Secrets to attracting birds, butterflies and bees to your garden
If you’ve ever been within reach of a bird perched on a branch or nibbling at a feeder, you’ve had an experience that’s hard to match. Attracting birds, butterflies, and bees to your garden—by creating a habitat friendly to small creatures like these—requires both research and a playful curiosity, according to Elizabeth Lamb, ornamentals coordinator for the New York State Integrated Pest Management Program.
Lamb suggests that developing natural habitat in your yard takes patience. It’s smart not to expect a lively habitat the first year you’ve planted. However, by selecting plants indigenous to our region; creating places for birds to find cover, nest, and feel protected; and allowing beneficial insects to thrive in your garden and yard, it’s possible to create bird-friendly habitat even for inexperienced gardeners willing to learn.
Becca Rodomsky-Bish at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology says it’s important to know the ecosystem of your yard to incorporate native species successfully in your garden. “Many trees are selected for ornamental value instead of springing from a commitment to plant native species. Selecting berry-, nut-, and seed-producing plants will attract birds and the insects they need to sustain them.”
Rodomsky-Bish also suggests building natural escape routes in a yard to protect birds from natural predators. “Many neighborhoods are lined with trees accented by flowerbeds, but birds like cover provided by native shrubs, bushes, and smaller trees. Shrubs provide an essential middle story to yards that are often devoid of this structural diversity.”
Canopy trees provide areas for nesting and often produce nuts. Berry-producing trees such as grey and red osier dogwood (red-twigged with white berries), with their abundant berries, attract birds. With their beautiful foliage, the native dogwoods contain many shrubs and trees especially appealing to birds for food as they build up reserves for fall migration.
Crabapple is another smart choice as a tree that holds fruit in winter. Birds will find food in your yard even in winter if you add to the list: holly (winterberry and evergreen), a shrub whose berries get tastier in cold weather; elderberry, producing a highly nutritious berry for birds; and viburnum, with dark purple fruit that lasts through winter months.
Stephen Kress, visiting fellow at Cornell’s Ornithology Lab and vice president for bird conservation at the National Audubon Society, agrees it’s important to pay attention to the interfaces between attracting birds and attracting insects to create a yard that’s an ideal bird habitat: “Remember that most land nestlings rely almost entirely on a diet of insects. Native plants are especially important as insect food for birds and butterflies. Favoring native plants is the easiest way to create bird-friendly habitat.”
According to Kress, a robust insect population encourages butterflies and hummingbirds in your yard. Expect butterflies to follow when planting varieties like beebalm (bergamot), milkweed, and goldenrod. Aster, echinacea, and rudbeckia are also appealing to butterflies and moths. Leave the seed heads in place and these plants can feed goldfinches all winter long.
Vines such as Virginia creeper and trees like oak, black cherry, pin cherry, and hawthorn create perfect microhabitats for caterpillars, moths, and birds.
If you enjoy hearing the songs of birds and marvel at the sighting of a cardinal, chickadee, eastern bluebird, American robin, goldfinch, or the less often seen tufted titmouse or house wren in your yard, experts say these plantings are a good place to begin.
According to Kress, annuals are seed-producers. Perennials, by nature, produce more nectar than annuals. Butterflies, hummingbirds, and bumblebees are nectar-feeders. To attract them, plant a good mix of perennials to annuals in your garden.
Leave an area of decaying leaves or a brush pile somewhere in the yard where insects can hide and thrive. “Insects live in dead stems and they need flowers year-round. Don’t panic if you spot holes in the leaves on your trees. Beneficial insects need something to eat. Every garden is a microhabitat,” says Lamb.
A water source also invites birds. In the winter, fresh, open water can freeze, so providing a heated water source allows feathered friends to quench their thirst.
If you’re someone who lights up when you see a monarch, tiger swallowtail, or painted lady butterfly or delights at the glimpse of a ruby-throated hummingbird, then you know that creating a natural habitat means avoiding the use of lawn and garden chemicals.
