Attract Birds to Your Garden

January 13, 2009 | By | Comments (20)

If you love birds, be sure to read “Beauty Takes Flight’ in the February issue of Southern Living. It’s the story of
Wing Haven Garden & Bird Sanctuary, a beautiful garden specifically designed for birds right in the heart of Charlotte, North Carolina. Here are some tricks I learned there to help you, the enlightened bird-watcher, attract these feathered friends to your garden.

Birds have three main requirements if you want them to visit or reside in your garden — food, water, and plants that supply shelter and nesting sites.


Many birds subsist on insects and spiders, but I’m not going to waste my time telling you how to get more of those in your garden, because you wouldn’t do it anyway. Fortunately, birds also like seeds, nuts, flower nectar, berries, and suet. (Personally, I feel suet goes especially well with a full-bodied Cabernet, but I serve suet only in winter, because when the temperature rises above 70 degrees, it melts all over my treasured Ming Dynasty china and yellow Graceland Naugahyde.)

There’s all sorts of birdseed available, but save yourself some trouble. Almost all the common songbirds we enjoy prefer sunflower seeds above all others, no matter if they’re the black-striped, gray-striped, or oil type. Yeah, goldfinches also like thistle seed and mourning doves also like millet, but if you watch birds eat, a lot of them just scratch other seeds out of the way to get to the sunflower seed. Unfortunately, sunflower seeds will draw any loathsome squirrels in the area to your feeder like congressmen to PAC money. So either buy a “squirrel-proof” feeder (if there is such a thing) or resign yourself to the fact that half your seed will go to no-account rodents whose only apparent purpose in life is to dash back-and-forth in front of the car until we grow tired of this game and decide to run them over. Crows really appreciate the road-kill, so if you like crows, put out sunflower seeds for the squirrels.

You can scatter seed on the ground or dispense it in bird feeders. To attract a large variety of birds, put out several types of feeders, like a plastic tubed one or one with a peaked wooden roof. Put them in several different locations and high enough off the ground so that cats can’t dine on the birdies. Tree branches that serve as perches above the feeder will greatly increase traffic. Restock the feeders year-round to attract migratory birds as well as those that hang around all year.

Many ornamental trees and shrubs with colorful fruits and berries provide birds with food. Here are some avian favorites:

  • Barberry
  • Blueberry
  • Crabapple
  • Dogwood
  • Elaeagnus
  • Elderberry
  • Grape holly
  • Hawthorn
  • Honeysuckle
  • Holly
  • Mountain ash
  • Persimmon
  • Pyracantha
  • Red cedar
  • Rose
  • Serviceberry
  • Viburnum
  • Wax myrtle

Feed me! Feed me! Newly hatched chicks crave protein they need in order to grow. So if you really want action around your feeder in springtime, put out a bowl filled with mealworms. Yes, mealworms. You can get these from a pet store. Even birds that normally prefer seeds, insects, or berries eagerly opt for mealworms when they’re raising their young.


Birds need water for drinking and bathing. The sound of splashing water, either from a waterfall or fountain, proves an irresistible lure. But not just any water will do. It needs to be fresh (changed often) and shallow — no more than 2 to 3 inches deep. Birdbaths should increase in depth very gradually, so that water near the edge is no more than an inch deep. If you like your birdbaths to function as snack bars for cats, place the basin flat on the ground near some bushes. Otherwise, place the basin out in the open atop a pedestal at least 3 feet high.

Nesting and Shelter

I’m not going to go how to choose a birdhouse here, because there are so many different types. Just make sure that the type you pick is amenable to the birds you want to attract. For example, bluebird houses need to be constructed with very specific dimensions or they won’t work. For more info on birdhouses, consult the birdbrains at your local chapter of the National Audubon Society (just kidding guys).

Other than birdhouses, the other shelter you need to provide comes from trees and shrubs in your garden that birds can hide in or perch on to escape predators. Birds don’t like sitting out in the open. When you encounter a little pile of feathers that used to be a bird, you understand why.


  1. Steve Bender


    Unfortunately, Southern Living At Home is kaput.

    October 14, 2014 at 6:13 am
  2. daniel mencer

    i have a southern living at home bird feeder that has a glass tube which has been broken -like to find a replacement tube.

    October 1, 2014 at 6:40 pm
  3. Grumpy Gardener

    I’ve looked at the whole line of Yankee bird feeders (designed to frustrate squirrels) and they seem to do a very good job. Anyone else tried one?
    On a different topic, anybody seen that ridiculous commercial on TV that touts a seed mix designed to attract more colorful songbirds? It shows CGI of cardinals, goldfinches, and indigo buntings converging on a single birdfeeder filled with the magic seed mix. Why are they computer-generated birds? Because I could put out this songbird mix in my yard and not attract a single indigo bunting for the rest of eternity.

    April 16, 2009 at 11:59 am
  4. tdelene

    Robin, what times of day are you watching for birds? Depending upon where you live, you may want to investigate the peak feeding times (for me, it is from 9 – 10:30 a.m and then from 4-6 p.m. roughly). Other times of day, I may see birds at our feeder, but not typically. Also, you can look up some good tips for attracting birds at Birder’s World magazine. They have tons of articles on this topic.

