The only living dinosaurs, birds are the world’s most successful four-limbed tetrapod with an estimated 10,000 species that reside in all seven continents.
A marvel of evolution and adaptation, birds range from the petite hummingbird, the showy peacock, the flightless penguin, the colorful parrot, the enormous ostrich, and so many in between. They are among the most intelligent of creatures, with the ability to make and use tools, pass knowledge on to the following generation, and have complex communication systems with some species capable of producing two distinct songs at the same time.
It’s no small wonder that bird watching is a popular recreational activity, and some 20% of Americans identify as “birders”.
Benefits Of Backyard Birds
As bird populations decline due to agriculture, logging, and invasive species, providing a safe haven in your backyard can help them survive. And attracting wild birds to your yard not only fills your garden with activity and song, green spaces directly benefit from their presence.
Many kinds of birds feed on garden pests like caterpillars, beetles, grubs, and even mosquitoes. They can help lessen your weeding efforts by eating the seeds of unwanted plants. And some species – like the hummingbird – assist in the pollination of flowers, allowing plants to produce seed and grow their numbers.
The practice of feeding wild birds initially began when newspapers in the United Kingdom asked people to put out food for them after a particularly severe winter in 1890. Since then, setting out birdfeeders and birdseed has become a thriving industry; American bird lovers spent $6.3 billion on seed and feeders in 2014, with an average purchaser spending $28 per month.
A much more budget-friendly, low-maintenance, and natural way to feed our feathered friends is to simply grow plant cultivars that will provide enough food to fill their bellies…
10 Plants To Grow For Bird Food
Birds like to forage for their own food, and you will attract more winged creatures to your yard by growing flowers, grasses, and berries than a using birdfeeder alone.
1. Niger (Guizotia abyssinica)
Native to Ethiopia, niger is an annual flowering plant that can reach heights of six feet tall. Niger is easy to grow and does well in any soil type and pH level. Blooming bright yellow flowers in August, it produces nutrient-dense seeds made up of 30% fat, 10% protein, 12% sugars, 10% fiber, and 10% moisture. Niger seeds are a favorite of finches.
Buy Earlybird Niger seeds here.
2. Sunflower (Helinthus annuus)
Attracting chickadees, finches, cardinals, jays, nuthatches, and some species of woodpeckers, sunflowers are easy to grow and will add a burst of sunshine to your garden beds. Sunflower seeds provide 51% fat, 21% protein, 20% sugars, and 5% water, and are a good source of vitamins and minerals.
Buy Sunflower seeds here.
3. Pearl Millet (Pennisetum glaucum)
Millets are small-seeded grasses usually grown as a cereal grain or animal fodder. Though there are many different varieties of millet, pearl millet produces attractive cones bearing thousands of seeds per season. Millet seed contains 73% carbohydrates, 11% protein, 4% fat, and 9% water. Ornamental varieties include ‘Purple Majesty’, ‘Jade Princess’, and ‘Purple Barron’, and provide a food source for doves, sparrows, thrushes, buntings, and siskins.
Buy Purple Majesty Millet seeds here.
4. Chia (Salvia hispanica)
A flowering plant from the mint family, chia is a handsome herb that can grow nearly six feet in height and blooms purple or white clusters along a central spike. Chia seeds are loaded with nutrients for our backyard birds, composed of 42% carbohydrates, 31% fat, 16% protein, and 6% water.
Buy Chia seeds here.
5. Zinnia (Zinnia spp.)
A long stemmed flower blooming in an array of bright hues, zinnias are highly prized by butterflies, bees, and birds. After the flowers fade, they provide a veritable feast for chickadees, sparrows, finches, and juncos.
Buy Zinnia seeds here.
6. Globe Thistle (Echinops rito)
Hardy in zones 3 to 8, globe thistles are quite visually striking – with purplish-blue, perfectly spherical flower heads. Beloved by goldfinches, globe thistles are an easy to grow perennial that will feed the birds well into wintertime.
Buy Globe Thistle seeds here.
7. Blackberry (Rubus spp.)
If you go foraging for blackberries this spring, be sure to take a stem cutting to cultivate at home. Blackberry drupes are a favorite of mockingbirds, bluebirds, orioles, warblers, and thrushes and will provide food from late spring to late summer.
Purchase Blackberry seeds here.
8. Dogwood (Cornus spp.)
With varieties that span trees, bushes, shrubs, and subshrubs, there are plenty of choices in dogwood species that will suit the space you’re working with. Whether large or small, dogwoods display gorgeous white flowers in dense clusters. They also produce colorful drupes that have been known to feed over 40 types of birds.
Purchase Dogwood seeds here.
9. Holly (Ilex spp.)
An important food source for wild birds in colder climes, evergreen holly shrubs or trees develop showy red berries that robins, cardinals, and mockingbirds love to eat long after the first frost. Though there are 600 types of holly in the genus, species that do well in North America include common holly (Ilex aquifolium), American holly (Ilex opaca), and Inkberry (Ilex glabra).
Purchase Holly seeds here.
10. Russian Sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia)
Flowering from June to October, Russian sage is a fragrant, woody, extra-long blooming perennial that resembles lavender. It has an upright, bushy habit with a smattering of bluish purple flowers along each branch. The nectar is popular with butterflies and hummingbirds, while the seed pods will get a lot of attention from the local bird population.
Purchase Russian Sage seeds here.
How To Make Your Own Birdseed Blends:
Once you’ve planted some bird-friendly cultivars, you can just leave them be and birds will be more than happy to feed directly from the plants. Resist the temptation to deadhead flowers – leave them on the plant and let it go to seed. Wait until the next spring to cut them back.
For a more hands-on approach, you can harvest the seeds yourself to make your own birdseed blends, as well as to save seeds from annuals to grow again the following season. To harvest seeds:
- Once the flowers die off, cut flower heads from the stalk.
- Put the flowers in a brown paper bag and set it aside for two weeks.
- Vigorously shake the bag to separate seeds from the flowers.
- Discard the flower heads and you’ll have a nice supply of seeds.