Giving Birds a Helping Hand

A trip to the Missouri Botanical Garden is a delight to the senses, from the visual beauty of the Garden’s display beds to the fragrant aroma of the plantings that populate them—and the chorus of birdsong from the many feathered visitors that fly by throughout the year (and help pollinate the Garden’s living collections in the process).

That chorus may be in danger of losing some of its singers within the next 50 years, according to a report published by Partners in Flight. Widespread declines among 450 bird species have already been documented across North America, with additional losses possible if conservation efforts are not enacted.

This might seem like an overwhelming problem, but gardeners can do their part to turn the tide.

The St. Louis Audubon Society says that “habitat loss is the number one cause for the population decline of native birds and other wildlife” in the St. Louis region.  They are attempting to address this through their Bring Conservation Home initiative, which encourages gardeners to make their gardens more friendly to a variety of local and migratory birds.

What makes a garden bird-friendly?

Shaw Nature Reserve Summer Blooms and Bugs
Eastern Purple Coneflowers bloom in Shaw Nature Reserve.          (Photo by JJ Mueller)

Two key characteristics make a garden attractive to birds; a wide variety of food, water, shelter, and nesting site options, and a diverse mix of vegetation types.

That wide variety of plants can be provided easily by focusing on native varieties, as they are adapted to the local climate and birds native to the area have evolved alongside them.  Those plants are also adapted to pests found in the area, so they may require less pesticide use.  There are many reasons to go with native plants when gardening, attracting and supporting local wildlife is just one of many.

Numerous nurseries provide information on, and packages of, native plants and what wildlife each plant is most likely to attract to a garden.  For example, the Missouri Wildflowers Nursery provides a package of ten plants to attract birds and a package of ten plants to attract hummingbirds.

How can a bird garden be designed?

When searching for inspiration, look no further than the Lang Family Bird Garden.

The entrance to the Lang Family Bird Garden. (Photo by Morgan Niezing)

Located among the demonstration gardens surrounding the William T. Kemper Center for Home Gardening, the Lang Family Bird Garden illustrates just how beautiful a bird garden can be, from towering sunflowers standing over the garden like sentinels to interspersed golden, coral, and fuchsia zinnia flowers.

How can birds be supported year-round?

Birds can either be permanent residents, pass-through migrants, summer residents, or winter residents.  Each type has specific requirements, but the overarching need for food, water, and shelter are universal.

Berries are a relatively dependable food source.  Fleshy summer berries, such as blackberries and raspberries, are rich in high energy sugars.  Fall and winter options such as hollies, hawthorns, viburnums, and crabapples are rich in lower energy lipids, which helps the berries resist rotting.

A cluster of red fruits are nestled on a Foster holly’s branch. (Photo by Tom Incrocci)
Flowering crabapple trees typically bloom in spring, with fruit persisting through winter. (Photo by Karen Fletcher)








Shelter can be provided in the form of dense shrubs and evergreens, such as the eastern red cedar, or in the form of birdhouses.

For birdhouses, the simplest design is usually the most attractive to birds.  They should be placed out of reach of any predators, directed away from prevailing winds, and have a slight downward tilt to assure rain won’t collect inside.  Birdhouses should be fumigated, dusted, or sprayed for parasites annually after the young have fledged, but not disturbed at all while occupied.

Typically only one breeding pair will reside in a garden per season, but that does depend on the size of the garden, so more could be attracted.

Nesting materials should be provided in concentrated, readily-available piles.  The materials can be placed at the base of a shrub or feeder, placed in an empty suet feeder, or suspended from a tree branch in a wire basket.  All pieces should only be 4 to 5 inches long, no longer.

Learn more by reading through Bird Gardening, a guide provided by the William T. Kemper Center for Home Gardening.

What do birds bring to a garden?

Birds bring a wide variety of other benefits to the gardens besides color, liveliness, and a free concert.

Birds help control insect populations.  For example, a single purple martin consumes several hundred insects per hour.  This assistance can allow gardeners to further reduce pesticide usage.

Seed dispersal is another benefit provided by birds.  This can help spread native plants beyond the bounds of a garden, assisting in the conservation of local varieties of plants, which can then help sustain other local wildlife.

To learn more about designing a bird garden, view the Kemper Center’s online Help for the Home Gardener, email questions to, or visit the Center and talk with the horticulturists and Master Gardeners working on its grounds.

Morgan Niezing
Digital Media Intern

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