Trees for birds? Are trees not for birds? It really makes a difference what kind of trees you plant. With September and fall tree planting right around the corner, we need to plan ahead for the kinds of trees to plant. Too often, we plant trees for ourselves, and what we want, not thinking about the world we live in. After we are gone, the birds, bees, and butterflies will still be here, and they need thinking about too.
If you plan to plant trees for birds, then you are also planning to improve the rest of your landscape too, and planting for all the other wildlife that comes with them. Believe me, if you are planting trees for birds, then you are a wildlife caretaker. Trees are homes for more than just birds. If you already have large trees on your property, then you know they attract squirrels, snakes, lizards, raccoons, opossums, and possibly bigger mammals such as bobcat, bear, and puma.
But many gardeners do not want the extremely large animals and pest type animals (raccoons and opossums) in their landscapes. If you do not live in the woods itself, or are not next to remnant or existing forests, then you are less likely to attract these animals by just adding a few trees for birds. There are 6 trees which by adding just one of each to your landscape, will improve your attractiveness to birds.
The Bur Oak (Quercus macrocarpa)
Why choose this oak over other oaks? With 191 species, crosses, and subspecies of oaks in the continental United States, where does the bur oak fit in? in the Central Great Plains region, we have prairie edges, oak-hickory woods, savannahs, and large water systems. There are 18 species and hybrids found commonly in our region. Of those 18 species of oak, 8 are primary, meaning they are found throughout the region. Out of those 8, 4 species are in the White Oak Group, and 4 are in the Red Oak Group. Find out more about those groups by clicking here.
Of the 4 species of oaks in the White Oak Group, bur oak is the most adaptable to a wide range of sites and soil conditions. On the other hand, Chinkapin and Post oak prefer well-drained, upland ridges, or mixed woods. Dwarf chinkapin prefers dry, rocky ridges. Bur oak though, will grow plains, savannahs, dry ridges, and swales. They are the largest of the 4 species.
Bur oaks produce large acorns, have thick, large leaves, and open canopies which provide not only much nesting areas for birds and the potential for cavities on large branches, but also shade for the gardener. Besides all that, bur oaks also are moderate growers, sometimes growing as fast as 6 feet per year, in a wetter season.
Oaks in general have the potential to support at least 534 species of butterflies and moths, plus leafhoppers, parasitoid wasps and gall wasps, aphids, and a variety of other insects. All of these insects are potential food for birds.
A Buffet on Trees for Birds
What does having so many insects available for birds mean? If a songbird, such as a chickadee nests in a small cavity in an oak’s trunk, then it may not need to leave the tree in search of food. Chickadees primarily use caterpillars as its food source for its young, and there are a lot on oak trees. Even in winter, moths which overwinter as caterpillars are hiding among bark crevices on oaks, and birds consume them then too.
Besides the known 534 species of moths and butterflies which feed on oaks, there may be even more. A large portion of the lepidopteran world has no known host plants, but may be generalist feeders on trees, or other plants. I come across a lot of moths which are unknown by their host plant, but are often within a short distance of several oaks.
The following list includes some of the more well-known moths and butterflies to feed on oaks.
- Banded hairstreak butterfly
- Horace’s duskywing skipper
- Copper underwing
- Green oak-slug
- Spiny oak-slug
- Intractable Quaker
- Large tolype
- Unicorn prominent
The Hackberry (Celtis occidentalis)
I admit, the name of this tree really does not sound great. It could easily be called chokeberry, if it were humans consuming the fruit. But to a bird, it is no big deal. One of the main reasons for including this tree in this list is its adaptability. Not only will a hackberry start as an understory tree in the forest and one day shade out its neighbors, but it also will grow where there is persistent pollution, running water, drought, heat, and extreme temperature swings.
A member of the Elm Family, it has no great disease pressures or insect problems. I see occasional iron deficiency, but only on extremely high pH soils. While galls do form on the leaves, stems, and flowers, after attack from insects, this is only cosmetic damage, not life threatening. Hackberry is one of the best woods for firewood, and the trees are vase shaped, providing good shade.
