DUTCHESS COUNTY, N.Y. -- While a number of overwintering birds will appreciate persistent fruit from trees and shrubs in your yard during the cold months , not all birds eat the same foods. Quite a few non-migratory birds depend upon seeds, nuts and acorns to survive from fall through the winter. You can offer birds purchased seed, but don’t forget to grow a source of natural foods for a balanced diet.
Many native grasses and perennials are excellent sources of seeds for birds – but, only if you leave these plants standing through the winter. Resist the urge to tidy up in the fall and wait to cut back your perennials and grasses in the spring. Even the tiniest of seeds can be a welcome meal to a hungry bird.
Keep in mind that many hybridized plants will have limited seeds, or sometimes no seeds at all. Some non-native ornamental grasses, such as Miscanthus, (Chinese Silver Grass) have been listed as invasive species, and should be avoided. Stick with true native plants for best results.
Spring is coming soon, so keep an eye out for these native grasses and perennials that will add beauty to your garden while providing a natural food source for birds in winter.
Native Grasses With Seeds for Birds
- Androgopon gerardii Big Bluestem
- Bouteloua curtipendula Side Oats Grama
- Calamagrostis canadensis Bluejoint Grass
- Deschampsia cespitosa Tufted Hairgrass
- Elymus canadensis Canada Wild Rye
- Elymus hystrix Bottlebrush Grass
- Eragrostis spectabilis Purple Love Grass
- Muhlenbergia capillaris Pink Muhly Grass
- Panicum virgatum Switchgrass
- Schizachyrium scoparium Little Bluestem
- Sorghastrum nutans Indian Grass
- Sporobolus heterolepis Prarire Dropseed
Late Season Native Perennials for Birds
- Ageratina altissima White Snakeroot
- Boltonia asteroides False Aster
- Eupatorium perfoliatum Common Boneset
- Euthamia gramnifolia Flat Top Goldentop
- Eutrochium fistulosum Joe Pye Weed
- Eurybia macrophylla Bigleaf Aster
- Helenium autnumnale Sneezeweed
- Helianthus divaricatus Woodland Sunflower
- Liatris scariosa Large Blazing Star
- Rudbeckia hirta Black-eyed Susan
- Rudbeckia lacianata Green-headed coneflower
- Solidago caesia Bluestem Goldenrod
- Solidago speciosa Showy Goldenrod
- Symphyotrichum laeve Smooth Blue Aster
- Symphyotrichum novi-belgii New York Aster
- Vernonia noveboracensis New York Ironweed
These native plants are not just sources of seed, but provide many other functions in nature. Deep-rooted native grasses excel at holding stormwater runoff – an increasingly important function with the extreme storm events of climate change. In contrast, non-native turf grasses are very shallow-rooted and unable to trap much water. Additionally, some native grasses, like Little Bluestem, are host plants for certain butterfly species, and all of these grasses provide habitat for many invertebrates and some bird species.
The featured native perennials brighten any garden in the fall, attracting numerous species of pollinators and butterflies with their late season nectar and pollen. As the flowers fade, the seed heads form, and as they ripen, they may drop and re-seed, or feed a hungry creature. For anyone who has grown the “nearby native” Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), no doubt you have seen Goldfinches relishing the seeds. Plan to include some of this natural bird food in your garden this spring.
Kim Eierman, a resident of Bronxville, is an environmental horticulturist and Founder of EcoBeneficial . When she is not speaking, writing, or consulting about ecological landscapes, she teaches at the New York Botanical Garden, Brooklyn Botanic Garden, The Native Plant Center and Rutgers Home Gardeners School.