Gardening for the Birds

By Nicole Forbes

Why “attract” birds, they are already in my garden?

Nationwide our native bird population numbers are falling; even in Portland, our most common backyard birds including the western meadowlark (our state bird) and the Swainson’s thrush, known for its melodic morning song, are disappearing.  The rufous hummingbird that winters in Mexico and returns to the northwest to breed has declined 79% in Oregon over the past 40 years.

Enhancing your backyard habitat can increase your local bird population, provide you with hours of enjoyment watching and listening to them, and result in reduced pests/insects in your garden (many birds, including hummingbirds, eat mosquitos and spiders).  Planting native landscaping, trees and shrubs that specifically appeal to birds can help to slow the decline.  Just planting one tree can make a difference, since a single tree may hold up to 10 birds’ nests and thousands of insects.

Bird-watching is one of the fastest-growing pastimes, pursued by about one in four of all Oregonians!  Nationwide populations of 20 common birds fell at least by half during the past four decades based on figures from two annual bird surveys: Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count and the U.S. Geological Survey’s Summer Breeding Bird Survey.  The likely culprits include development, urban predators, and wide use of pesticides that kill insects birds eat.

Get certified, it’s easy!

There are many programs available to provide guidelines and help plan for your backyard habitat.  National Wildlife Federation and the Portland Audubon Society both have excellent certification programs.  For more information go to:

Portland lies in a critical spot along the Pacific Flyway, a major north-south migration corridor for millions of birds.  We are one of seven cities nationwide to sign an Urban Conservation Treaty for Migratory Birds with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, committing to protecting habitat and promoting bird-friendly measures.


The basic elements of habitat:

Food – seeds, nectar, fruits & berries

Waterbird bath, fountain, water feature, stream/pond, sprinkler

Cover/shelter – thickets/hedges, dense shrubs, rock pile, brush pile, birdhouse, evergreens/conifers

A place to raise young – trees, large dense shrubs, tall grasses, dead branches/stumps, pond, nesting box; many places for cover may also be used as locations to raise young.

Trees for food & shelter: (* indicates native selection availability)

Dogwood*, Crabapple*, Vine maple*, Oregon white oak*, Western red cedar*, Western hemlock*, Mountain hemlock*, Douglas fir*

Camellia - see Camellia fileShrubs for food & shelter: (* indicates native selection availability)

Camellia, Hardy fuchsia, Azalea*, Red-flowering currant*, Salmonberry*, Hibiscus, Elderberry*, Spiraea*, Weigela, Lilac, Butterfly bush, Serviceberry*, Flowering quince, Twig dogwood*, Oceanspray*, Oregon grape*, Pacific wax myrtle*, Indian plum*, Huckleberries*, Viburnum, Barberry, Ilex (holly), Cotoneaster, Burning bush

Vines for food & shelter: (*indicates native selection availability)

Scarlet runner-bean (annual), Morning glory (annual), Trumpet vine, Clematis, Honeysuckle*, Boston ivy


Perennials for food & shelter: (* indicates native selection availability)

Columbine*, Bleeding heart*, Coral bells*, Lavender, Lobelia, Bee balm, Penstemon, Cape-fuchsia, Agastache, Hosta, Oregano, Catmint, Salvia

Ground-covers for food & shelter: (*indicates native selection availability)

Beach strawberry*, Shore juniper, Kinnikinnick*, Wintergreen*, Salal*, Creeping raspberry

This list is just a starting point and mentions many of the favorites of our Dennis’ Seven Dees staff, when in doubt, go with native plants!

A few tips to avoid destroying nests and nesting habitat:

Depending on the food supply, most songbirds will attempt to nest two, three or even more times during the nesting season.  Some species can be nesting until middle or late summer.  Consider postponing your mowing until nesting season is over if your property contains or is next to large grassy, wetland, riparian or meadow areas.  If you have dead trees that don’t pose an immediate safety hazard, you might want to leave them as snags or wildlife trees.  Wait until late summer/early fall to have trees limbed or trimmed, as dead or thick branches provide great nesting habitat.  Hold off on major pruning of shrubs until nesting season is over, or at least carefully check for nests before pruning.  If you find a bird nest, do not touch the nest, eggs or nestlings.  If you find a bird on the ground, leave it alone.  The parent birds know where it is and are probably watching and feeding it.  For assistance with an injured bird call the Audubon Society.


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