Plants That Provide Food for Songbirds

Note: Link to a list combining the plants listed in all of these studies. This list excludes non-native species.  This report was compiled for Bird City Wisconsin by Vicki Piaskowski, co-author of "How to Manage Your Land to Help Birds: The Birds Without Borders - Aves Sin Fronteras® Recommendations for Landowners (Wisconsin, Midwest and eastern United States edition)."  Click here to obtain the manual.

Songbird diets

Spring migration:

During spring migration songbirds eat mainly arthropods (spiders and insects). Birds feed on flying arthropods or find food in the developing leaves and flowers of trees and shrubs. Caterpillars (Lepidoptera larvae) are the foods most commonly eaten by birds that forage on plants. (Feeny 1970, Graber and Graber 1983, Thiollay 1988, Piaskowski et al. 2008).

Birds also eat other types of arthropods. In addition to caterpillars, studies have found that birds also eat Coleoptera (beetles) and Hemiptera (true bugs) (Cooper et al. 1990, Yard et al. 2004). Sealy (1988) observed Cape May Warblers feeding on Collembola (springtails). Piaskowski et al. (2008) found that birds also feed on Diptera (flies), Hymenoptera (bees and wasps), Homoptera (cicadas and leafhoppers) and Araneae (spiders).

Piaskowski et al. (2008) examined the fecal samples of 11 species of warblers and determined the foods that most species ate a diverse variety of arthropods. Some fed mainly on one to two orders of arthropods, while others had more varied diets. Lepidoptera larvae were the main food of the Nashville and Tennessee Warblers. Diptera were the main food of the American Redstart. The Yellow-rumped Warbler fed mainly on Diptera and Hymenoptera. The arthropods most frequently eaten by the Chestnut-sided Warbler were Lepidoptera larvae, Diptera and Homoptera. The Magnolia Warbler fed on Diptera, Lepidoptera larvae, Araneae and Homoptera.

During spring migration birds can encounter unpredictable and harsh weather conditions and delayed development of vegetation; so birds may move to the edge of water to feed on flying aquatic insects (Ewert and Hamas 1996). Midges and emerging aquatic insects can be a very important early source of food for birds near lakes, coastal marshes and wetlands (Smith et al. 2004, Ewert et al. 2006). Other aquatic invertebrates are also eaten by migrants including mayflies and caddisflies (Ewert et al. 2006)

Plants that provide food during spring migration:

Piaskowski et al. (2008) found that native plants provided more arthropod food eaten by birds than non-native plants. The following plants contained high to moderate numbers of the arthropods eaten by birds:

  • Red oak

  • Pussy willow

  • Yellow bud hickory

  • Quaking aspen

  • Box elder

  • Willow species (Salix amygloides/petioloides)

  • Ash species

  • Red-osier dogwood

Ewert et al. (2006) reported migrants selectively foraging on the following plant species:

  • Oaks

  • Hickories

  • Elms

  • Willows

  • Cottonwoods

  • Box Elders

  • Hawthorns

  • Maples

Fall migration:

During fall migration many songbirds supplement their arthropod diet with a variety of fruits that grow on both native and non-native plants. Ewert et al. (2006) found that some birds avoid non-native fruits, while other studies found that birds do feed on non-native fruits (Suthers et al. 2000, Piaskowski et al. 2008).

Suthers et al. (2000) found that the abundance and/or the quality of fruits appeared to be the resource that attracted migrants to specific areas of their study site. They found that migrants ate the fruits of the following:

  • Panicled (gray) dogwood

  • Red cedar

  • Multiflora rose

Parrish (1997) found that birds fed on the fruits of the following:

  • Northern arrowwood

  • Northern bayberry

  • Pokeweed

Ewert et al. (2006) described birds also feeding on:

  • Gray dogwood

  • Honeysuckle

  • Grapes

  • Buckthorns

  • Rough-leaved dogwood

  • Mulberry

Piaskowski et al. (2008) found that birds fed on the fruits of the following:

  • Silky Dogwood

  • Black Cherry

  • Common Elderberry

  • Nannyberry

  • American highbush cranberry

  • Tartarian honeysuckle

  • Common Buckthorn

  • Glossy Buckthorn

Nowak (2007) provides extensive information on landscaping with native plants to attract birds in her book Birdscaping in the Midwest. Listed below are plants that she rates as very high in value to birds because they provide fruits, seeds, nuts or cones. She also provides information on woody vines, wildflowers, ferns, grasses, sedges and rushes that attract birds. I have not included that information here, but it may be something we want to look at when we discuss the other plantings.

