Planting to attract wild birds into your garden

09 January 2014 ( 30 January 2017 )

By choosing the right plants you can provide both food and cover for garden birds, and even the most humble lawn and border can become an avian haven, says Nigel Colborn.



Add new life, colour and song to your garden by planting the right mix of flowers and shrubs – and bring on the birds!

Birds make gardens more beautiful. Being carolled by a song thrush, or hearing great tits calling ‘teacher-teacher-teacher’ from flowering lilac trees, can give as much pleasure as growing perfect sweet peas. And if a robin sings a wistful little tune at this time of year, doesn’t that make winter more bearable?

With growing interest in nature, many of us want to attract a greater diversity of birds to our gardens. But to do that we need to make adjustments – not just to what we grow but to the way we garden.

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If you want to encourage birds, you’ll also need to welcome other creatures. Wrens, robins and dunnocks, for example, live on a diet of invertebrates so it’s important to plant with them in mind, as well as growing berry-bearing shrubs or installing feeding stations. And with bees in crisis these days, thoughtful gardeners are planting for pollinators – and that will also benefit our birdlife.

Birds need nesting and roosting sites as well as food sources. Species such as wrens and long-tailed tits nest in dense hedging; other tits and spotted flycatchers love hollows in tree trunks, or nesting boxes. Song thrushes and blackbirds often choose wall plants or climbers, while robins nest in surprising nooks, often in old ivy.

Densely planted areas do much for such birds and for their food supplies. And if there’s space for some undergrowth, so much the better. 

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Flowers for wild birds

Shaded wild zones look delightful planted with such robust woodlanders as epimediums, periwinkles or Solomon’s seal. In sun, you could develop a perennial carpet of cranesbills, red valerian or achilleas. 

And on light soils, include annual poppies and marigolds to make those areas bird- friendly and beautiful. In tiny gardens, attract birds by squeezing in a few shrubs – potted, if necessary – to create a dense, leafy zone. And include an evergreen or two for winter roosting.

Grass is valuable to birds, whether groomed as a lawn or left rough. Blackbirds and other species feast on worms in fine lawns, but if you develop part of your grass as a ‘mini meadow’, bird diversity will improve. Even ant hills attract green woodpeckers, and starlings hunt chafer grubs in the coarse grasses.

Adjusting flower borders or container schemes will help, too. It’s best to avoid large-flowered hybrids, which may be sterile, and go for varieties loved by pollinating insects such as lavenders, penstemons, salvias, catmint and anything with daisy flowers. And all hardy annuals appeal to insects, which, in turn, will attract birds.

If you refrain from cutting your borders back in autumn, the plants will provide seed for finches and sparrows. Invertebrates shelter in the dry herbage, to be hunted by wrens, goldcrests and dunnocks, and the dying plants look much prettier than bare soil – especially when frosted.

Find out how to get started with British wildflowers

Fruit for wild birds

Winter is the toughest season for birds. Winter thrushes arrive from Scandinavia and compete with native species for berries. The racket they make as they raid trees and shrubs is considerable, but if you watch them through binoculars, you can admire the redwings’ cream eye-stripes and distinctive markings of fieldfares.

The heaviest berry- bearer, pyracantha, can be pruned to almost any size or shape and is a bird magnet. But if you have space, it’s better to provide a succession of fruits. Rowans ripen from August; hollies hold berries in January, and the hips of Rosa moyesii can remain until winter’s end.

Crab apples are nourishing and beautiful, too. If you lack space, compact varieties grow happily in containers, or they could preside over mixed borders in larger gardens. Their bright winter fruits attract birds – even waxwings if you’re really lucky – but the profusion of blossom will look utterly gorgeous every spring.

Find out how to deter cats from your garden

Plants to attract birds

Ivy (Hedera helix)

Common wild ivy is the best for birds. This is the most wildlife-friendly plant, but it needs managing. Provides dense cover, winter berries and nectar. Great for dark corners or shady walls, happy in any well-drained soil but unsuitable for tiny gardens.

Fire thorn (Pyracantha)

White blossom; masses of winter berries, vicious thorns. Growable as a hedge, wall plant or clipped to size in a large pot. Grow to a height of 500+cm and provides medium to thick cover. Select ‘Orange Glow’ or ‘Soleil d’Or’ for amber or yellow berries.

Perennial asters (Aster laevis, A. novi-angliae, A. ‘Little Carlow’ etc)

Colourful border plants for autumn and suitable for container groups. Excellent for seed-eaters and foraging wrens if left uncut till spring.

Cotoneaster (Cotoneaster conspicuus, C. horizontalis)

Nectar-rich flowers, red berries. Cotoneasters are hardy and mostly drought-resistant, these abundent berry producers will grow pretty much anywhere. With 200 species, from ground cover to small trees, there's a cotoneaster for every type of garden. Small-leaved varieties of cotoneaster are best for birds and thrive in any soil, in sun. C. conspicuus can be container-grown but allow prostrate C. dammeri to creep over paving.

Teasel (Dipsacus fullonum)

Stately native biennial with distinctive winter heads on two-metre stems. Happy in any moisture-retentive soil in sun or part shade. Loved by goldfinches and insect-foraging tits.

Sorbus

Rowan has many different types, all of which are good for birds, the berries are amber/red and grow to a height of 500+cm.

Cyprus

There are over 80 different varieties of Cypress ranging from tiny dwarfs of under 50cm when fully grown to giant trees. With the exception of true dwarfs, all are useful as roosting and nesting places.

Thistles

Globe thistles (Echinops ritro) have dramatic seedheads, while Cirsium rivulare is an excellent long-flowered and well-behaved thistle variety. On vegetable plots grow cardoons and artichokes instead. Many thistles self-seed prolifically and can be thuggish, but they are popular with finches.

Honeysuckle

As well as autumn fruits, honeysuckles provide ideal nesting places in their tangled stems. They also attract insects and aphids - useful for hungry birds. Planting a honeysuckle can attract thrushes, warblers and bullfinches.

Sunflowers

Sunflowers provide masses of seeds and striking flowers in great colours from bright yellows to burnt toffee. They come in all sizes so are perfect for all gardens, or grow them in pots on a balcony. Sunflowers can attract finches, tits, sparrows and siskins.

For more on birds, see our section on British garden birds

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.