Monday, June 29, 2009

Top 10 best plants for wild birds and mammals

If, like me, you'd like to encourage wildlife in your garden, check out these lists. According to American Wildlife & Plants by Alexander C. Martin, Herbert S. Zim, and Arnold L. Nelson (New York: Dover, 1961), these are the best plants for feeding birds and mammals in our area (okay, technically, northeast U.S., but I don't think things change that suddenly north of the border). Seeing the wildlife value of a number of less showy herbaceous plants is certainly giving me food for thought in choosing new plants for the garden. The woody plants are all fine ornamentals as well as being valuable sources of food for birds and mammals.

Woody plants

  1. oak (Quercus spp.): acorns are one of the most important foods for many mammals and birds. They are one of the blue jay's favourites. White oaks (including Quercus alba, Quercus prinus) produce tastier acorns than black oaks (Quercus velutina). Oak leaves and twigs are used as nesting material.
  2. blackberries and kin (Rubus spp.): as well as blackberries, this group includes raspberries, dewberries, cloudberries, and thimbleberries. The delicous fruit are popular, especailly with birds when fresh during the summer, though dried fruit will be eaten in autumn and winter if there's any left. The thorny brambles provide useful cover for birds, rabbits, and others, and are a popular nesting site. Cottontail rabbits eat Rubus stems in the winter.
  3. wild cherries (Prunus spp.): the fruit are popular with birds; mammals also eat them, often feeding on the cherries that have fallen to the ground. Deer and rabbits also feed on the twigs, foliage, and bark. The most important cherries in our area are P. virginiana and P. pennsylvanica.
  4. pines (Pinus spp.): seeds are eaten by many birds and small mammals; pine needles, bark, and wood are eaten by some animals. Pines with branches near the ground provide cover for wildlife; large pines are favoured nesting sites for mourning doves and migrating robins. In our area the most important is the majestic white pine (Pinus strobus), which is also our provincial tree.
  5. dogwood (Cornus spp.): the fruit are an important food in late summer, fall, and into winter.
  6. grapes (Vitis spp.): the fruit of grapes appeals to many animals; the dense foliage in summer provides cover and nesting sites. Birds often use the bark of grapevines to build their nests. Our native species are V. aestivalis, V. riparia, and V. vulpina.
  7. maples (Acer spp.): maple seeds provide food for birds, squirrels, and chipmunks; animals also eat the buds and flowers. Birds use the leaves and seed stalks to build their nests.
  8. beech (Fagus grandifolia): beechnuts are an important food for squirrels and chipmunks, and are also eaten by birds and other mammmals.
  9. blueberries and kin (Vaccinium spp.): as well as blueberries, this group includes hillberries, cranberries, and deerberries. The bruit are eaten by many birds and mammals (from mice to bears!), deer and rabbits also feed on the twigs and foliage.
  10. birches (Betula spp.): birds feed on the catkins, buds, and seeds; mammals such as deer, hares, porcupines, and beavers eat the bark, twigs, leaves, and wood.

