Laidback Gardener Tip of the Day

Plants that Attract Seed-eating Birds

Goldfinches are seed-eaters. They particularly love thistle seeds!

You’ll see lots of advice on the Internet about shrubs and trees with colorful berries that attract birds: serviceberries, hollies, crabapples, etc. After all, birds like them and we find them attractive too. But not all bird species are fruit-eaters. In fact, the greatest number are seed-eaters, birds like goldfinches, chickadees, grosbeaks, and nuthatches. Few sites seem to mention the many plants you can grow to attract this group. It’s as if you’re expected to put up bird feeders for seed-eating birds and be content with that.

I don’t use bird feeders, yet I see all sorts of birds (and animals too!) visiting my garden in the winter, most of them seed-eaters, birds that flock to the varied vegetation I provide. You see, I do no fall cleanup and all my perennials, annuals and grasses are left to stand all winter, to the great delight of the seed-eating crowd.

The secret to attracting birds with seed-bearing plants is to provide a lot of variety. Make sure you have a wide range of plants, some maturing in summer or fall, others holding on to their seeds through the winter. This will attract the greatest number of bird species. You’ll need herbaceous plants (perennials, annuals, etc.), but also shrubs and trees. About the only kind of backyard environment that seed-eating birds will have nothing to do with is a neatly-kept lawn, so up the flowers and shrubs, and cut back on lawn for the best range of bird visitors.

And don’t scorn weeds, either! Many plants considered weeds (thistle, goldenrod, fireweed, etc.) or weed trees, like box elder (Acer negundo), are actually great plants for attracting birds. If you have the space, why not turn a corner of your yard into a wildlife habitat by letting otherwise undesirable plants grow freely? The birds will thank you for it! (As will the butterflies, but that’s a different story!)

Some Plants to Try

Here are some plants that seed-eating birds particularly like. They are found in all categories, from annuals to perennials, biennials, vines, shrubs, trees and even conifers. You’ll notice that most of these plants are fairly common garden plants: it’s just that we rarely think of them as bird fodder. Just leave them along during the winter and watch the birds come in great numbers!

  1. Abies spp. (fir) zones 1 to 7, depending on the species
  2. Acer spp. (maple) zones 3 to 8, depending on the species
  3. Achillea spp. (yarrow) zones 2 to 4, depending on the species
  4. Alnus spp. (alder) zones 1 to 8, depending on the species
  5. 20150905B

    Amaranthus spp. (amaranth, love-lies-bleeding) annual

  6. Andropogon spp. (bluestem) zone 3
  7. Aquilegia spp. (columbine) zone 3
  8. Asclepias spp. (milkweed) zones 3 to 10, depending on the species
  9. Aster spp. (aster) zones 2 to 6, depending on the species
  10. Betulus spp. (birch) zones 1 to 5, depending on the species
  11. Calendula spp. (pot marigold) annual
  12. Campanula spp. (bellflower) zones 1 to 6, depending on the species
  13. Carpinus spp. (hackberry) zones 4 to 7, depending on the species
  14. Centaurea spp. (cornflower) annual or zone 3, depending on the species
  15. Cerastium spp. (snow-in-summer) zones 2 to 4, depending on the species
  16. Cirsium spp. (thistle) zones 2-6, depending on the species
  17. 20150905C
    Clematis seeds: birds eat them, then use their fluff to build nests.

    Clematis spp. (clematis) zones 2-8, depending on the species

  18. Coreopsis spp. (coreopsis) annual or zones 3-7, depending on the species
  19. Cosmos spp. (cosmos) annual
  20. Delphinium spp. (delphinium, larkspur) zone 3
  21. Deschampsia caespitosa (tufted hair grass) zone 3
  22. Echinacea spp. (echinacea, purple coneflower) zone 3
  23. Echinops spp. (globe thistle) zone 3
  24. Epilobium angustifolium (fireweed) zone 2
  25. Erysiumum spp. (wallflower) zone 6
  26. Eschscholzia spp. (California poppy) annual
  27. Eupatorium spp. (Joe Pye weed) zone 3
  28. 20150905D
    Purple finch munching on ash seeds.

