Build a Backyard Bird Haven

May 22, 2024

A review by Rebecca Minardi

100 Plants to Feed the Birds: Turn Your Home Garden into a Healthy Bird Habitat, by Laura Erickson

Storey Publishing, 2022

246 pages, paperback

I’m lucky. My patch is my backyard. When we moved to the property almost two years ago, I quickly realized our yard attracted a wealth of birds, from woodpeckers to migratory warblers. I had never hosted such a diversity of species before, and I decided our land needed to provide the best habitat for birds, especially those species that were resting and refueling amid an epic migration. Though there were many native plants in our yard when we arrived, there were also tangles of aggressive English ivy and periwinkle, brambles of invasive common buckthorn and Japanese honeysuckle, and an unfortunately large female ginkgo tree. Enter 100 Plants to Feed the Birds: Turn Your Home Garden into a Healthy Bird Habitat by Laura Erickson. This beautifully photographed primer on bringing native species to your yard is the perfect place to start for the homeowner wondering how to attract more birds.

Most of the 100 “plants” featured in this book are not species, as you might expect, but genera.  For example, one entry, “Pines”, comprises the genus Pinus, roughly 70 species of which are native to North America. Depending on your region, pines are great for attracting a variety of species, such as grouse, bobwhite, finches, and jays. Many species of pine are intimately connected with specific birds; think Jack pines and Kirtland’s Warblers, Rocky Mountain lodgepole pines and Cassia Crossbills, and longleaf pines and Red-cockaded Woodpeckers. Though a few of the 100 plants included in this book are true single species, such as trumpet vine and saw palmetto, it was interesting to read about plant genera that included myriad species important to birds.

Part I of the book, “Creating Habitat,” discusses starting and planning a backyard garden, warns against the danger of invasive plants, and encourages gardeners to focus on the seasonal needs of birds. Part II, “Plants that Support Birds” is divided into eight sections: conifers, broadleaf trees, grasses, herbaceous plants, plants that grow on trees, shrubs, vines, and cactus and yucca, and includes a diverse array of plants in each. Erickson presents each genus or plant species on several pages and includes a pictorial key to describe how birds use the plant, including whether they eat the cones, seeds, or nectar; if the plant hosts caterpillars, if it provides a nest site, and more. She also includes a range of the plants’ uses for humans and provides details about the plants’ nutritional needs, color, height, and seasons in which it is most useful to birds. Each entry provides plenty of information about how specific bird species use the plant and why some bird species are declining; for example, spruce budworm eradication programs on fir trees have devastated populations of Evening Grosbeaks. Throughout the book, Erickson points out several of the many species whose names reflect the plants they depend on, including Pine Siskin, Greater Sage-Grouse, Pinyon Jay, and Acorn Woodpecker.

From bluestem to blueberry, every entry includes a variety of photos of both the plants and the bird species that use them. I do wish each photo included the genus and species of the plant. As any new native plant gardener knows, there can be an overwhelming abundance of different species that look similar (I’m looking at you, goldenrod). Because this book is a primer, a way for a homeowner or land caretaker to get a jumpstart on understanding what plants they already have and what plants they can add, this book does not provide in-depth details such as species range maps or specific habitat requirements of some plants. There are books that can provide more information on plants for specific regions (such as the wonderful Birdscaping for the Midwest: A Guide to Gardening with Native Plants to Attract Birds by Mariette Nowak) or plants for specific ecosystems (including Prairie Up: An Introduction to Natural Garden Design by Benjamin Vogt). But 100 Plants to Feed the Birds is a lovely book showing us how we can adjust our yards to bring the birds back. As Douglas Tallamy expounded in Nature’s Best Hope, we can all change how we approach landscaping. By moving away from the national trend of hyper-manicured lawns, so drenched in chemicals that they cease to host even many soil microorganisms, we can provide shelter, food, and safety for the myriad bird species in trouble.

Erickson’s care and concern for these declining birds is evident throughout her book. She stresses the importance of making easy switches between non-native and native plants and asks homeowners to halt their use of herbicides, insecticides, and fertilizer, as they deeply harm the environment. In one of my favorite quotes, she warns against the conventional and increasingly ubiquitous lawn care company: “They use the exact same insecticides, applied over every square inch of lawn, regardless of whether your yard has ever had even one cutworm, and they apply the exact same herbicides over every square inch of lawn, whether you have six dandelions or six bazillion.” The trick then, it seems, is to remove the majority of your lawn and plant native instead!  For certain difficult-to-grow plants, such as Saguaro Cactus, a stately and extremely slow-growing species (after five years, the plant is likely only five inches!), Erickson encourages us to support organizations working on the species’ conservation and its ecosystem instead of trying to cultivate them ourselves.

If, like me, you have a yard you hope to fill with birds, 100 Plants to Feed the Birds is a great starting point for your native plant journey. I look forward to spring migration, when once again thrushes and warblers and flycatchers will flit through our small backyard woodland. Will they stop at the oaks we planted, looking for freshly hatched caterpillars? Will sparrows heading north find hidden seed yet uneaten under the winter-browned prairie in our front yard? As Erickson reminds us, “To love is an active verb. The birds who enrich our lives so very much deserve our love and our active protection.” May every yard be a welcome haven for birds.

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Rebecca Minardi is the Book and Media Reviews Editor for Birding. She was a board member of Detroit Bird Alliance for nine years, serving her last two years as Vice President and is a mentor for the ABA Young Birder of the Year Mentoring Program. She lives in Peoria, IL with her family and is studiously working on plant identification.