When you compare the birds of a manicured lawn with those that inhabit a grove of chokecherries, the difference is stark. The lawn might support a few starlings and robins. Perhaps, late in spring migration, a handful of desperate Swainson’s thrushes might stop by. The chokecherries, on the other hand, support an intricate community of life, from two-tailed swallowtail butterflies to dozens of species of songbirds. When the fruits ripen in late summer to a deep, juicy black, they attract cedar waxwings, Townsend’s solitaires, western tanagers, American robins, and house finches. Meanwhile, throughout the growing season, the foliage supports a diversity of insects – and the birds that eat them. Flitting among the leaves, you can find Wilson’s warblers, ruby-crowned kinglets, yellow-rumped warblers, and warbling vireos.
When we consider the diversity of life around us, it’s easy to see a lot of bad news these days. We’ve lost 2.9 billion breeding birds in North America over the last 50 years. Scientists have reported steep declines of once-common insects. But by making a few simple decisions about what we plant in our gardens, we can be part of reversing these trends. In our yards, parks, and neighborhoods, we can provide homes for the birds, bees, and caterpillars. But doing this isn’t just about avoiding extinctions – it’s also a lot of fun.
This article is focused on plants for bird-friendly gardens in the western half of Montana, USA. If you live elsewhere, the specific plants will be different, but the general recommendations will be the same.
Getting started: habitat for birds
Every species of bird is unique in its life story. The habitats it uses, the foods it eats, where it nests, whether it migrates – all of this varies. Nevertheless, all birds need food, shelter, water, and safety from predators. Plants provide excellent food and shelter – especially particular species of plants that are native to the local landscape. But before we get into the specifics of these plants, let’s consider water and predators.
Some birds, such as American kestrels, can get most or all of the moisture they need from their food. Otherwise, birds need to drink water. Including a source of water in your garden, such as a regularly cleaned bird bath or a backyard wetland, can attract birds to drink or bathe.
Watch out for predators
What about predators in our yards? Outdoor cats are incredibly deadly for neighborhood songbirds. In the United States alone, cats kill well over a billion birds a year. This number is so large that it’s almost unimaginable. But there are a lot of outdoor cats in the United States: around 50 million pets, in addition to as many as 100 million feral cats. Managing outdoor cats, especially feral ones, can be a contentious topic. But keeping your own cats indoors is a relatively easy step to take. By doing so, you’ll help ensure that your bird-friendly garden doesn’t become a death trap for songbirds.
Windows may not be predators, but they’re another deadly neighborhood hazard for songbirds. In the United States, they’re estimated to kill over 350 million birds a year. An article by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology gives an overview of this issue and discusses several solutions. Of these, Acopian Bird Savers are probably one of the most elegant. This is an unobtrusive, low-tech design that consists of vertical rows of cords, spaced four inches apart, that hang from the outside of the window. You can make your own out of parachute cord or bamboo, or you can order them online.
Including different habitat features
Broadly speaking, all birds are associated with one or more of three general habitats: forest, prairie, or wetland. What habitats make up the larger landscape surrounding you? The answer to this question will shape the possibilities for your bird-friendly garden.
Is your home in the middle of a Douglas-fir forest, or is it in a valley-bottom subdivision? Clark’s nutcrackers probably won’t visit your garden unless you have patches of conifers close to you. Similarly, you probably won’t attract marsh wrens or Wilson’s snipes to your yard unless you live very close to a wetland. Meanwhile, many prairie birds need relatively large patches of grasses and herbs. So unless this describes the area around your house, you probably won’t have grasshopper sparrows or western meadowlarks in your yard. Many birds of thickets and forest edges, on the other hand, will readily use yards during migration or the breeding season. And, of course, there are a variety of birds that use more than one of these habitats.
In general, in order to make your yard more inviting for birds, it’s worth considering components of all three habitats: forest, prairie, and wetland. A small water feature probably won’t attract Wilson’s snipes – but, once again, a bit of water in the yard will allow birds to drink and bathe. A prairie patch the size of a front yard is unlikely to bring in grasshopper sparrows, but it will offer important seeds and insects for thicket-edge birds such as chipping sparrows. And patches of native shrubs or trees, such as chokecherries, provide food and cover for a wide diversity of migrating and nesting songbirds.
