Attracting & Feeding Songbirds

Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum) & American Robin. Phot by Ricky Layson, Bugwood

Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum) & American Robin.
Phot by Ricky Layson, Bugwood

A Primer in Backyard Songbird Conservation

Birding has become one of the most popular pastimes in North America. Annually, millions of Americans travel thousands of miles in search of rare and elusive species that may inhabit the frosty fringes of the tundra in Alaska or the steamy environs of the tropics in Costa Rica. While these trips often yield exotic species in what most of us think of as wilderness, these experiences are too few and far between for most of us who must have our daily dose of birds. Our backyards offer the opportunity to observe a wide array of birds. These opportunities can be maximized if efforts are taken to provide what birds need to survive.

Cedar Waxwings drinking water.

Cedar Waxwings drinking water.
Photo by Terry Spivey, USDA Forest Service,

Along with increases in the popularity of birding have come revelations that many species of songbirds are declining or at risk of declining because of the loss and/or degradation of habitat due to fragmentation. The process of fragmentation results in the outright loss of suitable breeding habitat and increases in rates of nest predation and brood parasitism. Alarmingly, the 2022 State of the Birds update reported that 1 in 4 breeding birds have been lost from the United States and Canada in the past 50 years. Providing a backyard wilderness for songbirds will not only provide increased opportunities for birding but also serve the larger purpose of providing a safe haven for birds in an ever-widening sea of development and unsuitable habitat.

Birds and other wildlife need four essential components to survive. These essentials are food, water, cover, and space. All of these may be provided quite simply in a backyard setting. Contrary to what many people think, a large “Ponderosa”-type spread is not required to provide a backyard wilderness. Undoubtedly, landscaping for birds can be as difficult and complex an undertaking as one wishes it to be. However, with a few native plantings and the addition of a water source and cover, homeowners will soon find themselves answering the “call of the wild” at their own back door.

Many homeowners can attest to the large amounts of time and money they invest in bird feeders and birdseed. An estimated 45 million people feed birds and spend four billion dollars annually on bird feed. However, much effort and money can be saved if backyard birders invest the time and money upfront to provide food, cover and water in a naturalized setting.

Eastern bluebird in bird bath.

Eastern bluebird in bird bath.
Photo by Deb Schoeman,

As with any endeavor, the first step toward success is planning. Backyard wildlife enthusiasts should determine what valuable wildlife habitat they already have on their property. More than likely, most people have already unwittingly improved their own backyard sanctuary with plantings of valuable food trees such as dogwood and black cherry trees. Once the current situation has been assessed, then it is time to determine what avian species are desired to attract and sketch a plan of what the backyard wilderness should look like.

Variety truly is the “spice of life” when it comes to creating backyard habitats for songbirds. The technical term used to describe the optimum condition of multiple layers of diverse vegetation types is “habitat heterogeneity.” Simply put, the more varied the landscape is in terms of the types of plantings and layers of vegetation (such as large canopy trees, smaller mid-story trees, shrubs, vines, open ground or lawn), the better chances of attracting a diverse array of bird species.

The best plant species to use in wildlife landscaping and plantings are those that are best suited to the site. Native species tend to be better adapted to local conditions and usually require less attention than “needy exotics.” Studying the vegetation in local forests and fields coupled with a visit or call to local plant nurseries or county Extension offices will provide valuable information about what grows best in specific situations.

Food & Cover

Trees: This will be the penthouse of the backyard sanctuary. Try to plant a variety of canopy (tallest) tree species in the backyard. Since space will probably be a concern for most homeowners, proper planning should take into consideration tree size at maturity and other concerns, such as the provision of shade, litter accumulation, and root interference. Some hardwood species that are recommended for our region include oaks (Quercus spp.), hickories (Carya spp.), maples (Acer spp.), wild cherry (Prunus serotina), tulip poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera), sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua), sycamore (Platanus occidentalis), and elms (Ulmus spp.). All of these species provide cover for nesting canopy birds such as red-eyed vireos (Vireo olivaceus), summer tanagers (Piranga rubra), scarlet tanagers (P. olivacea), Baltimore orioles (Icteus galbula), orchard orioles (Icterus spurius), and a variety of warblers and other species. Many hardwood species also provide important foods for birds, like hard and soft mast (acorns, nuts, and fruits).

Pines (Pinus spp.) also make good additions to the landscape since many species will grow anywhere. Their cones provide important food resources for a number of species, and they also provide important cover year-round. Besides, how can homeowners expect to attract pine warblers (Setophaga pinus) or brown-headed nuthatches (Sitta pusilla) to their sanctuary without them? In South Carolina, the loblolly (P. taeda) is the most common and probably easiest to grow. White (P. strobus), shortleaf (P. echinata), and Virginia pines (P. virginiana) do well in the Piedmont and mountains, while longleaf pine (P. palustris), an important component of pine-wiregrass ecosystems, does well in sandy Coastal Plain soils. Red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) is also a valuable tree species, providing excellent cover and fruits from female specimens.