According to Krissy Boys, gardener at Cornell Botanical Gardens and a native plant specialist who cares for the Mundy Wildflower Garden, ten acres of floodplain forest in Ithaca, many plants are insect-specific. “Monarch caterpillars, for example, will only feed on milkweed, and their young survive only by eating the leaves of this plant. The Virginia creeper sphinx moth feeds mainly on its namesake vine but will also eat wild grape. The list of plants that are butterfly-specific is long. Baltimore checkerspot butterflies feed on turtlehead, red admirals on stinging nettles, spicebush swallowtails on spicebush.”
Experts say when you choose native species of plants acclimated to our climate, the need for pesticides is eliminated.
All we spoke to agree that lawn and garden chemicals destroy natural habitat. “If we like birds, the songs they sing, the colors they present, and we want them to feel welcome in our yards, we need to embrace insects. If we like to watch butterflies, we need to create a healthy habitat. We won’t have any of this if we use chemicals in our yards. Strive for pesticide-free habitats to protect and attract birds and other small creatures,” Kress says.
Homeowners are warned to avoid ecological traps too. “If we invite birds in by creating ideal habitat and then expose them to dangers such as free-roaming outdoor cats, we’ve created an ecological trap that could threaten the very birds we want to protect. Managing landscapes by protecting birds from windows that reflect landscape is another important aspect when planning to cultivate bird visitors to our yards,” Rodomsky-Bish notes.
By planting a diversity of plant species that flower throughout the season, birds who feed their offspring on insects will find plenty to eat. Plan your garden so that it’s blooming from early spring through early winter. Whether native early-blooming golden alexanders (zizia), Virginia bluebells, or spicebush, mid-summer blooming lavender beebalm—great for attracting hummingbird moths—or late-blooming fall witch hazel, a yellow shrub that blooms into November, keep your garden flowering all season long.
Boys says native grasses are a wonderful addition to a healthy habitat. “Little bluestem grass, Indian grass and switchgrass are all native choices that develop habitat. A native ground cover such as golden ragwort can replace pachysandra or vinca as a more bird-friendly choice for this region. The mint family, including beebalm and mountain mint, attracts insects. I often recommend planting goldenrod because alone it supports so many insects. A short woodland type for edge planting between shrubs and lawn works best in a yard.”
Other tips: cluster plants in masses, five or more of the same species together. Some pollinators prefer to feed from a mass of the same flower species. Lamb says flower size is important too. “Smaller-sized flowers are a better food source for many insects.”
Plant for pollinators. Natural eco-systems are very dynamic and intricately specific. For example, cucumber magnolias, native to Upstate, are pollinated by beetles. Some plants actually have runways for pollinators. Sometimes just a scent attracts a pollinator. What you want to strive for is a habitat with diverse plantings to attract a diverse population of insects.
Boys suggests beginners join one of a handful of natural habitat groups in our area such as Finger Lakes Native Plant Society or Wild Ones Habitat Gardening. She says, “Developing insect-friendly yards creates strong flora/fauna and plant/animal relationships in your yard and a robust habitat that will support an entire food web generating long-lasting growth.”
Instead of just cultivating your garden, cultivate your curiosity. Once you’ve done some homework, have fun with possibilities as you plan and plant your garden and yard.
The reward will be an inexplicable feeling of being part of a habitat you’ve designed in collaboration with nature.
Perhaps the finest reward: bird-watching possibilities are endless in our region. “Birds that breed in Canada and winter along the Atlantic Coast fly over the Rochester region twice a year as they perform their annual migration, often landing to rest, always looking for bird-friendly places while shunning barren, manicured land. Upstate New York is a terrific area for bird-watching, and Rochester specifically, is a very important birding area because it’s directly along the Atlantic flyway.” says Kress.
With the right planning and a little luck, not only will you have a colorful garden to welcome birds, butterflies, and bees, you may be surprised by a black-throated blue warbler or wood thrush coming to call on a vine, shrub, or tree outside your window this season. Even if they linger for just a day, you’ll know you’ve helped them on their epic migration.
Steve Kress will lead a three-day program at Audubon’s Hog Island in Maine from August 18 to 21 entitled “Creating Bird Friendly Habitats.” Kress, Tallamy, and other experts will share tips on how to make a property irresistible to birds and pollinators. Learn more at
Donna De Palma is a freelance writer based in Rochester.