    Fraxinus spp. (ash) zones 3 to 7, depending on the species

  29. Gaillardia spp. (gaillardia, blanket flower) annual or zone 3
  30. Hamamelis spp. (witchhazel) zones 4 to 8, depending on the species
  31. Helianthus annuus (sunflower) annual
  32. Helianthus spp. (perennial sunflower) zones 3-6, depending on the species
  33. Hesperis matronalis (dame’s rocket) Zone 3
  34. Limonium sinuatum (statice) annual
  35. Linum spp. (flax) annual or zone 3
  36. 20150905E
    MIscanthus or maiden grass.

    Miscanthus spp. (maiden grass) zones 4 to 6, depending on the species

  37. Nigella damascena (love-in-a-mist) annual
  38. Oeonothera spp. (evening primrose) zones 3-6, depending on the species
  39. Onopordum spp. (Scotch thistle) zone 4
  40. Panicum virgatum (switch grass) zone 3
  41. Papaver spp. (poppy) annual or zone 3
  42. Pennisetum spp. (fountain grass, millet) annual or zone 5
  43. Phlox spp. (phlox) annual or zone 3, depending on the species
  44. 20150905F
    Pine grosbeak feeding on a spruce.

    Picea spp. (spruce) zones 1 to 7, depending on the species

  45. Pinus spp. (pine) zones 3 to 9, depending on species
  46. Portulaca grandiflora (portulaca) annual
  47. Rudbeckia spp. (coneflower) zone 3
  48. Rumex spp. (sorrel) zones 3 to 5, depending on the species
  49. Salvia spp. (sage) annual or zones 3 to 10, depending on the species
  50. Scabiosa spp. (scabiosa, pincushion flower) annual or zone 3, depending on the species
  51. 20150905G
    Let your sedums stand in the winter and they’ll attract birds!

    Sedum spp. (sedum) zones 3 to 10, depending on the species

  52. Solidago spp. (goldenrod) zone 2
  53. Sorghastrum nutans (false sorghum) zone 3
  54. Tagetes spp. (marigold) annual
  55. Thuja spp. (arborvitae) zones 3 to 6, depending on the species
  56. Tsuga spp. (hemlock) zones 4 to 6, depending on the species
  57. Verbascum (mullein) zones 3 to 7, depending on the species
  58. Vernonia spp. (ironweed) zone 4
  59. Zinnia spp. (zinnia) annual

Larry Hodgson is one of Canada’s best-known garden communicators. He has notably been editor-in-chief of HousePlant Magazine, Fleurs, Plantes et Jardins, À Fleur de Pot and Houseplant Forum magazines and is currently the garden correspondent for Le Soleil and radio garden commentator for CKIA-FM Radio. He has written for many garden publications in both the United States and Canada, including Canadian Gardening, Harrowsmith, Horticulture, Fine Gardening and Organic Gardening. He also speaks frequently to horticultural groups throughout Canada and the U.S. His book credits include The Garden Lover’s Guide to Canada, Complete Guide to Houseplants, Making the Most of Shade, Perennials for Every Purpose, Annuals for Every Purpose, and Houseplants for Dummies, as well as nearly 60 other titles in English and French. He is a past president of the Garden Writers Association (now Garden Communicators International) and the winner of the prestigious 2006 Garden Media Promoter Award offered by the Perennial Plant Association. He resides in Quebec City, Quebec, Canada.

4 comments on “Plants that Attract Seed-eating Birds

  1. Pingback: Creating a Bird-Friendly Yard | Laidback Gardener

  2. Pingback: To Trim or Not to Trim? – Participatory Ecology

  3. Seville the Cat, here. AND AS A CAT, this is of great interest to me. Bird watchin’ is sort of a hobby of mine.

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