    April 16, 2009 at 9:54 am
  5. tdelene

    We recently installed a Yankee Whipper bird feeder that is designed with pin-wheel style perches — at the base of a seed-holding tube — that carry only the weight of the heaviest song birds. (Model YCPW-180.) if anything heavier puts pressure on the perch, it collapses downward, and the animal is suddenly earthbound. It works very well, and no squirrels have pilfered bird seed to date. It hangs right off of our roof eave, and all sorts of finches, nuthatches, hairy woodpeckers, pine siskins, yellow-bellied sapsuckers and song sparrows visit it daily.

    April 16, 2009 at 9:51 am
  6. Grumpy Gardener

    I think you have to be viewed by the birds as a reliable source of food. That is, keep putting out seed even though you don’t see any birds. Eventually, there will be activity around your feeder and that activity will draw in even more birds.

    March 12, 2009 at 3:36 pm
  7. Robin

    I am having the hardest time attracting birds. I have done everything you suggest and I just keep watching but no birds. Any other suggestions?

    March 12, 2009 at 10:52 am
  8. chathamcorabbit

    Maybe – but I have a sneaking suspicion that I, too, am probably a Southern fruitcake. I could think of worse things…
    Thanks for the banter- it brightens my day!
    Missie Nance

    January 29, 2009 at 7:56 pm
  9. Steve Bender

    So who is the Southern fruitcake? Does he do gardening spots for “Today”?

    January 29, 2009 at 8:44 am
  10. chathamcorabbit

    Recipes? Have you never noticed the eerie similarities between woodpecker suet and the Southern fruitcake? (I am referring to the “food”, not the person…)

    January 28, 2009 at 8:51 pm
  11. Grumpy Gardener

    Mmmmmmm……..suet and butter dipped in hot fudge. Anyone else care to share some suet recipes? I bet Cameron has some. She’s always cooking.

    January 28, 2009 at 9:09 am
  12. chathamcorabbit

    Yeah- the “eagles” do keep a close eye on me when I work in the yard… makes me a little paranoid. They just circle and circle… I am somewhat relieved, though, that when I do finally collapse I will not leave a mess for my husband to have to clean up. Hope your son’s weight picks up- try suet…

    January 27, 2009 at 6:16 pm
  13. Grumpy Gardener

    If I were a Chatham rabbit, I’d watch out for a Chatham eagle.
    Good tip about the thistle seed. I’ve been worried about my son because he’s been getting so skinny and the doctor can’t figure out what’s wrong. Now I know. The thistle feeder was clogged.

    January 25, 2009 at 1:54 pm
  14. chathamcorabbit

    Hey, Grumpy Gardener and everybody else! (Love the Chatham Eagles comment- there oughtta be a softball team or something.)
    I definitely agree that sunflower is the #1 seed- but I like to use thistle, too. Tip: If you use a tube thistle feeder, take it down and flip it over every day or so. (Uh, do remember to hold the lid closed…) The little seeds get kind of ‘crossed up’ in the ports and the birds can’t get them out.

    January 24, 2009 at 12:36 pm
  15. Grumpy Gardener

    I know a scavenger even larger than a vulture. It’s called a “personal injury attorney.”

    January 20, 2009 at 7:42 am
  16. Cameron (Defining Your Home Garden)

    Grumpy — I have finally baffled my squirrels.
    We have larger scavengers than crows. We have Chatham County Eagles (vultures). They can clean up road kill pretty quickly.

    January 19, 2009 at 7:44 pm
  17. Grumpy Gardener # 2

    Dear Grumpy
    My wife has enjoyed your articles for a long time. She also likes squirrels!
    An “almost” squirrel-proof feeder is to put a wooden feeder on a 4″x4″ wood post about five feet off the ground away from trees, then put two sections of 6″ stove pipe around post; covering nearly all of the post.

    January 18, 2009 at 9:45 pm
  18. Isaac

    Oh, man, that’s funny about the crows.

    January 15, 2009 at 8:25 pm
  19. Grumpy Gardener

    This just makes it even more important to drive through your neighborhood as often as possible in order to squash squirrels for the crows to wash off in your birdbath! There may not be a squirrel-proof birdfeeder, but there sure is a squirrel-proofing tire!

    January 14, 2009 at 9:53 am
  20. Jean

    Dear Grumpy, Repeat after me..There is no such thing as a squirrel proof feeder!Repeat 3 more times just to make sure it sinks in. Speaking of crows, I have a pair of crows(lucky me)who raised in a tall tree in the adjoining yard. One of them has a peculiar habit of bringing food from restaurant garbage bins and attempts to wash it or whatever in the birdbath. I find everything from baked potatoes to rolls. I even found spaghetti one day last summer.Constant cleaning of the said birdbath is ongoing and no matter how much I shoo them away they always seem to know when I have just washed it so they are assured of clean water to dunk their food in. Oh yes..bird feeders filled with sunflower for the assorted varmints who live in my yard but I have found that squirrels will even eat thistle seed and the screens on the back porch. J. Sherrill

    January 14, 2009 at 8:05 am

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