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Planting the urban landscape: Selected trees and shrubs for birds

Whether you're interested in gardening to attract birds on your own property or are involved with community projects to create habitat for wildlife, choosing the right planting material is important. Native plants are always to be preferred over non-native but, unfortunately, it is still difficult to find a nursery that stocks more than a few indigenous species.

Compilations of trees and shrubs for attracting wildlife usually suggest cultivated and exotic species along with native ones. They often also include varieties that will not grow in this area. The following list presents local, native species that provide food, cover and nest sites for birds, and would be useful in an urban/suburban setting. Rural landowners would find their choices even greater.

Trees versus shrubs — Shrubs are often described as having multiple stems while trees have one. However, the line blurs and many woody plants we think of as shrubs are in fact small trees. In some cases they may be better suited for city planting given their relatively small size.

KEY CONSIDERATIONS

Think native — Although exotic ornamentals are widely planted and can attract wildlife, native species do a better job in the long run. By planting non-native species we always run the risk of these aliens escaping to surrounding habitats and out-competing native species. Common Buckthorn (Rhamnus frangula), Glossy Buckthorn (R. cathartica), and Tartarian Honeysuckle (Lonicera tartarica) have been widely planted in gardens, and are particularly invasive. They now frequently form the dominant shrub communities in many local natural areas. In some urban woodlots, native maples have been almost replaced by Norway Maple, which produces abundant and fast-growing seedlings. Other common invaders from our gardens include Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia), Japanese Knotweed (Polygynum cuspidatum), Chinese or Siberian Elm (Ulmus pumila) and Barberry (Berberis vulgaris).

Think thickets — Groups of trees and shrubs provide better wildlife habitat; even a small thicket of 3–5 trees underplanted with 3–6 shrubs is better than single trees spaced far apart. Variety is good. Different species provide different roosting and nesting habitats and also supply a greater variety of food, either directly by their fruits or indirectly by attracting a richer cocktail of insects. Thickets of a single species are not as attractive as those of mixed species.

Think hedgerows — Hedgerows, planted with the right mix of shrubs and trees can provide food, cover, nesting sites, and a corridor for safe passage from one habitat to another (Hanrahan 1999). [See also Creating a hedgerow for wildlife]

Many species of birds thrive in "edge" habitats, taking advantage of two types of plant communities. Hedgerows are, in effect, long strips of edge habitat.

Think snags — Where it is safe to do so, leaving standing dead trees (snags or wildlife trees) is one sure way to attract a variety of birds that both feed and nest in them (Hanrahan 1994). [See also Wildlife trees]

Think dual purpose — Trees and shrubs that offer both food and cover (for roosting and nesting) are the best value for you and the birds you want to attract.

Think site conditions — You need to know the conditions in your garden. Is it well-drained? Is it very dry or very damp? Sunny or shady? Is there room for several big trees or will there be potential problems? Suburban gardeners can often get away with planting more and bigger trees than urban dwellers, but this is not a hard and fast rule. All these considerations influence the types of species you can successfully plant.

SPECIES AND THE BIRDS THEY ATTRACT

I have listed only those species of birds that are likely to be found in urban settings, either because they breed there or are found during migration. Thus birds such as Ruffed Grouse, which feed on the buds of many trees but rarely enter urban areas, are not included. I have not included mammals. In our urbanscape we can take it for granted that squirrels (Gray and Red) will be attracted to many of the same trees that birds are. Cottontail rabbits are becoming increasingly common in many residential areas of Ottawa and of course we have Skunks and Raccoons, and various other and sometimes surprising four-legged neighbours.

I've noted whether it is seeds, nuts, sap or fruit that primarily attracts birds. An asterisk (*) next to a bird species indicates that the tree/shrub is especially important as a food source. The list has been divided into species that grow best in sun and those that can tolerate shade to partial shade. Soil conditions and average height are also given. Some species can tolerate both dry and moist sites and this is also noted with the preferred conditions given first.

Soil conditions: W = wet, M = moist, D = dry

Full to part sun

Speckled Alder, Alnus incana, ssp. rugosa
Height to 8 m [M,W], SEEDS
Shrub or small tree.

  • Common Redpoll
  • American Goldfinch
  • Pine Siskin

Paper Birch, Betula papyrifera
Height to 25 m [M,D], SEEDS
Short-lived trees.

  • Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (sap)
  • Black-capped Chickadee
  • American Tree Sparrow
  • Fox Sparrow*
  • Common Redpoll*
  • Pine Siskin*

Common or Canadian ElderCommon or Canadian Elder, Sambucus canadensis
Height to 3 m [M,D], FRUIT
Good nest tree.

  • Eastern Kingbird
  • Eastern Phoebe
  • Swainson's Thrush
  • American Robin
  • Gray Catbird

American Elm, Ulmus americana
Height to 35 m [W,M], SEEDS
Less important than many trees for wildlife, but still provides a food source. Tolerates some shade but best in full sun.

  • Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (sap)
  • Rose-breasted Grosbeak
  • Yellow-rumped Warbler
  • Purple Finch*
  • American Goldfinch
  • House Sparrow

Hackberry, Celtis occidentalis
Height to 15 m [W,M,D], FRUIT
A good winter food source for many birds as long as the fruit remains. Tolerates some shade, but best in sunny locations.

  • American Robin** (if overwintering)
  • Cedar Waxwing*
  • Evening Grosbeak*
  • Eastern Phoebe
  • American Crow
  • Eastern Bluebird
  • Gray Catbird
  • Northern Cardinal

HawthornHawthorns, Crataegus spp.
Height to 12 m [D,M], FRUIT
Provides good nesting and roosting sites. Best planted in thickets of more than 3.

Used in winter by:
  • Cedar Waxwing**
  • Pine Grosbeak
Used in late summer by:
  • American Robin
  • Fox Sparrow

Red Maple, Acer rubrum
Height to 25 m [M,D], SEEDS, BUDS, FLOWERS
Good nest tree.

  • Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (sap)
  • Red-breasted Nuthatch
  • Rose-breasted Grosbeak
  • Pine Grosbeak
  • Evening Grosbeak

Oaks
Bur Oak, Quercus macrocarpa
Height to 15 m [M,D], ACORNS
Can tolerate some shade. Food, cover, nesting material.
Red Oak, Q. rubra
Height to 25 m [D], ACORNS
A large number of birds are known to use oaks to a greater or lesser extent. The following are species for which the acorns are very important:

  • Blue Jay
  • White-breasted Nuthatch
  • Brown Thrasher
  • Common Grackle

Pines
Jack Pine, Pinus banksiana
Height to 20 m [D], SEEDS
White Pine, P. strobus
Height to 30 m [D, M], SEEDS
All pines provide valuable food for many species of wildlife.

  • Mourning Dove* (also nests in pines)
  • Northern Flicker
  • Black-capped Chickadee*
  • Red-breasted Nuthatch*
  • White-breasted Nuthatch*
  • Brown Creeper*
  • Brown Thrasher
  • Dark-eyed Junco
  • House Finch
  • White-winged Crossbill*
  • Pine Siskin
  • American Goldfinch
  • Evening Grosbeak*

Downy Serviceberry, Amelanchier arborea
Height to 12 m [D], FRUIT
Shrub or small tree. Particularly important for its early summer fruiting.

  • American Crow
  • Black-capped Chickadee
  • American Robin
  • Eastern Bluebird
  • Hermit Thrush
  • Gray Catbird
  • Brown Thrasher
  • Scarlet Tanager
  • Northern Cardinal
  • Rose-breasted Grosbeak
  • Baltimore Oriole

Staghorn SumacStaghorn Sumac, Rhus typhina
Height to 6 m [M, D], FRUIT
Important winter sustenance. Not good for small gardens. Thicket forming shrub.

  • Common Crow
  • Black-capped Chickadee
  • American Robin
  • Hermit Thrush
  • Gray Catbird
  • Brown Thrasher
  • European Starling
  • Northern Cardinal

Viburnums
High-bush CranberryHigh-bush Cranberry, Viburnum trilobum
Height 1–4 m [M,W], FRUIT
Tolerates some shade.
Nannyberry, V. lentago
Height to 12 m [W,M], FRUIT
Shrub or small tree.
These viburnums provide an emergency food supply in winter when other fruit has vanished; very good for cover and nesting sites.