Snags, or standing dead trees, are also an important component of most natural systems. They provide foraging and/or nesting sites for cavity-nesting woodpeckers, bluebirds, nuthatches, chickadees, titmice, and great-crested flycatchers (Myiarchus crinitus). Moreover, cavities and loose bark will also provide roost sites for bats. Where safety and feasibility are not limitations, dead and dying trees should be left standing to complement the sanctuary.

Mid-Story/Understory Trees: A few stories down from the penthouse lies the understory. Species such as dogwood (Cornus spp.), sourwood (Oxydendron arboreum), black gum (Nyssa sylvatica), hollies (Ilex spp.), sparkleberry (Vaccinium arboreum), persimmon (Diospyros virginiana), red mulberry (Morus rubra), and redbud (Cercis canadensis) provide some of the most abundant stores of fruits and berries to be found in the forest. This layer is where many species like wood thrushes (Hylocichla mustelina), Swainson’s thrushes (Catharus ustulatus), and rose-breasted grosbeaks (Pheucticus ludovicianus) will go to refuel during fall migration as they head to warmer climes south of the border.

Shrubs/ Vines/ Forbs: These are the efficiency apartments in the backyard sanctuary. Shrubs will provide many species with nesting and escape cover, and food. Good shrubs to include in the landscape include viburnums (Viburnum spp.), blueberries (Vaccinium spp.), and hollies. Not only will species like northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis), gray catbirds (Dumetella carolinensis), and brown thrashers (Toxostoma rufum) nest there, but these and many other shrub varieties will provide fruits as added benefits.

Vines such as coral honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens), trumpet vine (Campsis radicans), Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia), and yellow jessamine (Gelsemium sempervirens, the state flower of South Carolina) can provide a thicket in which many birds love to nest and forage. Of course, many of these species are also attractive to ruby-throated hummingbirds (Archilochus colubris). Blackberries (Rubus) are some of the best plantings to have in the backyard. They provide food, nesting cover and loitering habitats for the Carolina wrens (Thryothorus ludovicianus) that will inevitably find any backyard wilderness irresistible.

Perennial plants like purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), and swamp sunflower (Helianthus atrorubens) should be included in any landscaping plan. Not only do they attract insects, which many birds will eat, but their seeds are also eaten by songbirds like American goldfinches (Spinus tristis).

Open Ground/Lawns: This is the basement of the yard. Open ground and grass lawns are common components of suburbia. Unfortunately, they provide relatively little for songbirds. It is true that American robins (Turdus migratorius) and a few other species, such as eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis), require open habitats in suburban landscapes. But unless homeowners plan to farm the back forty for hay, why not give themselves a break, time- and money-wise, by reducing the size of the lawn? Let the wilderness of canopy trees, understory trees, shrubs and vines encroach upon the lawn. This will create a naturalized look that is both pleasing to the eye and ecologically functional. And it will allow more time to invest in watching birds instead of mowing, feeding, and watering the lawn.


More so than food, water is often the limiting factor in determining what is seen or not seen in the backyard wilderness. Providing water can be as simple as filling an inverted trash can lid with water and putting it at ground level, adding a bird bath, or installing a mister or dripper. Alternatively, it can be as complex as multiple-tiered cascading waterfalls with a lily pool. Homeowners, with a modest investment of money, sweat equity and a Saturday afternoon, can create a functional “wetland” by installing a preformed plastic pool in their backyards. Besides providing a pleasing view, they provide habitats for a number of amphibians, reptiles, and other fauna, thus complementing the backyard wilderness. The addition of goldfish or mosquito fish and some native aquatic snails in the pool will help keep mosquitoes and algae in check. If a permanent water feature is not desired, an alternative would be to install a rain garden. These offer temporary pools as water sources for wildlife, as well as habitat for pollinators.

Supplemental Feeding

Maintaining a variety of feeders and birdhouses in the new wilderness is appropriate. However, after adding a few more “layers” of habitat, homeowners will likely find even more species using their backyard than ever before.

Planting Suggestions

The following table is from Backyard Wildlife Management (John Cely, South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, Wildlife Diversity Section) with some additions. It provides a few suggestions for food and cover plantings that may help make the backyard wilderness a success. This publication is no longer in circulation.