Why native plants?
You’ve probably noticed that I keep mentioning native plants for birds. Why does this matter? you might be wondering. Perhaps you’ve noticed that robins and Bohemian waxwings often eat the fruits of Russian-olive (Elaeagnus angustifolia), a frequently-planted invasive that escapes from cultivation to compete with the cottonwoods and willows along our waterways. Or you might have noticed a house finch or pileated woodpecker pecking at an apple, another non-native fruit.
Yes, there are non-native plants that certain birds will use. But, all things considered, native plants are far superior for our birds. Why? It comes down to food – and, specifically, insects. Doug Tallamy, a researcher who has spent decades studying birds and insects, writes that 96% of North American land birds rely heavily on insects during the breeding season. Soft, juicy caterpillars are especially important. And whereas native plants have coevolved with native insects, non-native plants are comparative deserts for insect diversity.
A non-native plant like Russian-olive may still provide fruits that feed a few species. But in comparison with a chokecherry or another native plant, it’s much less useful for most of our birds. If you want to attract an abundance of birds to your yard, then native plants are the way to go.
Okay, which plants should I plant for the birds? you’re probably asking. Here are some recommendations for western Montana, organized by the foods they provide.
Native plants for insects
What sorts of native plants provide our birds with the most insects? In order to give region-specific recommendations, Doug Tallamy and Kimberley Shropshire teamed up with the National Wildlife Federation to create an interactive website, searchable by zip code. For each zip code, this tool predicts the number of caterpillar species that different native plants will support. And in North America, it turns out, wherever you are, just a handful of native plants support most of the caterpillars.
Around Helena, Montana, willows are at the top of the list. These shrubs host up to 309 species of caterpillars – juicy protein packets to feed our nesting birds. Many of our native willows grow in wetlands, but Scouler’s willow (Salix scouleriana) and sandbar willow (Salix exigua) are common species that often grow in somewhat drier areas.
Cottonwoods and aspens are also high on the list, hosting up to 245 butterflies and moths. Among the cottonwoods are black cottonwood (Populus balsamifera) and plains cottonwood (Populus deltoides) – but keep in mind that these trees are notorious for dropping branches. Meanwhile, quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides) forms thickets from underground rhizomes. For these reasons, cottonwoods and aspens are best-suited for larger yards.
Chokecherry (Prunus virginiana) and American plum (Prunus americana) are thicket-forming shrubs that are excellent for bird habitat. (They support up to 227 species of caterpillars – and check out this article for an exploration of other miniature insects that live on chokecherries.) However, if you live in an area with a high risk of bear conflicts, keep in mind that chokecherries and plums can attract bears when the fruits get ripe in the fall.
Birches, alders, and pines
Our native birches host 211 species of caterpillars. Water birch (Betula occidentalis) is a small tree that often grows along streams; paper birch (Betula papyrifera) gets much larger. And birches do more than just provide lots of insects. Their trunks (like those of cottonwoods and aspens) also make popular homes for cavity-nesting birds like black-capped chickadees and house wrens. (If you don’t want to wait for your trees to grow, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology also provides thorough instructions for nest box construction.) The related thinleaf alder (Alnus incana) is a large shrub or small tree that hosts 196 species of butterflies and moths.
Among the conifers, pines (Pinus spp.) are important for caterpillars, supporting up to 188 species. Around Helena, ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa) and limber pine (Pinus flexilis) are good options. However, keep in mind that they grow to be rather large trees. Also, depending on your surroundings, you might not want to plant them near your house due to fire risk.
Goldenrods, strawberries, and more
What about herbaceous plants? For caterpillars, goldenrod is at the top of the list, hosting 65 species. Common goldenrods in Montana include giant goldenrod (Solidago gigantea), Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis), and Missouri goldenrod (Solidago missouriensis). These plants are commonly blamed for late-summer allergies, but this is a myth: the culprits are typically ragweeds (Ambrosia spp.), which bloom around the same time.
Other herbs that support substantial numbers of butterflies and moths are native strawberries and sunflowers. Wild strawberries (Fragaria virginiana and Fragaria vesca) are low-growing; they may not compete well with taller, more vigorous plants. Sunflowers, on the other hand, are both tall and vigorous. In Montana, common sunflower (Helianthus annuus) is an abundant annual that often grows along roadsides. We also have two common perennial species, Nuttall’s sunflower (Helianthus nuttallii) and Maximilian sunflower (Helianthus maximiliani).
Lupines and sagebrushes are also worthy of mention, supporting up to 40 and 35 species of caterpillars, respectively. Silvery lupine (Lupinus argenteus) and silky lupine (Lupinus sericeus) are a couple of Montana’s common lupines. Sagebrushes are very diverse in Montana and include shrubs such as big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata) and silver sagebrush (Artemisia cana) as well as herbs such as fringed sage (Artemisia frigida) and white sagebrush (Artemisia ludoviciana).
Native plants for fruits
I’ve already mentioned chokecherry for the diversity of insects that it hosts. In addition to the insects, this shrub is also a phenomenal fall fruit resource for cedar waxwings, American robins, and many other birds. And besides chokecherry, there’s a wide selection of other native fruits that attract birds, from July onwards through the winter. Many of these plants also host a notable diversity of caterpillars (though they support fewer species of caterpillars than the shrubs and trees I’ve already mentioned).
Red-osier dogwood (Cornus sericea) offers clusters of small white fruits from mid-summer through fall. Gray catbirds and white-crowned sparrows are among the birds that feed on them. This medium-sized shrub also has brilliant red fall foliage.
The native currants – such as golden currant (Ribes aureum) and bristly gooseberry (Ribes setosum) – are some of the earliest fruits to ripen in the summer. They provide a tasty snack for birds and people alike. Serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia) is another popular summer fruit for cedar waxwings, western tanagers, and thrushes.
Elderberry, snowberry, and more
Blue elderberry (Sambucus cerulea) ripens in the fall, as does western mountain-ash (Sorbus scopulina). The snowberries – common snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus) and western snowberry (Symphoricarpos occidentalis) – also ripen in the fall, but their fruits stick around through the winter. So do the wild roses, such as Woods’ rose (Rosa woodsii) and Nootka rose (Rosa nutkana). Silver buffaloberry (Shepherdia argentea) is a great fall fruit that sometimes remains through mid-winter. Note that this is a large, thorny bush, though, and separate male and female plants are needed for pollination.
Rocky Mountain juniper (Juniperus scopulorum) is a tall shrub that provides winter “berries” (actually fleshy cones) for Bohemian waxwings, Townsend’s solitaires, and American robins. Keep in mind that juniper, like silver buffaloberry, has separate male and female plants, so you’ll need both in your general area for pollination to occur. Juniper is also highly flammable – so it’s probably not a good idea to plant it in areas with high fire risk. Montana also has two lower-growing juniper species that provide options for smaller spaces: horizontal juniper (Juniperus horizontalis) and common juniper (Juniperus communis).
Native plants for seeds
Many birds – such as American goldfinches, American tree sparrows, and pine siskins – commonly feed on seeds. In the case of sparrows, it’s often hard to see exactly what they’re eating, since they feed on the ground. Nevertheless, a few seed-bearing plants are especially noteworthy for the birds they attract. Montana’s native sunflowers – the annual common sunflower and the perennial Nuttall’s and Maximilian sunflowers – reliably attract goldfinches and pine siskins when their seeds ripen in the fall. Our pines, such as ponderosa and limber pine, feed nomadic groups of conifer-seed specialists such as red crossbills and Clark’s nutcrackers. Thinleaf alder, water birch, and paper birch provide winter seeds that often attract common redpolls and pine siskins. And many other native plants, from asters to grasses, also produce seeds that various finches and sparrows may use.
Native plants for nectar
What about hummingbirds? These tiny, beloved hoverers often catch tiny insects – so providing habitat for insects is important to them, too. In addition, they’re well-known for their nectar-feeding habits. A variety of native plants with long, tubular flowers are popular hummingbird plants. These include orange honeysuckle (Lonicera ciliosa), yellow columbine (Aquilegia flavescens), scarlet gilia (Ipomopsis aggregata), beebalm (Monarda fistulosa), and the penstemons. Among western Montana’s common penstemons are Alberta beardtongue (Penstemon albertinus), fuzzy-tongue penstemon (Penstemon eriantherus), and small-flower beardtongue (Penstemon procerus). In addition, some of the plants I’ve already mentioned for insects or fruits – such as golden currant – are popular nectar sources for hummingbirds.