Trees for Birds – What They Get with Hackberry
What food is available on hackberries? Well, chiefly, the berries. Even though they are not sweet enough for human consumption, our fruit-loving songbirds and groundbirds consume the fruit in late summer, fall, and through winter until they are gone. This is one of the reasons hackberries seem t “pop up” all over the landscape. The birds are planting them. Bird species that eat hackberries include Northern mockingbirds, gray catbirds, cedar waxwings, yellow-bellied sapsuckers, Baltimore and orchard orioles, and wild turkeys.
Insects on Hackberry
There are 6 wonderful butterflies and at least 16 moths which utilize the leaves of the hackberry for their caterpillars. Besides them, gall forming wasps, psyllids, and aphids can be found. Also, treehoppers, katydids, bugs, beetles, and others feed on the foliage and flowers. All of these are potential foods for birds. Some of those species are listed below.
- Mourning cloak butterfly
- Tawny emperor butterfly
- Hackberry emperor butterfly
- American snout
- Question mark butterfly
- Eastern comma butterfly
- Io moth
- Spiny oak-slug moth
- Reversed haploa moth
- Banded tussock moth
- Ruddy dagger moth
- Variegated midget moth
- Nipple gall psyllid
- Aggregate gall midge
The Black Cherry (Prunus serotina)
There are 36 species of plums and cherries native to North America, and 8 are found within the Central Great Plains region. Of those 8, only black cherry is a true tree form. The closely-related Pin Cherry (Prunus pennsylvanica) is not found in our region. This is a medium, upright tree with unique scaly bark and beautiful flowers.
The wood of the black cherry has long been used for furniture, flooring, and woodworking projects. It can also be used for smoking meat and firewood. The large, showy white flowers are fragrant to some and are great for early pollinators such as honeybees, overwintering butterflies, and bumblebees. In the landscape, black cherry is also prized for its fall color, which is orange red and very showy.
Trees for Birds – What They Get from Black Cherry
Just like hackberry, black cherry has small fruits which birds enjoy. But unlike the hackberry, black cherry has a much bigger potential for caterpillars. According to Doug Tallamy, in Bringing Nature Home, Prunus species can support as many as 456 species of moths and butterflies. That is a LOT of potential foods for birds. Besides moth and butterfly caterpillars, there are gall forming insects, treehoppers, beetles, and more which feed on black cherry and other cherries and plums.
- Red spotted purple butterfly
- Coral hairstreak butterfly
- Henry’s elfin butterfly
- Eastern tiger swallowtail
- Interrupted dagger moth
- Luna moth
- Ultronia underwing moth
- Woolly gray moth
- Giant leopard moth
- Rusty tussock moth
- Monkey slug moth
- Black cherry leaf gall mite
The Bitternut Hickory (Carya cordiformis)
One of my favorite trees to find in the woods is this hickory tree. It also one of the first trees I learned to tell by buds, before any other factor. The bitternut hickory is one of those trees for birds which is underused in the landscape, maybe because garden centers rarely sell them. But why? Perhaps it is because hickories have not been bred and selected for best traits like so many other native trees.
There are 21 species and cross-species (hybrids) of hickory in North America, primarily in the eastern half and southwest. We have 1/3 or 7 of those species in the Central Great Plains region. Of those, the pecan is one of the nicer shade and food producing trees for American landscapes. But hickories seem to get the short stick in comparison.
The bitternut hickory is one of the straightest growing trees I have ever observed, making it ideal for landscaping. They can be long lived, over 200 hundred years old. Trees grow 70 feet tall by 50 feed across, making them great for shade, especially if planted in masses. Hickory wood, of course, is well known for smoking meats, as well as being excellent firewood. It also used for furniture, flooring, and baseball bats.
