Top 10 Plants For British Garden Birds

Jo.Baker
Published on January 26th 2020
30
a blackbird in a bush of berries
If you're taking part in the RSPB's Big Garden Birdwatch this weekend, you may be wondering what you can do to attract more birds to your garden.
During the winter, we put out bird feed and watching them hop, squabble and squawk around the feeders. Watching the birds is one of my family's pleasures during the colder months. Although the dog does get upset with pigeons.
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As well as being highly entertaining, garden birds are also my best bug hunters. Their beaks reach those corners my fingers can't and save me time on other forms of pest control.
Although providing feed is a good place to start, different environments that offer a range of shelter, food and nesting sites could persuade our non-migrating visitors to stay permanently.
To help, I've put together a list of the top ten plants for British garden birds.
Red apples hanging in bunches from a Crab apple tree.

Trees

  • Malus sylvestris. Who doesn't like apples? The ripe fruit in autumn will tempt many British garden birds to pop in: robins, starlings, greenfinches and thrushes in particular. This native tree's spring blossom will also attract pollinators, and its trunk, branches and bark can house over 90 different insect species.
  • Ilex. Female hollies will hold their berries until January, providing food for blackbirds, fieldfares, redwings and song thrushes.
Evergreen varieties will provide us with winter colour and garden birds with shelter. Thirty-six different types of insects are known to feed on hollies, making them a good source of food throughout the year.

Shrubs

  • Pyracantha is the heaviest berry bearer. If your neighbourhood has a lot of cats, its thorny branches also provide some protection from attack.
You can clip this shrub to any shape to fit the space available, and it will happily keep growing. It will mean you do have to cut it regularly, especially near paths as those thorns can hurt.
  • Cotoneaster. There is a species of cotoneaster for almost all soil conditions and they come in every shape, from ground cover to a small tree.
Their abundant small red berries ripen from autumn onwards and are particular favourites of blackbirds, thrushes and waxings. Small-leaved varieties will also provide lots of nesting possibilities.
The fallen leaves, if left uncollected, also provide habitat for insects to overwinter - a buffet for birds to dig through on frost-free days.
A close up of frost covered red berries on a cotoneaster shrub.

Climbers

  • Hedra helix. Common wild ivy is my favourite weed and the best plant on this list for British garden birds. Happy in most soils and dark corners, it also provides us with cover for ugly fences or walls.
This plant also offers perfect nesting sites, complete with dense cover and winter berries. As it flowers later, is an essential source of nectar for many species.
Its vigour does mean it needs managing. Delay cutting back until after fruiting but before the nesting session starts. Maybe not a plant for a small garden.
A close up of the black berries surrounded by the green leaves of an Ivy.
  • Lonicera. The scent of honeysuckle will attract pollinating insects and aphids, maybe not ideal for gardeners, but useful to hungry birds. On the up side, they can work to distract wildlife from your more valuable plants.
The tangle stems can provide nesting sites, and a clutch of nestlings will soon get through a large number of your garden pests.
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Perennials

  • Aster. These late summer flowers are brilliant border plants. And if you leave the stems until spring, they will provide foraging wrens with seed heads to perch on.
Asters spread out by sending runners under the soil, but the new shoots can be easily pulled up in spring.
  • Cirsium thistles can be a problem as they self-seed so much. Although a nuisance for gardener, this makes them a brilliant food source for finches.
There are alternatives such Echinops Globe thistles, which make lovely additions to gardens. In vegetable areas, cardoons and artichokes could be allowed to go to seed.

Annual/Biennial

  • Helianthus. Sunflowers are a perfect way to get children interesting in gardening. They are easy to grow and come in all different sizes and colours.
Their seed heads will attract finches, tits, sparrows and siskins. Just remember they may need some support, and if the stem breaks in autumn weather, you can cut the head off and place it somewhere safe for the birds to access.
  • Dipsacus. Teasel's prickly stems and seed heads are easily identified and will grow in any soil that maintains some moisture. Although they don't flower until the second year after they're planted, they are well worth the wait. Tits and goldfinches searching for insects love them, clinging to those prickly stems to pick through the seed heads.
A close up of a Teasel seed head back lit with winter sun.
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