How to Build a Bird Garden in Wisconsin

Watching backyard birds is relaxing, entertaining, and educational. Seeing a bright red cardinal in the middle of winter is uplifting. A visit from a ruby-throated hummingbird outside the breakfast nook can be a great way to start the day. Whether you are knowledgeable about the birds that visit your yard or just want to sit back, relax, and observe, it’s well worth the time and effort to encourage them to your garden. The foundation of your bird garden is plants that offer food, shelter, and nesting. This common garden practice is often called, “birdscaping”.

To get the most pleasure out of your birdscape, be selective about which plants you choose to develop a habitat that’s conducive to attracting and viewing birdlife. Increasing the bird population in your yard can be as easy as planting a single tree. Add a shrub or two, some perennials for color, and suddenly you have an inviting bird haven for the summer. A bench placed nearby, and some patience will reward your efforts.

how to build a bird garden in wisconsin johnson's nursery pdf handout on birdscaping img

Wisconsin Native Plants in Your Bird Garden

Plants are the foundation of the food web. Generally, native plants attract the most varieties of birds. Native birds prefer native insects, and native insects have evolved alongside native plants. Native plants benefit native insects, and native insects benefit native birds.

1. A Bird Garden Offers Shelter

birds hiding in dense plants like evergreens in your wisconsin bird garden

Certain plants will give birds a place to hide during bad weather.

  • Most evergreens.
  • Dense thorny plants, such as hawthorns and shrub roses, provide a safe-haven from predators.
  • Dense shrubs or trees like Blackhaw Viburnum and Musclewood are great choices.
  • In urban areas, the most important tree is the Arborvitae, where small sparrows and chickadees will dart into them for cover.

2. A Bird Garden Offers Nesting

baby birds in a nest in your bird garden

Having these plants in your yard increase your likelihood of having nests full of baby birds outside your window. You can’t have birds without the babies. And you can’t have babies without the nests.

  • The peeling bark strips from ninebark shrubs.
  • The fluffy seed heads of common milkweed.
  • Don’t cut back ornamental grasses in fall- birds will pluck off the dried leaves in spring.
  • Crabapple trees and Pines provide excellent cover and have branches with ideal crotch angles to build a nest in.

3. Offer Bathing and Clean Drinking Water

birds drinking from a water fountain in your wisconsin bird garden

If you don’t live near a natural water source, you need to have a bird bath. Keep the basin clean by scrubbing to remove any build up and fill it with fresh water often. Bird baths come in many different colors and materials, easily providing a functional and beautiful accent in your garden.

  • A bird bath or a small pond provides an excellent location for feather cleaning.
  • Birds will drink water throughout the year if a heater is used during cold weather.
  • Some plants such as Cuplant capture rainwater in their cup shaped leaves.
  • Running or dripping water is particularly attractive to birds, especially warblers- even a small fountain is inviting.

4. A Bird Garden Offers Food

Feeding birds is crucial for attracting them. While seed, nut, and suet feeders provide food for birds, appealing to insect and fruit eating birds is the key to a successful bird garden.

birds eating from bird feeder with seeds in your wisconsin bird garden
FEEDERS: Strategically place feeders, close to cover, yet with open access for landing are most effective. You can attract elusive birds like Orioles, Scarlet Tanagers, or Hummingbirds by hanging nectar feeders or sliced fruit from tree branches.
american filbert corylus americana wisconsin native shrub nuts for your bird garden

NUT/SEED PLANTS: Nuts and seeds of plants are a major component of some bird’s diets, especially in winter. Blue jays are fun to watch as they crack acorns, while pine siskins prefer the seeds of White Spruce and pines.

Pictured above: American Filbert (Corylus americana)

“I love plants that have flowers with a sweet fragrance in the bird garden, like Hawthorn Trees, Dogwoods, and Viburnums. Musty-scented flowers are magnets to certain insects."
- Carrie


american elderberry wisconsin native shrub fruits for your bird garden

FRUIT AND FLOWERS: Not only do flowers house tasty insects, but those flowers become tasty fruit in mid to late summer. Robins, catbirds, and cedar waxwings relish small fruits such as crabapples, elderberries, dogwoods, and serviceberries.

Pictured above: American Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis)

white eyed vireo feeding caterpillars to young by doug tallamy bird garden
INSECTS: Insects are plentiful in summer and provide the most nutritional benefit, being high in protein and calories and are especially important to growing baby birds. It might seem counterintuitive to attract bugs to your yard, but the birds will certainly thank you. Oaks, dogwoods, sunflowers, and asters are some of the best plants to bring on the bug buffet.

“Insects are often unfairly treated as enemies of the garden, but in fact most insects are quite beneficial. They’re an important part of a balanced ecosystem, especially when creating a “birdscape”; Because if you want the birds, you gotta have the bugs!"
- Carrie

A few of my recommendations for plants with good food value.


Breeding Season: Mid-May through Mid-July
Migration Period (flight to Central & South America): Mid-July through Mid-September
Winter Survival Fitness (winter homes): Mid-September through Mid-March
Migration Period/Survival Fitness (flight to North America): Mid-March though Mid-June

5. A Bird Garden Includes Planting Levels/Tiers

northern flicker on a crabapple tree at johnson's nursery bird garden

Northern Flicker on Crabapple in winter.

The design of a birdscape is very important. Include all three levels when creating your bird garden.

  1. Upper-Level Canopy: Selecting certain trees for your yard will give you a distinct advantage when making a bird garden. The upper tree canopy is not only used for roosting but for insect hunting as well. Maple and Hickory trees are excellent shade trees and birds will forage for insects in the leaf buds and bark. The more dappled shade of birch trees hides insects inside catkins and small seeds.
  2. Mid-Level Plants: The mid-level, consisting of shrubs and small trees afford more protection than the upper level. Woodpeckers, Nuthatches and Catbirds are often be found perched within a Northern Bayberry.
  3. Ground Level: Robins, Juncos and Doves are primarily seen feeding on the ground level of perennials and turf. Complete your bird garden with the bright colors of Milkweed, Blazing Star, Aster, Goldenrod, and Purple Coneflowers! These sun-loving perennials can easily be grouped around trees and shrubs to keep all the action in one corner of the yard.

PRO TIP

Design your plantings to correlate with certain bird migratory patterns. After a long trip across country, having specific meals waiting for them is a great way to attract them to your yard.

The Most Successful Bird Gardens Combine Multiple Elements

woodpecker on swamp white oak at johnson's nursery bird garden wisconsin

Woodpecker on Swamp White Oak in winter.

Apple Serviceberry: A Multi-season, Multi-food Producer

  • They’re available in Tree Form and Shrub Form (use in multiple tier levels).
  • While you enjoy the clean, white flowers in spring, the flowers attract insects (spring food for birds).
  • In June, this plant develops fruit (summer food for birds).

Oak Species: A Powerhouse Plant for Birds

  • The corky bark catches wind-swept seeds and provide insect homes/shelter.
  • The acorns will also feed nut-loving birds and mammals later in the season.

These are only a few of the MANY different plants that satisfy multiple elements of a successful bird garden. There are so many to choose from. So, where to start? Natives are a great start. They inherently offer visually attractive features and benefits to our local food web.

We invite you to check out the Wisconsin Native Plant Guide.