The Best Bird-Friendly Garden Ideas to Try This Fall
Leave a treasure trove of food, nesting materials, and shelter for birds in your garden this fall.
(Hint: don’t make things too tidy.)
(Hint: don’t make things too tidy.)
Did you embrace birding when the pandemic forced lockdowns? While many gardeners enjoy inviting birds to their backyards, hundreds of thousands of new bird-lovers emerged in the past year-plus, as the coronavirus forced stay-at-home orders, social distancing, and the need for solace and diversion. In fact, birding became such a popular activity that The Cornell Lab of Ornithology set records for its 2020 “Global Big Day,” where citizen scientists record and report their observations of bird species. More than 2.1 million bird observations identified 6,479 species—in a single day, a 30-percent increase over the previous year. And while many businesses felt an economic pinch during the lockdown, sales soared for all things bird-related: feeders, birdbaths, and food flew off the shelves, and demand continues to outpace supply.
Fall is supposed to be filled with chores, tidying landscapes, and readying the garden for winter. Of course, if you really want to spend your weekends working in the garden, we’ve got some ideas for you, too. But before you begin raking leaves, deadheading perennials, and playing lumberjack with dying trees, consider taking a break to benefit birds.
Birds play a vital role in our ecosystem. They control pests, pollinate plants, spread seeds, and regenerate forests. However, bird populations face threats from habitat loss and the use of pesticides. In fact, the number of birds in the United States and Canada has fallen by more than 29 percent since 1970. There are 2.9 billion fewer birds now than 50 years ago, according to a study published in the journal Science.
One of the best ways you can help bird populations is to forgo the use of pesticides and rodenticides. Not only do these chemicals kill insects and rodents, a necessary food source for many bird species, they can also poison the birds consuming the prey. Rat poison kills raptors like Swainson’s Hawk, owls, and eagles. Songbirds often mistake pesticide granules for seeds, ingesting them directly or feeding on poisoned insects, resulting in death. Depending on the level of toxicity of the chemicals, pesticides may not cause immediate death but can cause “sub-lethal” effects—eggshell thinning, suppressed immune systems, and deformed embryos, for example—which leads to population declines. By avoiding the use of poisons in your garden, you’re protecting current and future generations of birds.
If raking leaves tops your fall garden chore list, give your back a break and pick up your binoculars instead. You might spot birds feasting on critters who make their homes in leaves, as well as in the rich soil leaf-mulch produces as it decomposes. Decaying leaves and fallen debris serve as a natural mulch, reducing unwanted weed growth, protecting plant roots from extreme temperatures, and retaining moisture in the soil. This natural leaf mulch also serves as a perfect habitat for invertebrates that birds eat, including the pupae of moth caterpillars, a favorite food source for baby birds.
Different bird species eat different food. Some, like nectarivorous hummingbirds, feast on flowers’ nectar. Others, like American robins, dine on insects and fruit. Woodpeckers seek sustenance from sap. Granivore goldfinches dine on seeds from flowers and grasses, like echinacea, rudbeckia, and sunflowers. So, to attract many different species to your garden, it’s important to offer birds a buffet with a wide variety of food choices.
One of the easiest ways to entice birds to dine in your garden is to save seed heads. Instead of deadheading annuals and perennials in the fall, do nothing. Allow seed heads to remain on the plants as natural bird feeders. Smaller species, like goldfinches, cling to plants to pluck seeds, while larger, ground-eating birds hunt for fallen seeds in garden beds. Plus, hollow stems of perennial plants make great homes for insects to overwinter, which will continue to whet the birds’ appetite. A slightly messy, less-than-pristine garden means a fall and winter filled with color and life—from visiting birds! Put down the pruners, grab your camera—and enjoy the show. (Plus, many perennials and grasses add interest to winter gardens, adding movement and texture.)
Unless your home is in danger, leave dead trees standing. Your back (or your bank account) will thank you, as will the more than 80 species of birds that rely on dead trees—called snags—for nesting, storing food, hunting, roosting, and resting. Standing tree trunks provide homes for many cavity-nesting species. Woodpeckers often create or enlarge cavities in dead trees, but many bird species will nest in them, including chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, bluebirds, tree swallows, great crested flycatchers, wood ducks, and American kestrels.
In addition to creating habitats for birds, fallen trees and branches support the entire forest food web as they decay into rich soil. The organic material a dead tree contributes to the food web helps support microorganisms, adding nutrients into the soil and providing a feeding ground for invertebrates, which in turn feed the birds.
If you feel like you need to do SOMETHING in the garden this fall, start by building a brush pile. Collect fallen tree branches, cuttings from shrubs, and even non-diseased veggie plants that you’ve cleared from the kitchen garden to create a shelter for birds and wildlife. A brush pile provides shelter for birds, protecting them from bad weather and predators.
If you decorate a live Christmas tree over the holidays, give it a renewed purpose after the New Year by adding it to the brush pile. It’s a fun post-holiday tradition to decorate the repurposed tree with birdseed ornaments or cranberry garlands before adding it to a brush pile. The birds will appreciate the shelter—and the snacks.
Birds need fresh water all year long. Fountains, ponds, birdbaths, and even a hollowed boulder that catches rainwater all make excellent water sources. Make sure to keep the water source clean and filled. As winter approaches, consider adding a heated birdbath to provide ice-free water for the birds.
If you really want to spend fall working in the garden, it’s a great time to add perennials, shrubs, and trees. Consider including plants that feed both insects and birds, like echinacea, coreopsis, rudbeckia, switchgrass, goldenrod, and Liatris, for instance. Add some hummingbird favorites, such as salvias, asters, and monardas, to support them as they migrate through your garden—and to welcome the hummingbirds back next year.
Trees and shrubs that produce fruit, such as cedars, hollies, dogwoods, and spicebush, as well as those that provide protein- and fat-rich nuts, like oaks, hickories, and walnuts, support both migrating birds, as well as serve as food sources throughout winter. Plus, evergreen trees and shrubs add a nice pop of color to winter gardens, along with providing food and shelter to your feathered friends. Aim to plant new trees, shrubs, and perennials in your garden at least four to six weeks prior to the first frost so the plants have time to settle in and establish strong roots before cold weather arrives.
If you live in an apartment or home without a large garden space to plant food-producing shrubs and trees, you can still attract them. Grow a container garden filled with bird favorites, like AAS Winner Soraya sunflower, which grows 4 to 6 feet tall, or add planters filled with nectar-rich flowers, like monarda, salvia, and Joe Pye Weed. Add a birdbath to your balcony. (Take a look at the many offerings from our NGB members to find your favorites.) Place a basket of bird-safe, natural fibers, like cotton and short pieces of yarn, on your patio for use as nesting materials. Place a birdhouse on a balcony or add a feeder to a kitchen window, and enjoy the view while you dry dishes. You don’t need a large space to provide big benefits for birds.
“This post is provided as an educational/inspirational service of the National Garden Bureau and our members. Please credit and link to National Garden Bureau when using all or parts of this article.”