Autumn is an important season for birds. Many species are buckling down in preparation for long, cold, hungry winters, while others migrate hundreds or even thousands of miles to warmer winter havens.
In order to store up the energy they need, both migrating and non-migrating birds need lots of nutritious food sources to sustain them. One easy way to attract birds to your backyard in autumn while also adding interest and liveliness to your garden is to plant trees, shrubs, grasses, and flowers that provide lots of seeds, berries, and nuts to help them prepare for winter.
Planning an Autumn Paradise for Birds
There are many native North American fall-fruiting shrubs, trees, and vines that provide good sources of food and cover for birds. Many also make beautiful additions to your yard thanks to their bright fruit, autumn color, or both.
Here are a few of the best sources of autumn food for birds:
- Dogwood (Cornus)
- Crabapple (Malus – not all types are eaten by birds)
- Elderberry (Sambucus)
- Viburnum (Viburnum)
- Bayberry (Myrica)
- Sumac (Rhus)
- Hawthorn (Crataegus)
- Mountain ash (Sorbus americana)
- Oak (Quercus)
- Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana)
- Spruce (Picea)
- Wild Grape (Vitis)
- Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia)
Seed-eating birds also enjoy a varied buffet from fall-seeding flowers. Be sure not to deadhead desirable flowers before they set seed, as some seeds can persist into winter. A few of the best choices include:
- Sunflower (Helianthus)
- Aster (Aster)
- Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta)
- Coneflowers (Echinacea)
Ornamental grasses are another good source of seeds through fall and winter, as well as providing excellent cover when planted en masse. In many regions of the United States, native prairie grasses provide especially good food and shelter for birds. These include Big Bluestem, Little Bluestem, Switchgrass, Indiangrass, and Prairie Dropseed.
Besides food and cover, the other most important need of birds in autumn is a source of water. The sound of running water attracts many migrating birds, and even birds that stay put will appreciate a small waterfall, garden pond (with a shallow bathing area), or birdbath. By late fall, it may be necessary to use a heated birdbath in order to keep the water unfrozen in some regions.
Preparing for Winter
You can help non-migrating birds prepare for the long winter ahead by preparing your yard to provide shelter from harsh winter winds and cold.
Starting a brush pile from fallen and cut branches can provide birds with shelter and protection against hungry predators.
Autumn is the best time of year to plant many tree and shrub species. Another surefire way to help birds find shelter in cold winters is to plant lots of evergreen trees and shrubs. When planning evergreen plantings, be sure to consider your own needs as well. Evergreens planted as a windbreak on the northern side of your house can improve your home’s energy efficiency and lower your winter heating bills. Many types of evergreens can also provide winter food sources for birds.
Tall grasses may also be used as shelter by birds. In the Midwest and Great Plains, native prairie grasses will provide both cover and seeds well into the winter season if they are not mowed in autumn.
Autumn is also a good time to clean out birdhouses and feeders in preparation for winter feeding and spring nesting seasons.
By planning your backyard carefully to provide food, water, and shelter for both songbirds that migrate and those that stay put, you can enjoy the widest mix of avian visitors to your backyard while also adding autumn color and beauty to your garden. For more “fallscaping” tips for a beautiful autumn garden, check out this book:
For pictures of some of the plants mentioned in this article, check out my Bird Gardening board on Pinterest.