorse Ulex europaeus* is an attractive
shrub whose thorny stems provide birds with secure nests.
Lavender flowers attract butterflies and bees, and seeds are taken by
Guelder rose Viburnum opulus* and the
dwarf variety compactum have white flowers that attract insects, followed
by red berries.
Privet Ligustrum vulgare* forms a
semi-evergreen hedge for cover, and its berries are taken by birds. Do not
plant the commonly available L ovalifolium.
Yew Taxus baccata* is a slow growing
and shade tolerant hedge or tree, but for dense cover it needs to be clipped
every few years in July. The female trees have sticky red fruit, beloved
by mistle and other thrushes.
Garrya elliptica is an evergreen shrub with grey-green catkins in winter.
It provides useful cover for early nesting birds.
Forsythia produces yellow flowers in April, but bullfinches are partial
to the buds. Forsythia can be planted as a hedge.
Climbers and ramblers
Honeysuckle Lonicera periclymenum*
and L caprifolium both flower in early summer and their fruit attract
warblers, thrushes and bullfinches. L periclymenum 'Serotina' flowers
in late summer and bears red fruit in September. Also a useful nesting site.
Ivy Hedera helix* (the normal wild form) is
excellent cover on tree stumps and walls, but may need to be restrained,
particularly on buildings. Ivy also provides good cover for
nesting and its flowers are attractive to insects in autumn. The fruits are
eaten by wood pigeons, thrushes, robins and blackcaps.
Bramble Rubus fruticosus* fruit are
eaten by blackbirds, warbiers and other birds, especially in dry weather,
and the seeds are eaten by bulifinches and greenfinches. Forms a useful thicket
for nesting wrens and warbiers.
Virginia creeper Parthenocissus quinquefolia, P henryana and
P tricuspidata are vigorous climbers for walls and trees. Good nesting
and roosting cover.
Wisteria sinensis needs to be trained onto a wall or over
a pergola, and its sturdy stems can form a good base for a nest. To encourage
trusses of lilac flowers, which appear in May and June, the current year's
side growth should be cut back to six inches in August.
Clematis montana is a rampant climber, which provides excellent
nesting sites when grown up a wall or a tree.
The following bear fruit or seeds that are attractive to garden birds:
Cornflower Centaurea cyanus* (annual)
Evening primrose Oenothera spp mostly biennials
Forget-me-not (Myosotis sylvatica* (a
short-lived perennial) - bullfinches eat the seeds
Honesty Lunaria annua (a biennial with silvery fruits useful for
winter decoration) - the flowers attract butterflies and hoverflies in autumn
Michaelmas daisy Aster novi-belgii varieties (perennials) - the
flowers attract butterflies and hoverflies in autumn
Sunflower Helianthus annuus
Wallflower Cheiranthus cheiri (a short-lived perennial) - leave
it to set seed
The fruit and seeds of common weeds, such as chickweed, coltsfoot, dandelion,
groundsel and sowthistle are favoured by goldfinches, linnets and greenfinches;
nettles by bullfinches. 'Weeds' also harbour insect food for birds.
The seed heads of lettuce and lemon balm attract many birds, especially
goldfinches. The flowers of goldenrod Solidago canadensis (in autumn) and
hemp agrimony Eupatorium cannabinum (in July) are attractive to insects which,
in turn, are food for birds.
* native in Britain and Ireland
The lawn and rockery
Blackbirds, song thrushes, robins and starlings will spend much time on mown
lawns in search of earthworms and other invertebrates. Worms continue to
be available until the surface dries out later in summer. The lawn is also
a source of small flies for dunnocks, pied wagtails, chaffinches and even
blue tits. In rural areas, a green woodpecker may visit the lawn or a rockery
in search of ants. A rockery may also harbour snails that provide food for
song thrushes in dry summer weather.
A pond, even a small one, is a valuable place where birds and other wildlife
can drink, bathe, and in some cases, feed. A sizeable pond in the garden
may attract moorhens, pied wagtails (even grey wagtails in winter) and, if
there are fish, a heron. Dragonflies, frogs, toads and newts breed in garden
ponds. An RSPB leaflet Ponds for wildlife gives information on how to make
and plant a pond.
UK Headquarters, The Lodge, Sandy, Bedfordshire SG19 2DL. Telephone
Northern Ireland Headquarters, Belvoir Park Forest, Belfast BT8 7QT.
Telephone 028 9049 1547
Scotland Headquarters, 25 Ravelston Terrace, Edinburgh EH4 3TR Telephone
0131 311 6500
Wales Headquarters, Sutherland House, Castlebridge, Cowbridge Road
East, Cardiff CF11 9AB. Telephone 029 2035 3000
www.rspb.org.uk revised 2002
The RSPB speaks out for birds and wildlife, tackling the problems
that threaten our environment. Nature is amazing - help us keep it that way.
We belong to BirdLife International, the global partnership of bird conservation
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) is a registered charity:
England and Wales no.207076, Scotland no. SC037654 Illustrations by Mike