Where can you find these plants? Some local nurseries, such as GardenWerks in Helena, carry a limited selection of native plants. In addition, I was able to find three retail nurseries in western and central Montana that offer a wide selection of natives:
- Blake Nursery, Big Timber, MT: https://www.blakenursery.com/
- Center for Native Plants, Whitefish, MT: https://centerfornativeplants.com/
- Pipilo Native Plants, Charlo, MT: https://www.pipilonatives.com/
(A fourth nursery, Southwest Montana Native Landscapes, has unfortunately closed, though it still shows up on a Google search.)
To find out more, I contacted these nurseries and asked them which plants they stock, of those I list in this article. Find their responses here.
In addition to these retail nurseries, there are a few other commercial sources of native plants in western Montana. For larger projects, the Montana Conservation Seedling Nursery and Great Bear Native Plants accept wholesale orders. And if you want to start your own plants, Native Ideals sells locally grown seeds for a variety of Montana species.
Note that certain nurseries that don’t specialize in native plants may “stretch” the concept of “native” to include species that aren’t from Montana. For example, Penstemon strictus is sometimes sold as a native plant, but it grows in the wild in the southern Rocky Mountains and doesn’t reach Montana. When in doubt, look a plant up on the Montana Natural Heritage Program’s Montana Field Guide to learn about its status in the state, or check out the Biota of North America Program’s county-level range maps. These maps are organized by genus and show the distribution, by county, of all wild and naturalized plants in the United States.
The bird-friendly garden
Is this a comprehensive list of all of the plants that are important for bird-friendly gardening in Montana? No! I’ve neglected to mention native maples (Acer spp.), raspberries (Rubus spp.), hawthorns (Crataegus spp.), and many others.
When it comes to growing habitat for birds, there are always more plants you can add. But even if you do nothing more than add a patch of chokecherries and a handful of goldenrods to your yard, where previously there was just lawn, you’ll have made a good start. As the chokecherries leaf out in the spring, wait for the yellow-rumped warblers to appear, hunting insects. When the fruits ripen in the fall, look for the flocks of cedar waxwings and robins. And if you have the space in your yard to include all of the plants I’ve mentioned here, along with a water source… in a few years, your yard will be a paradise for birds.
This story was produced with support from the Gold Country Master Gardener Association.
Acopian Bird Savers: prevent birds from flying into windows. Retrieved from https://www.birdsavers.com/
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7 Replies to “How to grow a bird-friendly garden in western Montana”
Nice article, Shane! Also, I love your wonderful photos.
Thanks, Shanna! 🙂
So excellently done, Shane- you covered all kinds of ground (and plants!) in a very readable way. And so timely and hopeful- timely given both the challenges our land birds continue to face, and the advent of spring and planting hopes; and hopeful in that we can each make a huge difference, and you’ve spelled out how. Thanks!
I agree with Shanna- your photos are incredible and add so much. Who wouldn’t be inspired at the thought of more such visitors to our yards? (:
I’m thinking you deliberately chose to simplify by not discussing cultivars of native plants? I feel our Missoula urban forester misleads folks by talking about “near natives” as if they are identical to non-cultivars in the way that our native wildlife interacts with them….
Thanks, Kate! Great point about cultivars – or not – of native plants. In general, my inclination would always be to use non-cultivars that originally come from responsibly-collected local seeds or cuttings, because these are the plants our local insects have evolved with and they preserve lots of genetic diversity (i.e. they aren’t all one genetically identical cultivar). See this article that presents some more of this reasoning. In Doug Tallamy’s book, which I list in the “further reading” section, he also discusses this issue and some studies that have been done on it. In particular, he mentions that cultivars with altered foliage color seem to be less attractive to caterpillars – while flowers that have been bred for particular characteristics, such as double roses, seem to be less interesting for pollinators. Cultivars that have been changed in other ways may not be as problematic, but with native plants I’d still choose a non-cultivar over a cultivar if both are available.
I’m with you! The article you linked adds another interesting risk with cultivars that I hadn’t thought about: the potential of genetically weak cultivars crossing with true species natives and weakening the population as a whole. Your thoughtful and articulate response is super helpful.
Great article Shane!
Thanks, David! 🙂