Herbaceous plants

  1. ragweeds (Ambrosia artemisiifolia and A. psilostachya): the ragweedsare one of the most important plants for wildlife. In particular, their seeds form a major component of the diet for many songbirds. It's unfortunate that their pollen is so allergenic for humans!
  2. bristlegrass (Setaria spp.): although they are not native to our area, the bristlegrasses produce abundant seeds which are a major food source for many birds; some mammals also eat the seeds and leaves.
  3. sedges (Carex spp.): many birds eat the seeds; the leaves and roots as well as the seeds are eaten by various mammals. Sedges also provide valuable cover for wildlife.
  4. crabgrasses (Digitaria spp.): because crabgrass is common and produces many seeds, it is an important foodsource for many birds. The plants are also eaten by rabbits. D. cognata is native here.
  5. pigweeds (Amaranthus spp.): the numerous seeds of the pigweeds remain available in spiked clusters during the winter and sometimes even spring, where they provide an important food source for songbirds when food is scarce. Rabbits and deer feed on the plants. Although a number of pigweeds are alien, A. powellii and A. tuberculatus are native to our area.
  6. clovers (Trifolium pratense, T. repens, and T. hybridum): these three widespread aliens provide delicious foliage as well as seeds to many birds and mammals. The first two are somewhat invasive in our area according to Invasive Exotic Species Ranking for Southern Ontario.
  7. sheepsorrels and docks (Rumex spp.): the most common of these, R. acetosela, is not native here but because of its abundance the seeds are a common food for ground-feeding birds; the seeds are also eaten by small mammals. Rabbits and deer feed on the plants.
  8. dropseed grasses (Sporobolus spp.): the seeds are important for birds who feed on the ground. Small mammals also eat the seeds, and deer browse on the plants.
  9. bluegrasses (Poa spp.): birds eat the seeds and rabbits and other mammals graze on the foliage.
  10. pokeweed (Phytolacca americana): the fruit are eaten by mourning doves, songbirds, foxes, opossums, raccoons, and mice.

Marsh and aquatic plants

  1. smartweeds (Polygonum spp.): the seeds of smartweeds found near and in water are an important food for ducks and songbirds; small mammals also eat these seeds. The most significant are P. persicaria (alien), P. pennsylvanicum (native), P. punctatum (native), and P. lapathifolium (alien).
  2. pondweeds (Stuckenia and Potamogeton spp.): these plants dominate lakes and ponds in our area. The seeds and plants are an important food for many birds who live around water. Stuckenia pectinatus is considered the most important species for wildlife.
  3. wild rice (Zizania spp.): wild rice seeds are a key component of the diets of waterfowl, marshbirds, shorebirds, and songbirds. Z. aquatica and Z. palustris are native to our area.
  4. bulrushes (Scirpus spp.): the seeds are an important food for birds living near water and muskrats; they are also eaten by songbirds.
  5. American eelgrass (Vallisneria americana): the foliage, seeds, and roots are all enjoyed by ducks.
  6. naiads (Najas flexilis and N. guadalupensis): the stems, leaves, and seeds are favoured by ducks.
  7. spikerushes (Eleocharis spp.): waterfowl, marshbirds, and shorebirds eat the seeds; waterfowl also eat the stems and tubers, and rabbits and muskrats eat the plants.
  8. bur-reeds (Sparganium spp.): the seeds are eaten by birds living near water, and the whole plant is used by muskrats.
  9. wild millets (Echinocloa spp.): the seeds are important for ducks, and are also used by other birds. Rabbits and muskrats eat the plants.
  10. duckweed (Lemna minor): although this is a tiny species, its abundance allows it to play an important role in the diet of ducks.


  1. Hi Rosemary, this is a fantastic list. I enjoy nature sightings in my backyard and will have to incorporate your recommendations into our backyard and garden. The animals that we typically get are lots of birds, lizards, racoons, and occasionally deer. I think the Herbaceuos plants will fair better in our climate. Feel free to cross-post this on my website and you can link back to this list on your blog. Thanks, Vince

  2. Hi Vince, thanks for the compliments.

    If you have lizards, you must be living south of here. The book where I got the information, American Wildlife & Plants by Alexander C. Martin, Herbert S. Zim, and Arnold L. Nelson (New York: Dover, 1961), has different plant lists for different regions of the U.S. It's an old book, but hopefully you could find it at a local library, like I did.

  3. Hi Rosemary,
    I too enjoy finding the creatures having food and fun in my garden. While I've got lots of native material to pick at, I'm always surprised (and sometimes delighted) to see what they've decided to add to their list. There are a pair of Gold Finches that are mad for Doronicum pardalianches seed and they look so sweet munching away. While my garden is a ragweed free zone - I'm going to watch a patch of old-fashioned Ambrosia (Select Seeds variety unknown) to see if the birds fancy their seeds - now that I've read your great list.


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