Bird Feeding: No Feeders Required

If bird feeders are against the rules—or impractical—natural foods provide the perfect alternative

  • Melissa Mayntz
  • Animals
  • Nov 28, 2016

Bohemian waxwings feast on a highbush cranberry shrub in a Minnesota backyard. Unlike feeders, such natural foods benefit a diversity of wildlife species beyond birds.

BACKYARD BIRD FEEDERS ARE EASY, convenient and available in a dizzying variety of sizes, styles and colors to suit any wildlife gardener’s tastes. But what can you do when feeders aren’t an option? Because of the mess feeders can make, some homeowners’ associations ban them. Feeders also may attract unwelcome nectar- and seed-stealing visitors, including squirrels, rats, raccoons or even large predators such as bears. And some backyard birders want to provide food but find it inconvenient to fill and clean feeders.

Fortunately, there’s an easy solution—and it may even be better for birds. Natural foods such as shrubs, trees and other plants can be just as easy and convenient as feeders, and they provide additional benefits. “Plantings create more of an ecosystem, attracting a wider variety of birds,” says Kimberly Kaufman, executive director of the Black Swamp Bird Observatory in Ohio and co-author of the Kaufman Field Guide to Nature of the Midwest. “Flowers, trees and shrubs also provide cover and nesting habitat as well as important nectar for pollinators and host plants for butterflies and moths.”

From Seeds To Nuts

A wide variety of plants can nurture backyard birds: Nectar-rich flowers like bee balm, salvia and lupine are magnets for hummingbirds. Seed-bearing blooms, including coneflowers and cosmos, attract finches, sparrows, doves and quail. Jays are partial to nuts provided by trees such as hickories, pecans and walnuts, while fruit-loving birds, from orioles to waxwings, flock to sumacs, serviceberries, junipers and other berry bushes. Larger fruit trees, including crabapples and hollies, are top draws for grosbeaks, tanagers, catbirds and mockingbirds.

Don’t forget about food that insects provide. “Most birds are insect eaters, especially during the breeding season, and provision their young with the caterpillars of butterflies and moths that feed on specific native host plants,” says Mary Phillips, director of the National Wildlife Federation’s Garden for Wildlife™ program.

Because insects are so critical, wildlife gardeners should minimize pesticides and choose native plants, which support the greatest number and diversity of insects. In addition, “native plants thrive in the soils and climate of your region, meaning fewer pest problems and less supplemental watering,” Phillips says. “Native plants also help manage rainwater runoff and promote healthy soil.”

With all the benefits of natural foods, there’s no need to fret if feeders are not an option. Consider using the time you’ll save maintaining feeders to sit back and enjoy the avian show.

Writer Melissa Mayntz covers wild birds and birding for

More from National Wildlife magazine and NWF:

Growing a Better Bird Feeder »
Help Birds Weather Winter »
Bird-Feeding Frenzy »
When Birds Become Bird Food »
Backyards + Birds = Pretty Pictures »
Garden for Wildlife »

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