To attract more birds to your backyard, you need to offer them sources of food. Here an Eastern Bluebird snags some delicious (at least from the bird POV) grubs. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

I’ve never gotten into birdwatching, but I am glad it exists. I like birds, but I can’t tell a junco from a chickadee.

During a gathering in Kennebunk late last month, Andrew Tufts, Bringing Nature Home coordinator for Maine Audubon, made the connection between birds and native plants.

The preferred food of baby birds, Tufts said, is the soft-bodied larval stage of a wide variety of insects. If those insects are butterflies and moths, that stage is called caterpillars. For less attractive insects, the larval stage has less-attractive names such as grubs, slugs and maggots.

The soft-bodied larva contain a lot of nutrients for baby birds in an easy-to-catch, easy-to-digest package. What the insects and their larva need to survive are native plants, which have developed alongside them and the birds for thousands of years. The insects eat the leaves, seeds, flowers and sap of these plants. The insects’ babies, in turn, get eaten by baby birds.

In a talk billed “Beyond Birdseed: Make Your Backyard a Haven for Birds,” Tufts made a number of suggestions that regular readers of my column will be familiar with, such as planting keystone species of oaks, cherries, birches, poplars willows and maples. Each of these trees support hundreds of insects.

It takes more than these trees to attract birds, however. To support the greatest number and variety of birds, Tufts advised planting gardens in layers, including tall trees, mid-level shrubs or small trees, and grasses and low-growing perennials. Planting along these lines has the additional benefit of reducing soil erosion.


For mid-level plants Tufts recommended viburnums, especially the Nannyberry, maple-leaf and Arrowwood varieties. In my own garden, our Nannyberry and Arrowwoods still had berries on them in late January, which make them especially picturesque when we have snow. Tufts also likes winterberry, dogwoods and blueberries – both high- and low-bush.

He recommends straight species, meaning plants as they occur in nature, over cultivars, which are bred in nurseries for particular characteristics that humans find attractive. He made an exception for the cultivar red osier dogwood ‘Arctic Fire,’ which has bright red stems and is a good host for birds.

For evergreens, he recommended cedar, pine, juniper, fir and spruce. And perennials he likes include prairie grasses, especially the Schizachyrium family: little bluestem and switchgrass.

For milkweeds, the host flower of endangered Monarch butterflies, Tufts said gardeners will probably prefer swamp milkweed (incarnata) or butterfly weed (tuberosa) over common milkweed (syriaca), because they don’t spread. Common milkweed spreads underground through its roots, making it difficult to control.

Other perennials he likes are asters and goldenrods.

The birds I am always thrilled to see are hummingbirds. Most years, we see them by our dogwoods, but their particular favorites are actually red blossoms: cardinal flowers and Columbine.


Avoid pesticides if possible, advised Doug Hitchcox, Audubon’s bird specialist and another speaker in Kennebunk. Yes, browntail moth is a pest that causes nasty, itchy rashes, he conceded, but the insecticides that kill browntail moth also kill beneficial insects. Instead, he advised people to remove browntail moth nests.

No-Mow May came up at the Kennebunk meeting, with some people recommending it. No-Mow May is a movement that encourages homeowners to avoid mowing their lawns until June in order to give pollinators enough to eat in early spring. I happened to hear the same subject come up earlier in the month during an online talk by conservationist Doug Tallamy to a joint meeting of the Garden Club Federation of Maine and Maine Audubon. Tallamy, responding to a question, had said No-Mow May makes no sense because the grasses in a lawn have no benefit for wildlife.

When I asked Tufts about this, he said that Tallamy was probably thinking of the weed-free, chemically treated lawns of a decade ago. More Mainers are allowing so-called weeds, such as early-blooming dandelions and violets, to mix in their lawns, Tufts said. Those flowers do help pollinators in the early spring when other food sources are scarce. And mowing in June, after these spring “weeds” have finished blooming gives the plants time to drop their seeds onto the lawn where they can sprout, ensuring flowers the following year to once again nourish the hungry pollinators.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at:

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