Gardening for birds: As bird populations decline, home gardens can play an important role in conservation efforts


  • A cedar waxwing on a smooth serviceberry tree. PHOTO COURTESY OF CATIE RESOR

  • A purple coneflower with pollinators. PHOTO COURTESY OF CATIE RESOR

  • A ruby-throated hummingbird on a cardinal flower. PHOTO COURTESY OF CATIE RESOR

For the Recorder
Published: 4/18/2022 1:33:37 PM
Modified: 4/18/2022 1:32:19 PM

Over the past half century, North America has lost more than a quarter of its entire bird population, according to a new estimate published in the journal Science by researchers who brought together information collected on 529 bird species since 1970.

With that in mind, efforts towards conservation are increasingly important. One way to increase support of bird populations is to landscape and garden with them in mind.

“A lot of people like birds and many more became interested in them during the pandemic,” said Catie Resor, education program manager for the Greater Hartford Audubon Society.

Resor recently presented a webinar talk on the topic of gardening for birds. The webinar and a variety of educational events are part of a series called Libraries in the Woods. The series has been organized by the Montague Public Libraries.

“Montague’s children’s librarian, Angela Rovatti-Leonard, has been collaborating with Library in the Woods for the last year and a half, working virtually on joint programming efforts so that participating libraries can stretch our resources and engage patrons across the 27 towns that are included in the LITW consortium,” said Montague Library Director Caitlin Kelley.

Kelley added that “for Montague’s additions to this year’s Community Reads, we chose to put together programs that highlight the Carnegie Library’s new seed lending library, that encourage children and patrons of all ages to try their hand at growing things, and that promote responsible stewardship of our land. As for the Gardening for Birds program, I think there’s a lot of local interest in supporting our native wildlife, but there’s not always a lot of guidance on how best to do so.”

Resor said how one manages the landscape around what is often a suburban setting can go a long way to supporting bird populations.

“Most plants people plant tend to be non-native which can be useless as a food source,” she said, noting that loss of insect life also has a strong impact on bird populations.

“Birds are sustained by insects, especially those who migrate here for the boom in summer insects. One native oak tree can have five hundred different species of caterpillar for example,” she said. As an example, Recor said “when people plant non-native Ginko trees, they may be beautiful, but they don’t have any caterpillars.”

How one cleans up a yard also has an impact on bird populations. Resor suggests leaving seed heads on plants and “deadheading” flowers less at the end of the season to leave food for the birds. She also suggests mulching gardens with leaves and waiting as long as possible before cleaning out leaves in the spring to encourage insect populations. “Insects can overwinter in the leaves,” she said.

She also suggested having “brush piles” as cover for the birds to help them avoid predators. In regards to predators, Resor said it’s better to keep cats indoors.

“Roughly 2.4 billion birds are killed annually by cat predation in the US,” she said.

What to plant

Look for native grasses and flowers with seed heads such as thistles, and purple cone flower. “Think about them more as a food source for the birds,” Resor said.

She suggests planting high bush cranberries, native holly, and other fruiting plants and trees. “They are important food sources for birds such as cedar waxwings,” she said.

Cardinal flower is a food source for hummingbirds, or butterfly weed to support caterpillar populations which become pollinators. Staghorn sumac and black-eyed Susan are also loved by birds as a food source. More information about native plants can be found online at for specifics on what to plant here in western Massachusetts. Resor noted to be careful to select plants that have not been over-hybridized to the point they no longer produce seeds or fruit. “Some of these plants only produce blooms,” she said.

Resor said the more people can get away from “perfect lawns,” and instead plant more native plants, “that small thing would go a long way to helping the bird populations.”

Pesticides and fertilizers

Resor said to be sure the seeds and mature plants ones buys have not been treated with neonicotinoids. They are particularly toxic to bees and other pollinators, which winds back to “you are what you eat” if birds are eating seeds from your plants. Examples of neonicotinoid pesticides include Imidacloprid, Clothianidin, Thiamethoxam, Dinotefuran, and Acetamiprid.

“The bees are an indicator of what is going on with other insects as well,” Resor said.

Resor said to be very careful with fertilizers. “If fertilizers get into water sources they cause algae blooms which take oxygen out of the water. If you lose oxygen in the water this effects the fish and waterfowl,” she said.

One of the added benefits to landscaping and gardening with the bird populations in mind is the attraction of other wildlife as well.

“You might be surprised by seeing animals and butterflies you haven’t seen in your yard before,” Resor said.

For more information on Library in the Woods programing go to or call 413-863-3214.

Cris Carl is an avid local gardener, licensed therapist and certified herbalist. She is an experienced journalist who has written for the Recorder for many years. You can reach her at


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