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Native Birds Need Native Plants

Photo of bird on branch

Carolina Chickadee by Lee Jaffe, Flickr CC by NC SA 2.0

Here at Wild Acres, we like to promote using native plants in backyards to attract local wildlife species.

Over the years, Doug Tallamy’s research has shown a clear relationship between native plants and birds, linking the importance of native plants for supporting insects like caterpillars. Tallamy’s research has revealed that native oaks can support more than 530 species of butterfly and moth caterpillars while an invasive butterfly bush supports only one species. 

Recently, postdoctoral researcher Desiree Narango studied Carolina chickadees in suburban backyards in the Washington metropolitan area. With the help of Neighborhood NestWatch volunteers, she found that insect availability and population growth declined as the number of non-native plants increased. Backyards that had less than 30 percent non-native plant biomass were able to sustain Carolina chickadee populations, while areas with greater than 30 percent non-native plant biomass sometimes would forgo breeding or had lower fledgling success.

This research shows that having some non-natives in your landscape is alright. However, to really support songbirds, native plants are the key. So, what are the best plants for birds? Below are trees that support high numbers of butterfly and moth species:

  • Birches (Betula)
  • Cherries (Prunus)
  • Oaks (Quercus)
  • Willows (Salix)
Photo of dark berries and red leaves

Southern arrowwood in the fall by Matthew Beziat, Flickr CC by NC 2.0

As insects begin to become scarcer in the winter, songbirds often rely on other sources of energy like berries and seeds. Some berries are better than others in terms of nutritional value. Important factors for birds include antioxidants, energy, fat and protein. Plants rich in antioxidants may help birds to lessen the oxidative stresses sustained during migration. According to Smith and McWilliams (2015), the five berry-producing shrubs and vines for local birds are:

  • Gray dogwood (Cornus racemosa)
  • Red osier dogwood (Cornus sericea)
  • Silky dogwood (Cornus amomum)
  • Southern arrowwood (Viburnum dentatum)
  • Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia)

Interestingly enough, northern bayberry (Myrica pennsylvanica) and eastern red cedars are packed with fat, but only a handful of species consume the berries. Similarly, winterberry (Ilex verticillata) has limited nutritional content and limited species appeal. While these species are less preferred than the ones listed above, the waxy berries often persist into the late winter and do provide a food source for overwintering songbirds like cedar waxwings and American robins. It is important to consider placement of these shrubs in your landscape to compliment the others listed, as persistent berries often ferment and can sometimes result in drunk and disorderly songbirds. For a breakdown of nutritional content of the shrubs listed above and additional recommendations, please click here.

Photo of bird eating berry

Yellow-rumped Warbler consuming eastern red cedar berries by Bonnie Ott

When selecting plants, it is best to pick for the conditions of your site. While willows are great plants for birds and pollinators, most native willows require full to part sun with moist to wet soil. Their roots can also get rather large if the conditions are right and shouldn’t be planted near utility lines. Along similar lines, Virginia creeper can easily climb trees and overtop other plants. So, only plant it in areas that you are fine with it spreading.

To find native plants that would work well within your backyard, check out the Chesapeake Bay Native Plant Center. To read more on the plants highlighted in previous HabiChat articles, please check out our archives. For a list of native plant vendors, check out the Maryland Native Plant Society list of regional nurseries.


  • Narango, D. L., D. W. Tallamy and P. P. Marra. 2018. Nonnative plants reduce population growth of an insectivorous bird. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 115 (45) 11549-11554.
  • Smith, S. B. and S. R. McWilliams. 2015. Recommended plantings for migratory songbird habitat management. Rochester, NY: Rochester Institute of Technology and University of Rhode Island. 2 p.
  • Tallamy, D. W. and K. J. Shropshire. 2009. Ranking Lepidopteran Use of Native Versus Introduced Plants. Conservation Biology. 23 (4): 941-947.

Happy holidays HabiChat fans!

While I am not a big fan of wintertime, I am excited to see new visitors to my backyard.

Since winter is a great time for bird watching, much of this HabiChat is dedicated to projects and plants that will help local bird species. Learn about local research on native plants and how they help native birds, read up on evening grosbeaks and why their return to Maryland is special, learn about our native silky dogwood, and finally, keep an eye out for finch eye disease.

Winter is also a time for maintenance projects, so don’t forget to clean out and repair nest boxes and prune your shrubs and trees. Remember, water is crucial to many species this time of year. Consider adding a heated bird bath or pet water bowl to your landscape to help local wildlife. If you are looking for fun projects to do with the kids, try a winter safari or making seed wreaths.

In addition, the University of Maryland Extension’s Woodland Stewardship Education has several upcoming events that may be of interest to backyard enthusiasts. Registration for the spring session of The Woods in Your Backyard online course will be open soon. This self-paced, non-credit course runs 10 weeks from March 5-May 21, 2019, helping landowners convert lawn to natural areas and to enhance stewardship of existing natural areas.

As a final note, the Maryland Amphibian and Reptile Atlas is now available, containing information on more than 80 reptile and amphibian species. Data was collected by local biologists and nearly 1,000 community scientists. Each species is given a detailed account of identification characters, life history information, and where it was found across the state.

Happy Habitats,
Kerry Wixted

 Click here to have HabiChat—the quarterly backyard wildlife habitat newsletter from the Wild Acres program—delivered right to your inbox!

In this Issue
Habitat Tips: Native Birds Need Native Plants
Loving Birds to Death & the Importance of Cleaning Feeders
Native Animal Profile: Evening Grosbeak
Native Plant Profile: Silky Dogwood