Attracting birds Birds


Goldfinches are seed-eaters. And they particularly like thistle seeds! Photo: Snowmanradio, Flickr.

You’ll see lots of advice on the Internet about shrubs and trees with colorful berries that attract birds: serviceberries, hollies, crab apples, etc. In fact, I wrote an article on the subject myself: Berries That Attract Birds. And there’s nothing wrong with that! After all, many birds like berried plants and we find them attractive too. They’re great, as far as they go.

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.

If you want to attract birds, don’t clean up your garden in the fall: you’re removing their food supply! Ill.: Claire Tourigny, from the book Les 1500 trucs du jardinier paresseux

I don’t use bird feeders, yet I see all sorts of birds (and animals too!) visiting my garden, especially in fall and winter, most of them seed-eaters, birds that flock to the varied vegetation I provide. You see, I do no fall clean-up 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, for the best range of bird visitors, increase the number of flowers and shrubs, and cut back on lawn.

And don’t scorn weeds, either! Many plants considered weeds (thistle, goldenrod, fireweed, etc.) and even 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

Chickadee feeding on a sunflower. Who needs bird feeders when your garden contains the real source of food for seed-eating birds: mature seed heads! Photo: Marie Read,

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 alone during the winter (i.e. no fall clean-up!) and watch the birds arrive 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. 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. including SymphyotrichumEurybiaDoellingeria, etc. (aster) zones 2 to 6, depending on the species
  10. Betula 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. (hornbeam) zones 4 to 7, depending on the species
  14. Carthamus tinctorius (safflower) annual
  15. Celtis spp. (hackberry) zones 4 to 7, depending on the species
  16. Centaurea spp. (cornflower) annual or zone 3, depending on the species
  17. Cerastium spp. (snow-in-summer) zones 2 to 4, depending on the species
  18. Cirsium spp. (thistle) zones 2-6, depending on the species
  19. Clematis spp. (clematis) zones 2-8, depending on the species
  20. Coreopsis spp. (coreopsis) annual or zones 3-7, depending on the species
  21. Cosmos spp. (cosmos) annual
  22. Delphinium spp. (delphinium, larkspur) zone 3
  23. Deschampsia caespitosa (tufted hair grass) zone 3
  24. Dipsacus spp. (teasel) zone 3
  25. Echinacea spp. (echinacea, purple coneflower) zone 3
  26. Echinops spp. (globe thistle) zone 3
  27. Epilobium angustifolium, now Chamaenerion angustifolium (fireweed) zone 2
  28. Erysiumum spp. (wallflower) zone 6
  29. Eschscholzia spp. (California poppy) annual
  30. Eupatorium spp. (Joe Pye weed) zone 3
  31. Fagus spp. (beech) zones 4 to 7, depending on the species
  32. Fraxinus spp. (ash) zones 3 to 7, depending on the species
  33. Gaillardia spp. (gaillardia, blanket flower) annual or zone 3
  34. Guizotia abyssinica (niger) annual
  35. Hamamelis spp. (witchhazel) zones 4 to 8, depending on the species
  36. Helianthus annuus (sunflower) annual
  37. Helianthus spp. (perennial sunflower) zones 3-6, depending on the species
  38. Hesperis matronalis (dame’s rocket) Zone 3
  39. Liatris spp. (blazing star) zone 3
  40. Limonium sinuatum (statice) annual
  41. Linum spp. (flax) annual or zone 3
  42. Miscanthus spp. (maiden grass) zones 4 to 6, depending on the species
  43. Nigella damascena (love-in-a-mist) annual
  44. Oenothera spp. (evening primrose) zones 3-6, depending on the species
  45. Onopordum spp. (Scotch thistle) zone 4
  46. Panicum virgatum (switch grass) zone 3
  47. Papaver spp. (poppy) annual or zone 3
  48. Pennisetum spp. (fountain grass, millet) annual or zone 5
  49. Phlox spp. (phlox) annual or zone 3, depending on the species
  50. Picea spp. (spruce) zones 1 to 7, depending on the species
  51. Pinus spp. (pine) zones 3 to 9, depending on the species
  52. Portulaca grandiflora (portulaca) annual
  53. Rudbeckia spp. (coneflower) zone 3
  54. Rumex spp. (sorrel) zones 3 to 5, depending on the species
  55. Salvia hispanica (chia) annual
  56. Salvia spp. (sage) annual or zones 3 to 10, depending on the species
  57. Scabiosa spp. (scabiosa, pincushion flower) annual or zone 3, depending on the species
  58. Sedum spp. (sedum) zones 3 to 10, depending on the species
  59. Solidago spp. (goldenrod) zone 2
  60. Sorghastrum nutans (false sorghum) zone 3
  61. Tagetes spp. (marigold) annual
  62. Thuja spp. (arborvitae) zones 3 to 6, depending on the species
  63. Tithonia rotundifolia (Mexican sunflower) annual
  64. Tsuga spp. (hemlock) zones 4 to 6, depending on the species
  65. Verbascum spp. (mullein) zones 3 to 7, depending on the species
  66. Vernonia spp. (ironweed) zone 4
  67. Zinnia spp. (zinnia) annual

Adapted from an article originally published on September 5, 2015.

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.


  1. nancy marie allen

    Great blog on seed plants for birds! The (extensive) list will come in handy when planting next spring. Thanks!

  2. Elderberries! Everyone loves elderberries! I know because I want them too!

Leave a Reply

Sign up for the Laidback Gardener blog and receive articles in your inbox every morning!

%d bloggers like this: