What are the best plants to grow for wild birds?
You don't need to have a huge garden to provide for the wild birds that visit it. Apart from the foods you can provide for them from your own kitchen or from specialist bird food suppliers you can also grow a variety of plants and shrubs that can not only provide the wild birds with food, but also with shelter and nesting sites throughout the year. This hub is intended to give you a good idea of the kinds of plants you should consider adding to your garden if you want to help protect and provide for our feathered friends, which in many cases are already endangered and need any extra support you are able to provide for them.
As the winter approaches and natural bird foods begin to diminish, numerous migratory birds arrive from eastern Europe and Scandinavia. This is the time when the plants in our garden can make the difference between whether such birds survive our bitter winds and icy cold temperatures, be it from starving or freezing to death. Smaller birds such as wrens and goldcrests lose heat more easily and are more susceptible to harsh conditions, and this is why it is so important to provide plants and shrubs that will not only feed these vulnerable birds, but will also offer them shelter.
When considering the bird friendly plants you wish to add to your garden try to include at least one climber with long lasting berries for late winter food, one shrub or tree with berries or fruit for mid-winter and some annuals or perennials with seedheads that birds can access easily. This combination will provide a succession of healthy and nutrition rich foods that will support many bird species. A couple of good plants I would suggest are holly and ivy because these hold their fruits well into late winter.
The wider the range of plants you grow the greater the number of species you will feed. For instance, the British Trust for Ornithology has shown that song thrushes prefer sloes, yew, elder and guelder rose, whilst redwings and fieldfares eat hawthorn berries (haws) instead.
A berry producing hedge made up of mainly native species, such as guelder rose, hawthorn, blackthorn, wild rose, elder and holly can provide a large amount of food and shelter for various species such as redwings and fieldfares (often too shy to land on bird tables). This kind of attractive and inexpensive hedge can be planted in autumn/winter as a bare rooted plant and will quickly become established once the warmer weather arrives.
If you have a wall or fence you might consider planting a berrying climber such as honeysuckle or pyracantha. Not only will these provide food, but also dense, protected roosting and nesting sites.
When deciding which annuals and perennials to grow next year try to include those that double up as a food supply by producing seedheads, e.g. cosmos, ornamental thistles, buddleias, sunflowers, cornflowers, echinops, echinaceas, teasels and lavender. Restrain yourself from removing these plants or their dead foliage at the end of the season until the birds have had the chance to consume the seeds they have to offer.
The Top Ten Plants for Birds
Holly (Ilex aquifolium) : Berries can appear as early as September and appeal to birds such as blackbirds, song thrushes, fieldfares and redwings who mainly feed on them in late winter when most other berrying plants have run out of fruits. Female plants produce the berries, but only if a male plant is located nearby for pollination purposes.
Ivy (Hedera helix) : Insects are attracted to the flowers in autumn, which in turn provide food for insect loving birds such as robins and wrens. By mid-winter black berries appear that provide a food source for many species including thrushes, starlings, jays, waxwings, blackbirds and finches.
Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) : Clusters of red haws are produced on this bush up until early spring (March in many cases). Redwings, blackbirds, fieldfares, chaffinches, greenfinches, yellowhammers and starlings are just some of the many wild bird species that enjoy these berries.
Honeysuckle (Lonicera periclymenum) : An ideal plant to provide cover and autumn berries for birds such as warblers, thrushes and bullfinches. During the summer months their delightful fragrance will not only provide you with a sensory explosion, but will attract insects that will act as a food for other bird species.
Teasel (Dipsacus fullonum) : This plant forms eye-catching seedheads in early autumn. Depending on the weather conditions these can remain until December, feeding goldfinches, buntings and sparrows.
Rowan (Sorbus aucuparia) : Depending on the species you choose Sorbus can provide berries from late July (aucuparia) to November (torminalis). Starlings and blackbirds love the berries, although they avoid the more unusual white-berried varieties such as cashmiriana and glabrescens.
Cotoneaster (Cotoneaster species) : These are laden with red berries from autumn and are quickly stripped of fruit by blackbirds, waxwings and thrushes.
Guelder Rose (Viburnum opulus) : A native deciduous shrub that produces berries that are loved by bullfinches, mistle thrushes and bullfinches from November until March. This also makes a great hedge and holds its berries well.
Sunflower (Helianthus annuus) : If you leave the seedheads on these at the end of the season they can provide a rich source of oil-rich seeds (50% fat) to finches, long tailed tits, nuthatches and other seed-eaters. If you live in an exposed area dwarf cultivars are available that only grow to about 60cm.
Shrub Roses (Rosa species) : for example Rosa rugosa produce large rose hips that are enjoyed by birds such as blackbirds, mistle thrushes and fieldfares. Smaller hips are produced by Rosa canina, and these appeal to a wider variety of birds, plus the hips stay juicy until the end of the winter season.
Remember, birds get most of their energy from carbohydrates, and these are mainly contained in seeds, nuts and fruits. Even the pulp of berries in which the seeds are contained has a high level of carbohydrates and a smaller amount of lipids and proteins. The nutritional content of the berries varies from plant to plant, e.g. Ivy is higher in fats than hawthorn or honeysuckle, and as the season progresses and the water content of the berries diminishes, often the fat content increases.
Scientists on the east coast of America discovered that migrating birds who need high-energy foods to travel long distances prefer dark coloured fruits that have a high percentage of antioxidants during their stop-over feeding sessions. Nuts and seeds naturally contain food stores designed to fuel the germination of the embryo, therefore they are higher in fats than berries, e.g. beech nuts contain over 50% fat and are a favourite of chaffinches and bramblings.
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