Conifers

  • Red cedar [berry-like cone]

  • Juniper (Common, Trailing) [berry-like cone]

  • Pine (Jack, Red, White) [cones with seeds]

Deciduous trees

  • Box Elder [samara-"fruit"]

  • Cherry (Pin, Wild black) [berry]

  • Dogwood (Pagoda, Flowering) [berry]

  • Northern Hackberry [berry]

  • Maple (Mountain, Red, Silver, Sugar) [samara-"fruit"]

  • Oak (Black, Blackjack, Bur, Chinquapin, Pin, Northern pin, Pin, Post, Red, Scarlet, Shingle, Swamp white, White) [nut]

  • Serviceberry (Allegheny or Smooth) [berry]

Deciduous shrubs (all produce berries )

  • Common Blackberry

  • Blueberry (Early low, Highbush)

  • Choke cherry

  • Sand cherry

  • Dogwood (Gray, Red-osier, Rough-leaved, Round-leaved, Silky)

  • Elderberry (Common, Red-berried)

  • Raspberry (Black, Red)

  • Serviceberry (Dwarf, Round-leaved)

  • Spicebush

Summary of plants that provide food for songbirds during migration:

Trees:

  • Red oak

  • Pussy willow

  • Yellow bud hickory

  • Quaking aspen

  • Box elder

  • Willow species (Salix amygloides/petioloides) and other willows

  • Ash species

  • Black Cherry

  • Oaks

  • Hickories

  • Elms

  • Cottonwoods

  • Hawthorns

  • Red cedar

  • Pine (Jack, Red, White)

  • Cherry (Pin, Wild black)

  • Dogwood (Pagoda, Flowering)

  • Northern Hackberry

  • Maple (Mountain, Red, Silver, Sugar)

  • Oak (Black, Blackjack, Bur, Chinquapin, Pin, Northern pin, Pin, Post, Scarlet, Shingle, White)

  • Serviceberry (Allegheny or Smooth)

Shrubs/other:

  • Juniper (Common, Trailing)

  • Northern arrowwood

  • Northern bayberry

  • Pokeweed

  • Grapes

  • Mulberry

  • Nannyberry

  • American highbush cranberry

  • Common Blackberry

  • Blueberry (Early low, Highbush)

  • Choke cherry

  • Sand cherry

  • Dogwood (Gray, Red-osier, Rough-leaved, Round-leaved, Silky)

  • Elderberry (Common, Red-berried)

  • Raspberry (Black, Red)

  • Serviceberry (Dwarf, Round-leaved)

  • Spicebush

Literature Cited

Cooper, R. J., P. J. Martinat, and R. C. Whitmore. 1990. Dietary similarity among insectivorous birds: influence of taxonomic versus ecological categorization of prey. Studies in Avian Biology 13: 104-109.

Ewert, D. N. and M. J. Hamas. 1996. Ecology of migratory landbirds during migration in the Midwest. Management of Midwestern Landscapes for the Conservation of Neotropical Migratory Birds. USDA Forest Service GTR-NC-187: 200-208.

Ewert, D. N., G. J. Soulliere, R. D. Macleod, M. C. Sheildcastle, P. G. Rodewald, E. Fujimura, J. Shieldcastle, and R. J. Gates. 2006. Migratory Bird Stopover Site Attributes in the Western Lake Erie Basin. Report to the George Gund Foundation.

Feeny, P. F. 1970. Seasonal changes in oak leaf tannins and nutrients as a cause of spring feeding by winter moth caterpillars. Ecology 51: 565-581.

Graber, J. W. and R. R. Graber. 1983. Feeding rates of warblers in spring. Condor 85: 139-150.

Nowak, M. 2003. Beyond the birdfeeder: creating a bird-friendly yard with native Wisconsin plants. Online at: www.wsobirds.org/birdscaping.pdf

Nowak, M. 2007. Birdscaping in the Midwest: A Guide to Gardening with Native Plants to Attract Birds. Itchy Cat Press, Blue Mounds, WI.

Parrish, J. D. 1997. Patterns of frugivory and energetic condition in Nearctic landbirds during autumn migration. Condor 99: 681-697.

Piaskowski, V. D., K. M. Williams, and G. K. Boese. 2008. The Birds Without Borders – Aves Sin Fronteras® Recommendations for Landowners: How to Manage Your Land to Help Birds (Wisconsin, Midwest and eastern United States edition). Foundation for Wildlife Conservation, Inc., and Zoological Society of Milwaukee. Milwaukee, Wisconsin, U.S.A.

Sealy, S. G. 1988. Aggressiveness in migrating Cape May warblers: defense of an aquatic food source. Condor 90: 271-274.

Smith, R. J., M. J. Hamas, D. N. Ewert, and M. E. Dallman. 2004. Spatial foraging differences in American Redstarts along the shoreline of northern Lake Huron during spring migration. Wilson Bulletin 116: 48-55.

Suthers, H. B., J. M. Bickal, and P. G. Rodewald. 2000. Use of successional habitat and fruit resources by songbirds during autumn migration in central New Jersey. Wilson Bulletin 112: 249-260.

Thiollay, J. 1988. Comparative foraging success of insectivorous birds in tropical and temperate forests: ecological implications. Oikos 53: 17-30.

Yard, H. K., C. Van Riper III, B. T. Brown, and M. J. Kearsley. 2004. Diets of insectivorous birds along the Colorado River in Grand Canyon, Arizona. Condor 106: 106-115.

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