Heather N. Kolich, ANR Agent, UGA Extension Forsyth County

Spring this year has brought forth an abundance of blooms on flowering trees and shrubs – so much different than what we saw after the late winter freezes of 2023. Now that the danger of a late frost is behind us, many of us are eager to add new landscape plants or replace unsatisfactory ones.

a passion flower in full bloom and a Baltimore oriole perched on a branch.
Passionflowers produce an edible fall fruit that attracts orioles, warblers, finches, and other birds, and the climbing vine is a desirable nesting place for several bird species. Photo by Rebekah Wallace, UGA Bugwood, and Paul Crook on Unsplash

The spring bird migration is also underway, and birds will be visiting our yards seeking shelter, water, and food. With thoughtful selection, plants can benefit birds and add another layer of enjoyment – music and motion – to our landscapes.

Trees, shrubs, vines, and ground cover plants provide resting places for birds as well as escape cover from predators. Native plants are a natural choice for resident and migratory birds. Flowering native plants, such as serviceberry and redbud trees, smooth sumac and wax myrtle shrubs, Virginia creeper and passionflower vines, and herbaceous flowers like asters, beebalm, and black-eyed-Susans produce seeds, berries, and fruits in different seasons to nourish birds year-round. Native plants draw moths and beetles that feed insectivorous birds, and the foliage is the feeding ground for caterpillars, a primary food source for many bird species and their nestlings.

Including a variety of native plants in the landscape can attract numerous bird species during both the spring and fall migrations. Broadleaf evergreen plants help protect birds from weather in all seasons. Many native plants have thorns to protect themselves from browsing animals, but thorns also create shelter, as small birds can slip through thorny branches to escape from predators.

Two images, on the left a brown thrasher, a bird native to Georgia. On the right, bright yellow blooms of Forsythia
Native, early-spring blooming Forsythia shrubs are a favored nesting site for Georgia’s state bird, the brown thrasher. Photos by Joshua J. Cotton on Unsplash and Heather Kolich, UGA Extension.

Because different species of birds use different plant materials to build nests, roost at different heights, and eat different foods, plant selection can influence which birds frequent your created habitat. For example, brown thrashers, Georgia’s state bird, nest on or very near the ground in a shrub, tree, or vine tangle. Forsythia and gooseberry shrubs, honey locust trees, and crossvine are among preferred nesting sites for brown thrashers.

By contrast, chickadees, nuthatches, and red-tailed hawks prefer to be high in trees, such as American beeches, tulip poplars, and pines. Between seeds, fruits, and insects, native trees host food for hundreds of species of birds. Audubon’s Plants for Birds website (https://www.audubon.org/plantsforbirds) is a great resource for matching native plants with birds of interest.

One native bird, Chuck-will’s-widow, is the focus of Birds Georgia’s Plants for Birds Initiative for 2023-25. This nocturnal, insect-hunting bird is in the nightjar species, along with Eastern Whip-poor-wills and Common Nighthawks. While all nightjars are characterized by long wings, short legs, and a short beak, Chuck-will’s-widows are noticeably larger than their Georgia cousins.

a well camouflaged Chuck-will's widow bird is nesting on the ground. The coloring of the bird and coloring of the ground make it challenging to discern between them.
Chuck-will’s-widow is a nocturnal, ground-nesting bird that devours night-flying insects. With a decline in population, it is the 2023-25 species of concern for Birds Georgia, which is partnering with UGA’s Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources to learn more about this elusive species.

Chucks sport a brown, black, and buff feather pattern that helps them blend in with woodland leaf litter – an important feature for the ground-nesting species that spends the breeding season in the southern U.S. states. The birds have large, flat heads and very large eyes to spot prey in twilight. They fly close to the ground, scooping moths, beetles, and other flying insects into their enormous mouths.

Chucks are inactive during the day and are usually only noticed when they call at night. Their songs are easily confused with Eastern whip-poor-wills, and their other calls could be mistaken for croaking frogs. After breeding season, they fly far south to overwinter.

Little is known about the preferred breeding conditions and habitats of Chucks, but the Breeding Bird Survey, an annual citizen science bird species count conducted by skilled birdwatchers across the North American continent, indicates that the population of Chuck-will’s-widows is in decline. Birds Georgia and the University of Georgia Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources have teamed up to learn more about migratory habits, brood success, and habitat needs of these elusive birds.

On the left, a bright blue Indigo bunting perched in a tree. On the right a black-eyed Susan in bloom.
Native flowers like black-eyed-Susans provide seeds for indigo buntings and other birds during fall migration. Photos by Kelsey Weinkauf and Joshua J. Cotton on Unsplash.

Habitat loss is a leading cause of population decline for many native wildlife species. As individuals and communities, we can begin reversing this trend by adding native plants to our landscapes and restoring natural biodiversity.