Trees for Birds – What They Get from Bitternut Hickory
If you were a nut-consuming bird, you would be delighted to find any hickory in the landscape. But bitternut hickory has small, easy to open shells and edible nuts, which are consumed by birds, mammals, and rodents. Birds such as blue jays, woodpeckers, and flickers find them a tasty treat in late summer.
As for insects, at least 200 species of moths and butterflies use hickory as a host plant. Also, treehoppers, beetles, bugs, aphids, and gall forming insects feed on the tree. I have been doing a study on the galls of hickories in Northeast Kansas. If you are looking for trees for birds, plant hickories.
- Hickory hairstreak butterfly (on bitternut only)
- Banded hairstreak butterfly
- Juvenal’s duskywing skipper
- American dagger moth
- Imperial moth
- Luna moth
- Hickory horned-devil
- Yellow-shouldered slug moth
- Polyphemus moth
- Banded hickory borer
- Painted hickory borer
- Awl-shaped gall midge
- Starry-base gall midge
The Prairie Crabapple (Malus ioensis)
What, you have not heard of this one? The prairie crabapple is native to the Central Great Plains and portions of the Midwest region. This small, native crabapple is difficult to find at all, thanks to hybridization with introduced species of crabapples. However, despite this hybridization of crabapples, native insects and birds cannot significantly tell the difference in the chemistry of the leaves or fruit.
Therefore, crabapples in general can be treated as the prairie crabapple as trees for birds. Crabapples are small, understory trees which can be found sparingly in the wild, and in significantly in almost every landscape. I have been blessed to find a small pocket of native prairie crabapples in central Brown County, KS, just a few miles south of Hiawatha.
They are somewhat disease prone in the landscape, but newer cultivars have less of those problems. Also, the berries, which are either red or yellow, are attractive as ornaments in the garden. Flowers are quite fragrant and attract bees, butterflies and moths, and other pollinators.
Crabapples as Trees for Birds
When it comes to attracting birds to the landscape, these trees contain a full package. Not only do they produce persistent fruit which is eaten by a variety of birds and mammals, they play host to over 300 species of butterflies and moths, plus leafhoppers, katydids, cicadas, beetles, bugs, and more.
- Polyphemus moth
- Cecropia moth
- Leconte’s haploa moth
- Saddleback caterpillar
- Woolly gray moth
- Apple sphinx moth
- Copper underwing
The Eastern White Pine (Pinus strobus)
What would a list of trees for birds be without at least one evergreen? The eastern white pine was once one of the most abundant trees in eastern North America. It was fast logged and used for ships’ masts, furniture, flooring, and houses. Now, most of the white pine forests were planted over one hundred years ago, and the rest are a part of the urban forest, residing in landscapes.
White pines make excellent windbreak trees in the early stages of life, for about 50 years or more. They can be sheared to maintain a hedge shape, if done when the new growth is emerging. In the landscape, I would recommend either planting a trio of eastern white pines in a corner, or using multiple as a windbreak planting. All this will benefit the birds.
What Does Eastern White Pine Offer Birds?
The most obvious thing is nesting sites and cover. Because the needles are soft yet dense on an eastern white pine, there is lots of potential for nesting sites and hiding places for birds within the trees. Also, the needles can be stripped by other birds and used for their nests away from the tree. Hollows in the tree are beneficial for cavity dwellers such as chickadees and tufted titmice.
There are at least 200 species of moths and butterflies which use eastern white (and other pine) as a host plant. Besides those, a variety of other insects including beetles, bugs, grasshoppers, and more feed on the tree. Seeds are also consumed by a number of birds, including the pine siskin and eastern goldfinch.
- Porcelain gray moth
- Red-headed inchworm moth
- One-spotted variant
- Northern pine looper moth
- Pine Devil
- Imperial moth
- Pine sphinx
- Rusty tussock moth
When picking trees for birds, a lot of consideration needs to go into it. Do not just pick a tree for you, but pick something that grows in your region, that has a lot of potential insect or seed foods for bird, and one that will look good with the rest of your landscape.