Shrubby Areas

Photo © John Flannery

Low-hanging Fruit

Many birds, like the Spotted Towhee, Northern Mockingbird, and Gray Catbird, choose shrubby areas to raise young and to forage. Evergreen shrubs planted as hedgerows make good nesting cover. Fruiting shrubs, both evergreen and deciduous, are rich sources of food for birds. Shrubs are also important host species for butterflies, like the spice bush butterfly caterpillar pictured above. Ideally, shrubs should be chosen that will provide seasonal fruits throughout the year.  Where space is limiting, get the most impact out of shrubs that provide 2 or more habitat requirements for birds. For example, the evergreen shrub American holly provides berries, year-round cover, and spiny leaves that deter predators (bonus: its leaves are also browse-resistant!). Alternatively, Washington hawthorn is deciduous but provides both berries and thorns. Look for any combination of these characteristics when choosing your shrubs: dense growth form, evergreen leaves, thorns or spines, persistent fruits, nectar-rich flowers, or even shade-tolerance.

Spotted Towhee

The Spotted Towhee can often be heard singing from within a shrubby patch.

Photo © Rick Leche

Amp up Diversity

One of the quickest ways you can add diversity to your yard is to plant a selection of shrubs. This adds both height and species diversity to your yard instantly. Shrubs provide that middle layer between flowers and trees, filling space that might not otherwise be occupied by plants. If you have a spacious area to devote to shrubby areas, you can manage for two kinds of bird-attracting shrublands: 1) those that have abundant tall shrubs, and 2) those that have fewer, shorter shrubs and high forb coveropen_in_new. The more diversity in plant structure, the more likely your yard will be to attract and meet the needs of a diversity of birds.

When creating your management strategy for shrublands, it is best to plan a reduction in exotic shrubs and an emphasis on natives. Why would this be true when some exotic shrubs, in fact, provide foods for birds? Recent evidence suggests that some exotic shrubs, like non-native honeysuckles, could lower nesting success for early nesters like resident Northern Cardinals and possibly other non-migratory speciesopen_in_new. If they leaf out earlier than native plants, birds can begin nesting in these shrubs sooner; higher densities of nests in certain plants make the nests more vulnerable to destruction, creating an ecological trap early in the nesting season. Combined with other ecological problems that non-native invasives can trigger, their disadvantages probably outweigh the benefits that they provide as food and nesting places. If you control invasive species, chances are good that the birds will eventually help you propagate the native shrubs on your land.

Circular Shrub Planting

Consider a circular arrangement of native wildlife-friendly shrubs in an open area. Adapted from The Audubon Society Guide to Attracting Birds by Stephen W. Kress.

Photo © Used by permission of the publisher, Cornell University Press

Beat around the bush

Got more space? Some shrub-dependent songbirds like the Chestnut-sided Warbler can be attracted to shrubby habitat as small as one acre, so don’t underestimate the value of your brushy thicket. You can magnify the allure of your landscape by trying circular, clumped shrub plantings in a sunny area. Plant five or more of the same species together in groups; taller shrubs and trees should be clumped in the center of the circle, with an outer ring of shorter shrubs. Such an arrangement has three advantages:

  1. It provides a large, conspicuous supply of fruiting shrubs for birds (try to plant different shrubs that will fruit in succession for year-round food),
  2. It allows redundancy (in case one or two of your plants die), and
  3. It provides a close source of pollen (some species of shrubs have male and female individuals that must be pollinated, like hollies and blueberries). 

Arid Shrubby Habitat

A bird bath is a cheap and easy way to attract birds to arid lands.

Photo © Arby Reed

Natural Shrublands

In the West, there are many permanent shrublands that are naturally-occurring vegetation communities, especially where water is limiting. These arid-adapted shrublands support unique birds like the Greater Roadrunner and Long-billed Thrasher. Shrubs like manzanita and sagebrush will thrive with little care. If you are lucky enough to have a natural shrubby area, just adding a birdbath might greatly improve the visibility of your sneaky, skulking shrubland birds.