Wildlife Planting Guide

  Coastal Piedmont Mountain  
Large Trees – Deciduous
Hickory (Carya spp.) * * * Favorite squirrel food; slow-growing except rich sites
Sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua) * * * Fast-growing; fallen seed balls may be nuisance
Yellow poplar, tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera) * * * Fast-growing in fertile soil; food plant for tiger swallowtail caterpillars
Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis) * * Fast-growing even on poor soils; fallen seed balls may be a nuisance
White oak (Quercus alba) * * Rich soil; slow-growing
Southern red oak (Q. falcata) * * Moderate soil fertility
Chestnut oak (Q. prinus) * * Moderate soil fertility
Swamp chestnut oak (Q. michauxii) * Moderate soil fertility
Laurel oak (Q. laurifolia) * * Moderate soil fertility; semi-evergreen
Water oak (Q. nigra) * * Moderate soil fertility
Black oak (Q. velutina) * * Moderate soil fertility
Willow oak (Q. phellos) * * Moderate soil fertility
Red mulberry (Morus rubra) * * * Outstanding berry tree for birds; fertile soils
Persimmon (Diospyros virginiana) * * * Tolerates a variety of conditions; does best in full sunlight; only female trees bear fruit
Hackberry, sugarberry (Celtis spp.) * * Fast-growing under a variety of conditions; good berry tree for robins and other songbirds
  Coastal Piedmont Mountain  
River birch (Betula nigra) * * Fast-growing; moderate fertility; larval host for polyphemus moth (native silk moth)
Wild cherry, black cherry (Prunus serotina) * * * Tolerates a variety of conditions; does best in full sunlight; host for tiger swallowtail caterpillar
Red maple (Acer rubrum) * * *
Black gum (Nyssa sylvatica) * * * Only females produce fruits; will grow under a variety of conditions
Large Trees – Evergreen
Loblolly pine (Pinus taeda) * * Fast growth; tolerates a variety of sites
Shortleaf pine (P. echinata) * *
Longleaf pine (P. palustris) * Does well in deep sandy soils
White pine (P. strobus) *
Magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora) * * Best in fertile soils
Live oak (Quercus virginiana) * Outstanding shade tree; does well in sandy soils
Red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) * * * Full sun; slow growth; female plants produce berries; is a host plant for apple blight
American holly (Ilex opaca) * * * Does well under a variety of conditions; only females produce berries
Small Trees & Shrubs – Deciduous
Dogwood (Cornus florida) * * * Does best in partial shade; excellent berry plant

Silky dogwood (Cornus amomum)

* * * Occurs naturally in wetlands; moist soils; will form thickets if left natural
Serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea) * * Excellent berry plant; best in fertile soils
Blackhaw (Viburnum prunifolium) * * * Best in fertile soils; other berry-producing viburnums good as well
Rusty blackhaw (V. rufidulum) * * * Best in fertile soils
Chinquapin (Castanea pumila) * * * Well-drained soil; excellent nut-producer and flowers good for butterflies
Sassafras (Sassafras albidum) * * * Does best in full sunlight; only female plants produce fruits; host for spicebush swallowtail butterfly caterpillars
Hawthorn (Crataegus spp.) * * * Abundant fruit producer; full sunlight; don’t plant near cedar trees
Crabapple (Malus spp.) * * * Similar characteristics as hawthorn; don’t plant near cedars
Chickasaw plum (Prunus angustifolia) * * Makes a good cover thicket and nest site; full sunlight; flowers good for early spring butterflies
Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) * * * Best in full sunlight; good volunteer plant
Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) * * * Part shade – shade; hummingbird plant; seeds eaten by waterfowl and songbirds

(Lindera benzoin)

* * * Songbirds will eat fruit; good cover site in summer
Strawberry Bush (Euonymus americanus) * * * Fruit are eaten by a variety of songbirds; part shade to full sun
Sumac (Rhus spp.) * * * Great winter food source for songbirds
  Coastal Piedmont Mountain  
American Beautyberry (French mulberry)
(Callicarpa americana)
* * * Good volunteer berry plant
Deciduous holly (winterberry) (Ilex decidua) * * Female plants are excellent berry producers; need moist or rich soil
Small Trees & Shrubs – Evergreen
Yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria) * * Good cover (hedgerow) and food value; only female plants have berries
Wax myrtle (Morella cerifera) * * Good cover (hedgerow) and food value
Carolina Cherry laurel (Prunus caroliniana) * Good cover and hedgerow; larger birds will eat the fruit
Sweetbay (Magnolia virginiana) * Moist or rich soil; host for palamedes and spicebush swallowtail butterfly
Redbay (Persea borbonia) * Host for palamedes swallowtail butterfly
Trumpet vine (Campsis radicans) * * * Hummingbird flower; best in full sunlight; can spread and get out of hand
Crossvine (Bignonia capreolata) * * * An early spring hummingbird flower
Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) * * * Fruits in the late summer and early fall; one of the most desirable bird foods; can spread and get out of hand.
Coral honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens) * * * A native honeysuckle that does not get out of hand like Japanese honeysuckle; good hummingbird flower
Purple Passion Flower (Passiflora incarnata) * * * Hummingbird flower; sun to part shade; larval host plant for fritillary butterflies
Beard Tongue (Penstemon spp.) * * * Hummingbird flower; larval host plant for common buckeye butterfly
Wild Indigo (Baptisia spp.) * * * Hummingbird flower; larval host plant for several butterfly species
Blazing Star (Liatris spp.) * * * Hummingbird flower
Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) * * * Full sun; seeds eaten by a variety of songbirds; American goldfinch favorite
Sunflower (Helianthus spp.) * * * Sun; seeds eaten by a variety of songbirds
Black-eyed Susan (

Rudbeckia hirta)

* * * Sun; seeds eaten by songbirds

Originally published 10/99

If this document didn’t answer your questions, please contact HGIC at or 1-888-656-9988.

Factsheet Number



Pin It on Pinterest

Share This