What would our neighborhoods be like without birds? No birdsong in the background enhancing the urban soundtrack. No feathered friends flocking to our feeders or nesting in our trees. These creatures enrich our lives.
Creating gardens that provide habitat for birds will aid their survival and ensure that our relationship with them continues.
Our yards and parks offer a great opportunity to support diverse forms of wildlife. Birds are particularly benefited by the habitats we create for them.
Feeders, bird baths and nesting boxes are all standard features for supporting birds. Plants are also essential, and bird habitat can easily be enriched by simply choosing the right plants for our yards and garden beds.
John Marzluff, an ornithologist and the author of “Welcome to Subirdia,” suggests creating bird habitat by reducing our lawns, adding more plant diversity to our gardens and increasing the amount of natural shrub cover on our properties.
Idaho is rich in native shrubs. These shrubs offer food for birds in the form of fruits, seeds and insects. They also provide sites and materials for nests as well as protection from predators and bad weather.
While basically all shrubs offer some benefit to birds and other wildlife, I selected the following shrubs to showcase because they are adapted to our local environment, are easy to grow and maintain, and look great in the landscape. They are also notable for being used regularly by our native birds.
▪ Oakleaf sumac (Rhus trilobata) is a very drought-tolerant shrub with an appealing round shape. It produces small red fruits that are enjoyed by songbirds. Its foliage is striking in the fall, turning shades of red, yellow and orange.
▪ Saskatoon serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia) produces beautiful white flowers in mid- to late spring followed by small red-purple fruits that are eaten almost immediately by a variety of birds including waxwings, grosbeaks and orioles. It finishes the year with memorable fall color.
▪ Golden currant (Ribes aureum) produces bright yellow flowers in early spring followed by tempting, orange fruits that call in a number of songbirds. It can handle shade and dry soils.
▪ Redosier dogwood (Cornus sericea) produces beautiful clusters of white to blue berries in the summer. Its dense, multi-stemmed growth makes it great cover for birds, and its red bark gives it unique winter interest.
▪ Snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus) is a dense, spreading shrub that benefits many of our native birds. Snowberry, like most shrubs, is host to a number of caterpillars, which provide protein for birds during reproduction. The eye-catching clusters of white fruits produced in late summer are not immediately chosen by birds, but their persistence through the winter offers much-needed food during cold months when there is little else.
▪ The fruits of Greene’s mountain ash (Sorbus scopulina) are also a great food source for winter birds. This small tree has large, compound leaves and a shrubby habit. Its wide clusters of small, white flowers bloom in midsummer followed by very attractive groupings of red-orange fruits. It is adapted to moist, slightly acidic soils but can perform well in other sites.
▪ Another small tree, Douglas hawthorn (Crateagus douglasii), provides excellent habitat for birds with its protective, large thorns and its nutritious and abundant fruits. The shiny red bark on young branches, as well as ominous thorns, give it great winter interest.
Other small trees like silver buffaloberry, chokecherry and Rocky Mountain juniper are havens for birds, and the evergreen foliage of shrubs such as curl-leaf mountain mahogany and Oregon grape help provide cover and protection throughout the winter.
There are many other native shrubs that make valuable bird habitat. All are worth trying. For beginners, pick one or two from this list to add to your yard. With increased shrub cover, a water source and a bird feeder, you should start to see more birds visiting your property. More backyard bird habitat means better protection for these beautiful animals in otherwise harsh urban environments.
If you have questions about what native shrubs are right for you and where to find them, consult the Idaho Native Plant Society (idahonativeplants.org) or visit the Idaho Botanical Garden (idahobotanicalgarden.org), where all of these plants and more can be found on display.
The Idaho Botanical Garden is at 2355 Old Penitentiary Road in Boise.
Daniel Murphy is a horticulturist at the Idaho Botanical Garden.