Sunday, February 14, 2016

Native Shrubs for Supporting Birds

Lots of blog posts out this week about watching birds in the winter, and this weekend is also the Great Backyard Bird Count. My feeders are out during these lean months, and this week’s second snow “event” of the year had them flocking in to devour seeds, suet and mealworms. I like to feed them in the winter because I know that humans have taken more natural winter food sources than we should have.

Cardinal with Euonymus americanus
In my continued focus on shrubs, I’d like to offer some ideas on native shrub choices that we can make in Georgia to provide year-round bird support. These ideas might be of particular interest to people that have a passion for birds and want to include their garden as a way of supporting them.

There are 3 areas of support that I would consider for birds: shrubs that provide fruit, berries or seeds for birds; shrubs that provide dense cover; and shrubs that support insects that would then be a food source for birds.

Food for Adults

Shrubs that provide fruit, berries or seeds are basically supporting adult birds. Adult birds that eat fleshy fruits or berries are frugivores. Adult birds that eat seeds are granivores. Some granivores like cardinals will also eat berries in the fall in winter.

When selecting these shrubs, be sure to research their light preferences. A shrub that grows in too little light won’t produce as many flowers and, consequently, not as much fruit/seeds. Your success in providing food for birds with these shrubs depends on your placement of them.

Here are some ideas: Native viburnums (Viburnum spp.), hearts a bustin’ (Euonymus americanus), spicebush (Lindera spp.), elderberry (Sambucus spp.), holly shrubs (Ilex verticillata, I. glabra, I. vomitoria, I. cassine), chokeberry (Aronia spp.), shrub dogwoods (Cornus amomum, C. foemina and others), St. John’s wort (Hypericum spp.), beautyberry (Callicarpa americana), blueberry (Vaccinium spp.), huckleberry (Gaylussacia spp.), buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis), sumac (Rhus spp.).

The fruits of silky dogwood (Cornus amomum)

Cover for Birds

Dense shrubs have a thick network of branches inside the shrub. They are the ones you hesitate to stick your hand inside when the tennis ball you threw for the dog rolls into it. Twigs and branches are going every which way! Those shrubs are perfect places for birds to build a nest or just take shelter during the night.

Some ideas:  Some native viburnums such as V. obovatum and V. prunifolium. Shrubby hollies like Ilex vomitoria and Ilex glabra. Dwarf forms of wax myrtle (Morella cerifera). Aggressive pruning can encourage dense growth, even of shrubs that might not have been so inclined.

Viburnum obovatum

Shrubs as Larval Host plants

A third source of support for birds is to provide them with insects. Most birds (96%) feed insects to their nestlings and many adult birds eat insects as part of their diet (insectivores). The ability of plants in our landscapes to both attract and produce insects is an important point when selecting plants.

Azalea sphinx moth in my garden
An important source of information in understanding which plants have host relationships with insects is a study and subsequent book published in 2007: Bringing Nature Home by Doug Tallamy.

A website now makes the data from the study available to all of us. Based on that data, here are the genera which have shrubs (some also have trees) and the number of insects that use them as hosts:

Cherry/plum (Prunus, 456 different insects), blueberry (Vaccinium, 288), blackberry (Rubus, 163), hawthorn (Crataegus, 159), alder (Alnus, 156), rose (Rosa, 139), dogwood (Cornus, 118), viburnum (Viburnum, 104), currant (Ribes, 99), spirea (Spiraea, 89), and sumac (Rhus, 58).

You can see there is some overlap - some plants that provide fruit for birds are also good at being a larval host. It would be a good opportunity to choose something that is in both lists, especially if you have a smaller area. For more ideas besides shrubs, visit my earlier blog on Natural Bird Food.


  1. So interesting, as I am new to Georgia. Loved the Tallamy book!

  2. Great information, Ellen.

    I have been wanting to add more (of everything, I guess, but focused on ) shrubs--mostly thinking about berries for birds, but I love that they overlap as host plants as well.

    I have added spicebush (and was thrilled to see the very cool caterpillars it hosted.

    Scanning your list above, I am happy to say that I have at least one species of each growing on the property. Some were already here, others I've added. I want to add more far, I think I only have three different species--none very large yet. So many more to add--I've put in more sassafras (not on your list, I believe)--another double-duty tree.