Gardening and Landscaping for Bird Lovers


Lesser Goldfinch feeding on Saguaro fruit (photo Bob Bowers)

Lesser Goldfinch feeding on Saguaro fruit (photo Bob Bowers)

If you love to watch birds and want to see them in your yard, feeders are one way to attract them, but certainly not the only way.  How you landscape your yard, and what flowers, trees, cactus and shrubs you choose to plant are equally important to drawing birds.  Feeders supplement natural food sources, but keeping them clean and filled is a lot of work.  Landscaping your yard to attract birds is easier in the long run, and offers an added benefit: you’ll enjoy the yard as much as they do.

Birds aren’t all alike, but most seek several things in common.  These include places to perch and nest, cover, water and food.

Trees and Shrubs for Cover and Nesting

Anna's Hummingbird nesting in  Palo Verde (photo Bob Bowers)

Anna’s Hummingbird nesting in Palo Verde (photo Bob Bowers)

Perching, nesting and protection are provided by a proper selection of trees and shrubs.  Lush, thickly-foliaged trees and bushes should be a priority for bird lovers.  Clusters, rather than isolated plants and trees offer more protection to birds, as well as presenting a more aesthetically pleasing yard.  Native plants, such as velvet mesquite, desert willow, whitethorn acacia, palo verde, hackberry, saguaro, cholla and wolfberry are easily grown in our area, require less water than many exotics and will attract a large variety of birds.  Other plants that attract birds for nesting and cover include citrus, oak, Texas ranger, palm, fig and conifers.  Verdins nest in a variety of trees and bushes, but other birds prefer specific plants.  Cactus Wrens and Curve-billed Thrashers like cholla, while Hooded Orioles nest in palm trees.  Gila Woodpeckers and Gilded Flickers excavate nesting cavities in saguaro.  Although they normally don’t reuse their nests, many other birds do, including Elf Owl, Western Screech Owl, American Kestrel and Ash-throated Flycatcher.

Providing Water and Food for Birds

Water attracts birds, but providing it clean and fresh is problematic.  Pump-driven water features are easier than low volume bird baths, which are difficult to keep free of algae, bird droppings and other debris.  As attractive as they are to birds, the problems with maintaining them may outweigh their value.  Fortunately, there are many alternative sources of water for birds.

White-crowned Sparrow using Mexican Petunia as shelter (photo Bob Bowers)

White-crowned Sparrow using Mexican Petunia as shelter (photo Bob Bowers)

Natural food for birds is much easier to provide.  Many of the plants listed above provide food as well as shelter.  From a bird’s perspective, several items are important when choosing plants for your yard and garden.   Some feed on insects and other bugs, some on fruit, flowers, nectar, and seeds.  Some feed on all of the above.   Some even feed on the birds you attract to your yard, but that’s another story.  A special point should be made about seeds.  Plants that go to seed should not be pruned or cut back until the seeds are gone, since this is a primary food source for many birds.  Long after our basil was killed by cold weather, flocks of Lesser Goldfinches enjoyed the stalks of dried seeds.

Verdins are attracted to pomegranate (photo Bob Bowers)

Verdins are attracted to pomegranate (photo Bob Bowers)

Since birds are always present, a garden that produces a variety of food year-round is ideal.  The Arizona Native Plant Society and Tucson Audubon Society published an excellent guide to bird-oriented plant selection, Desert Bird Gardening.  The booklet includes a table of 45 plants, showing which ones provide nectar, fruit, seeds and insects, as well as which seasons each flowers.  For example, prickly pear flowers in spring, agave in summer, desert marigold in spring and fall and wolfberry in winter and spring.  Baja fairy duster and chuparosa, which attract hummingbirds, Verdins and Cactus Wrens, are capable of blooming any time of the year.  Other plants in this list include thistle, brittle bush, sunflower, mimosa, penstemon, pyracantha, trumpet, sage, salvia and pomegranate,  one of my favorites.  The large red flowers are magnificent in spring, and as the fruit ripens near year’s end, nearly every bird in the yard goes nuts over it.  I’ve watched Verdins gorge on the nectar-filled arils while open-mouthed quail caught accidental discards below.  Impale a half pomegranate on a nail in the top of a wooden stake and watch a parade of birds:  thrashers, mockingbirds, cardinals, woodpeckers, sparrows and finches.  And what better Christmas decoration than a tree loaded with large rose-red ornaments of fruit?

(This article originally appeared in the February, 2013 issue of the Saddlebag Notes newspaper, Tucson, Arizona.)

About Bob

A lifelong naturalist, Bob's avocation is birding, including field observation, study, photography and writing. He spent a career in computers and consulting, but his free time has been spent outdoors backpacking, fishing and enjoying nature firsthand. Bob has traveled extensively, exploring and photographing above and underwater in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Egypt and throughout the United States, Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, Central and South America. Now retired, as an amateur ornithologist Bob studies, photographs and writes primarily about birds of the Western Hemisphere. Formerly the Feature Writer for Latin America and Caribbean Travel at, he has been Suite101's Feature Writer for Birds and Birding since January, 2010, and has received seven Editor's Choice awards, which are listed below. Bob also writes a monthly birding column for a newspaper in Arizona, and his work appears in the travel magazine, Another Day in Paradise, published in Zihuatanejo, Mexico. His blog, Birding the 'Brooke and Beyond, discusses birding, travel and other topics in Southeast Arizona and beyond. Bob is a member of the National and Tucson Audubon Societies, Western Field Ornithologists, Arizona Field Ornithologists, the American Birding Association and other birding and conservation organizations. Bob and his wife, Prudy, live in the Santa Catalina Mountain foothills near Tucson, Arizona. To date, Bob has received Suite101 Editor's Choice awards for the following articles: • Birding by Cruise Ship in the Caribbean • The Xantus' Hummingbird, Baja California's Only Endemic Hummer • Birding the White Mountains in and Around Greer, Arizona • The Greater Roadrunner, New Mexico's State Bird • Where to Find Steelhead on the Lower Deschutes River in Oregon • Birding La Bajada near San Blas, Mexico • The 2008 Christmas Bird Count at Estero del Yugo in Mazatlan
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