Natural Foods for Birds

A Better Option Than Feeders

Native Landscaping
Mike Howard / BLM New Mexico

It is not necessary to have multiple bird feeders to offer different dining options to backyard birds, and even the most common backyard birds get the majority of their food from natural sources, despite how often they may seem to visit feeders. It is easy to feed birds without any feeders, however, if birders know what natural food sources are preferred and how to create a bird-friendly landscape that offers a natural buffet.

Why Natural Foods Are Better Than Feeders

Natural sources of food are far better for both birds and birders than supplemental feeders, for many different reasons.

  • Natural foods will regrow and replenish themselves without needing refills, making it easier to keep offering food to birds even on a small birdseed budget or if it is more difficult to refill feeders, such as while traveling or with an otherwise busy schedule.
  • Birds easily recognize native, natural foods and will be faster to visit natural food sources instead of unfamiliar and possibly intimidating feeders. Natural foods can be especially attractive to shy birds that may not be comfortable at active feeding stations.
  • While natural foods may need some minor care such as seasonal pruning or gardening, they need far less care than feeders that require regular cleaning and repairs. In fact, over time natural foods will only increase as plants continue to grow and propagate themselves.

Natural Foods Birds Like Best

Different birds have different diet types and foraging styles, but certain foods appeal to a wide range of backyard birds.

The easiest natural foods to offer that will tempt backyard birds include:

  • Seeds and Grain: Both grasses for birds and seed-bearing flowers are nutritious options to add to backyard landscaping, and any seeds that birds miss will grow additional plants for even more food. Finches, sparrows, grouse quail, and other granivorous birds will take full advantage of natural seed-bearing food sources.
  • Fruit: Birds with a sweet tooth enjoy different fruits, and the sugar in fruits is fast energy birds eagerly eat. Berry bushes provide a variety of softer fruits, while fruit trees for birds can bear large crops that will sustain birds long into winter if the produce is allowed to stay on the trees. Orioles, catbirds, robins and woodpeckers are just some of the birds that enjoy a frugivorous diet.
  • Nuts: Peanuts, acorns, walnuts and pine nuts are rich sources of fat and protein that are favorite foods of many birds, particularly year-round residents of colder habitats, as these foods are perfect to cache for winter supplies. Planting trees or shrubs that bear these nuts will easily attract jays, nuthatches, wrens, titmice and other nut-loving birds.
  • Nectar: A sweet sip of nectar is a fast burst of natural energy that birds with exceptionally high metabolisms crave. Hummingbirds are top nectar sippers, but flowerpeckers, sunbirds and other species also enjoy flowers. To attract nectivorous birds, birders should plant the top hummingbird flowers or similar nectar-rich blooms that are native to their region.
  • Insects: Many birds, even those better known for other diets, eat copious amounts of insects for the high protein and minerals they get from that prey. From gnats, caterpillars and flies to mosquitoes, spiders and grasshoppers, all types of insects can become a bird's next meal, and warblers, flycatchers, thrushes, phoebes, vireos, and many other birds happily enjoy insects.
  • Rodents: Mice, rats, gophers, moles and voles may not be the most welcome backyard visitors, but they're a welcome treat to the birds that look to them as prey. Different backyard hawks and owls are happy to hunt these types of animals, keeping rodent populations down even while they nurture their own growing broods.

Offering Natural Foods to Birds

There are many different ways to provide natural foods to birds, and savvy backyard birders will take different steps to be sure all their birds have abundant food sources to choose from.

  • Use food-bearing plants as an integral part of bird-friendly landscaping, opting for native plants that birds will recognize more easily whenever possible.
  • Create landscaping layers to meet birds' preferences for foraging at different levels and to create a denser, more diverse buffet that will appeal to more bird species.
  • Choose plants with different growing seasons so birds have natural foods available for longer periods of time, including options in desolate winter months.
  • Minimize chemicals such as pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers that can destroy natural foods or upset the balance of a backyard ecosystem.
  • Avoid any traps or other deterrents for other backyard guests such as rodents or insects, and instead take more steps to attract birds for natural pest control.
  • Meet birds' needs for water, shelter and nesting sites so the entire yard is a great avian habitat that goes beyond just a good feeding ground.

Natural foods are always a treat for birds, and they can make feeding backyard birds even easier for birders. By understanding birds' food preferences and how to provide them a natural diet, it is simple to feed birds without a single feeder.