  • Brown Thrasher
  • Cedar Waxwing
  • Evening Grosbeak

Wild Cherries
ChokecherryChokecherry, Prunus virginiana
Height 2–3 m (occasionally to 12 m) [M,D], FRUIT
Will tolerate some shade.
Pin Cherry, P. pensylvanica
Height to 12 m [D,M], FRUIT
Also known as Bird Cherry, an indication of its attractiveness to birds.
Black Cherry, P. serotina
Height to 22 m [D,M], FRUIT

The following list shows only some of the many bird species that use the Prunus complex as a food source.

  • Eastern Kingbird
  • Blue Jay
  • American Crow
  • American Robin*
  • Gray Catbird
  • Brown Thrasher*
  • European Starling
  • Cedar Waxwing*
  • Northern Cardinal
  • Rose-breasted Grosbeak*
  • Baltimore Oriole
  • Evening Grosbeak*

Shade to part shade

Beech, Fagus grandifolia
Height to 25 m [M], NUTS

  • Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (sap)
  • Blue Jay*
  • Black-capped Chickadee
  • White-breasted Nuthatch
  • Rose-breasted Grosbeak
  • Common Grackle
  • Purple Finch (buds)

Eastern White CedarEastern White Cedar, Thuja occidentalis
Height to 15 m [M,D], BUDS, SEEDS
Will also grow in sun. Most important for cover and nesting.

  • Common Redpoll
  • Pine Siskin

Dogwoods
Pagoda or Alternate Leaf Dogwood, Cornus alternifolia
Height to 12 m [M,D], FRUIT
Tree or shrub.
Red Osier DogwoodRed Osier Dogwood, C. stolonifera or C. sericea
Height 1–3 m [M], FRUIT
Shrub.

Dogwoods provide cover and nesting sites; fruit ripens in late summer. Ninety species of birds have been recorded using C. stolonifera as a food source. Some of these species are listed below:

  • Eastern Kingbird*
  • Red-eyed Vireo
  • Warbling Vireo
  • Eastern Bluebird
  • Hermit Thrush
  • Wood Thrush*
  • American Robin*
  • Gray Catbird
  • Cedar Waxwing
  • Brown Thrasher
  • Northern Cardinal
  • Evening Grosbeak*
  • Pine Grosbeak*

Hazelnut, Corylus cornuta
Height 3–4 m [M,D], NUTS
Less attractive to birds than to mammals such as chipmunks and red squirrels, but makes a good nest shrub.

Sugar Maple, A. saccharum
Height to 35 m [M], SEEDS, BUDS, FLOWERS
Provides good nesting sites.

  • Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (sap)
  • Red-breasted Nuthatch
  • Rose-breasted Grosbeak
  • Pine Grosbeak
  • Evening Grosbeak

Red-berried ElderRed-berried Elder, Sambucus pubens
Height to 4 m [D], FRUIT

  • Eastern Kingbird
  • Eastern Phoebe
  • Swainson's Thrush
  • American Robin
  • Gray Catbird

Viburnums
HobblebushDowny Arrowwood, Viburnum rafinesquianum
Height to 1.5 m [D], FRUIT
Hobblebush, Viburnum alnifolium
Height to 2 m [M], FRUIT
Good nest site.

  • Hermit Thrush
  • American Robin
  • Brown Thrasher
  • Cedar Waxwing
  • Northern Cardinal
  • Evening Grosbeak

FOR MORE INFORMATION

  • Blouin, Glen. 1992. Weeds of the Woods. Small Trees and Shrubs of the Eastern Forest. Goose Lane Editions.
  • Chambers, Brenda, Karen Legasy and Cathy Bentley. 1996. Forest Plants of Central Ontario. Lone Pine.
  • Eastman, John. 1992. Forest and Thicket. Stackpole Books.
  • Farrar, John L. 1995. Trees in Canada. Fitzhenry & Whiteside.
  • Hanrahan, Christine. 1994. The Importance of Snags and Downed Logs to Wildlife. Trail & Landscape 28(4): 115-123.
  • Hanrahan, Christine. 1999. In Praise of Hedgerows. Trail & Landscape 33(3): 126-130.
  • Martin, Alexander C., Herbert S. Zim and Arnold L. Nelson. 1951. American Wildlife & Plants. A Guide to Wildlife Food Habits. Dover Publications.
  • Soper, James H. and Margaret L. Heimburger. 1982. Shrubs of Ontario. Royal Ontario Museum.

This page was revised on 5 January 2013
© Fletcher Wildlife Garden
Text: Christine Hanrahan
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