LSU AgCenter Horticulturist
February is National Bird-feeding Month, and this year’s theme is “Winter Comforts — Feed the Birds and Keep Them Happy and Healthy.” This month focusing on feeding the birds was designated with the help of Rep. John Porter, who made the proposal in 1994 to the United States House of Representatives.
Porter made the point that February is one of the most difficult months in the last stretch of wintertime for birds and encouraged individuals to help by supplying food, water and sources of shelter for wild birds.
In his moving address to the Speaker of the House he said, “backyard bird-feeding is an entertaining, educational and inexpensive pastime enjoyed by children and adults. Bird-feeding provides a needed break from today’s frantic lifestyles. Adults enjoy the relaxation and peacefulness afforded by watching birds — nature serves to relieve the stress and can get one’s day going on a tranquil note.”
As gardeners, we may not realize all of the many opportunities we have to help feed the birds by selecting plants that provide food and shelter. There are many plants that birds use as sources of food, including trees, shrubs, ornamental grasses and perennials.
Many birds feed on a diet of seeds in addition to a wide variety of insects — especially caterpillars. What is important to remember is that those caterpillars and insects feed on leaves and other parts of plants. Many insects are host plants specialists, meaning they prefer a specific plant. One powerful example of host specificity are oak trees that support nearly 500 species of caterpillars alone. Talk about a lot of bird food!
Turns out that caterpillars are some the most nutritious of the insect foods. By providing a diverse selection of plants in your garden, you can provide more food for caterpillars and, in turn, for birds and other wildlife. Additionally, we can place bird feeders, birdbaths and birdhouses in our gardens that also benefit our feathered friends.
When selecting plants to support birds, choose a diverse selection of perennials, ornamental grasses, shrubs and trees, especially native ones that support native insects and birds. One great source for selecting plants is provided by the National Audubon Society. Its mission is to help conserve habitat and protect birds.
You can use your ZIP code to help find plant species that support birds in your area. The website even tells you what specific bird species each plant supports if you are fan of a particular bird species and where you can find plants. Visit https://www.audubon.org/native-plants.
Louisiana has many native plant species that support birds. Starting with trees, some great selections for birds are American basswood (Tilia americana), American beech (Fagus grandifolia), American elm (Ulmus americana), American holly (Ilex opaca), American hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana), American sycamore (Plantanus occidentalis), bald cypress (Taxodium indicum), black tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica), black walnut (Juglans nigra), dahoon (Ilex cassine), deciduous holly (Ilex decidua), eastern hop-hornbeam (Ostrya virginiana), eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana), live oak (Quercus virginiana), long-leaf pine (Pinus palustris), parsley hawthorn (Crataegus marshalli), pecan (Carya illnoinensis), persimmon (Diospyros virginiana), white oak (Quercus alba), short-leaf pine (Pinus echinata), Shumard oak (Quercus shumardii), red oak (Quercus falcate), swamp chestnut oak (Quercus michauxii), sweetbay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana), sweet gum (Liquidambar styraciflua), tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera), redbud (Cercis canadensis), red buckeye (Aesculus pavia), red swamp maple (Acer rubrum), river birch (Betula nigra), rough-leaf dogwood (Cornus drummondii) and sassafras (Sassafras albidum).
A brief list of native shrubs for Louisiana are American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana), American witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana), arrow-wood (Viburnum dentatum), buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis), blueberry (Vacciunium corymbosum), possumhaw (Viburnum nudum) and spicebush (Lindera benzoin).
Flowering perennials not only provide food for birds, but also offer excellent color for your landscape. Incorporate beautiful flowers that can be shared with birds, brighten your landscapes and many can be cut and brought indoors.
Here is a brief list of perennials: aquatic milkweed (Asclepias perennis), Aquatic Milkweed (Asclepias perennis), beebalm (Monarda citriodora), black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), blanket flower (Gaillardia pulchella), blue phlox (Phlox divaricate), butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa), cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), common boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum), goldenrod (Solidago sempervirens), purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), purple American aster (Symphyotrichum patens), scarlet sage (Salvia coccinea), swamp sunflower (Helianthus annuus) and yarrow (Achillea millefolium).
Ornamental grasses that are bird friendly are eastern mock grama grass (Tripsacum dactyloides), muhly grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris), Indian wood oats (Chasmanthium latifolium), little false bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), side-oats grama (Bouteloua curtipendula) and panic grass (Panicum virgatum).
Native vines include crossvine (Bignonia capreolata), passion flower (Passiflora incarnate), trumpet-creeper (Campsis radicans), trumpet honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens) and Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia).
With so many plants to choose from, you can help feed the birds in many ways.
Berries on Arrowwood viburnum are a popular food source for birds during the winter. This plant has almost been picked clean.
Mockingbird eats holly berry during cold February weather.
Mockingbird with an ample food source of holly berries in the background.
Bird eats fruit from an Arrowwood viburnum tree.