My Five Favorite Shrubs and Vines for Attracting Birds

For the first time since last Tuesday, there were no birders in the alley this morning, peering into the back yard. Perhaps our fifteen minutes (well, six days) of fame are over.

The whole experience with the Varied Thrush has inspired me to write about the plants I have in my back yard that are beautiful but that also help create an environment that is attractive to birds. These plants are just a small sample of the many that can serve this purpose, of course. All are native to the American midwest, or are hybrids or varieties of native plants. Here are my top five:

1. Serviceberry (Amelanchier xgrandiflora ‘Autumn Brilliance’). I love this plant. It has white flowers in early spring, edible berries in late spring, and terrific fall color. Birds love the berries, which look and taste sort of like small blueberries. ‘Autumn Brilliance’ is a hybrid cultivar of two Amelanchier species.  We have some right next to our east porch window and enjoy watching the robins feeding on the berries.

Serviceberry 'Autumn Brilliance'
Serviceberry in bloom, with the neighbors’ crabapple in the background


Serviceberry 'Autumn Brilliance', Amelanchier
Serviceberry ‘Autumn Brilliance’ fall color

2. Cranberrybush Viburnum (Viburnum trilobum). My favorite Viburnum. Beautiful lacecap flowers in spring, translucent red berries ripen in late summer, and the maple-like foliage turns a mix of burgundy and other colors. I have both the straight species and the variety ‘Redwing’, which is recommended by the Chicago Botanic Garden. The literature usually says that the berries are not eaten until after a freeze has made them more palatable, but mine get eaten in fall. This is a favorite of the Cedar Waxwing.

Cranberrybush Viburnum, Viburnum trilobum
Cranberrybush Viburnum flowers
Cranberrybush Viburnum, Viburnum trilobum
Cranberrybush Viburnum berries
Cranberrybush Viburnum, Viburnum trilobum
Cranberrybush Viburnum fall color

3. Wild Currant (Ribes americanum). This is a terrific and underused shrub. Very compact (usually 3-4′ tall), it is also tough and thrives in shade. It is not a showy plant, but does have dangling clusters of chartreuse flowers in early spring, as well as handsome foliage. The black berries ripen over a long period in summer. They are edible, but very sour. I enjoy watching the Robins, Northern Cardinals, and other birds hopping from branch to branch when the fruit is ripe.

Wild Currant, Ribes americanum
Wild Currant in bloom.
Wild Currant, Ribes Americanum
Wild Currant fruit

4. Spicebush (Lindera benzoin). The leaves of this shrub have a strong citrus fragrance when crushed. This plant has fuzzy little yellow flowers in early spring, kind of like an understated Forsythia. The red berries ripen in fall, and are quickly eaten by migrating birds. Another plus for Spicebush is that it is a host plant for the Spicebush butterfly. Haven’t seen any caterpillars on my Spicebush yet, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

5. Red Elderberry (Sambucus racemosa L.). I suppose it is a bit weedy, but I like it anyway. The pyramid-shaped cream flower clusters and glowing red berries are gorgeous. Birds love the berries, but they are toxic to people.

Red elderberries, Sambucus racemosa L.
Red elderberries. I  have a thing about the ornamental qualities of berries, maybe that’s why I have this picture but no picture of the Red Elderberry flowers.


6. Trumpet Honeysuckle (Lonicera Sempervirens). The tubular red flowers are loved by hummingbirds, and the berries are eaten by birds. This native vine needs little pampering, and will take some shade. After a lovely flush of bloom in late spring, it will bloom intermittently all season.

Trumpet honeysuckle
Trumpet honeysuckle growing against brick wall.
Trumpet Honeysuckle
Trumpet Honeysuckle

Of course, what performs well in the Chicago region will not necessarily do the same elsewhere. If you’re interested in “birdscaping”, I can recommend three books you may like. The first is The Audubon Society Guide to Attracting Birds, by Stephen Kress. Be sure to get the second edition, which came out in 2006. Then there’s Bird by Bird Gardening, by Sally Roth. Finally for my follow Midwesterners, there’s Birdscaping in the Midwest, by Mariette Nowak.

So what are your favorite bird-friendly plants?

36 Comments on “My Five Favorite Shrubs and Vines for Attracting Birds”

  1. Great post! I mostly garden for wildlife, too. “Autumn Brilliance” serviceberry was a favorite in my old garden (I moved to a new house 6 mos. ago). It has such a lovely vase-like shape. And the trumpet honeysuckle is gorgeous. Hmm. I think I can find room for it along the fence …

  2. Hi Jason! I love following this kind of posts in your blog because I’m very interested in attracting wildlife in my garden, although I’m still a newbie at this. I have three amelanchier and I love them (there are one lamarkii and two canadensis, or vice versa, they look alike) but I guess my climate is not the one they’d like. I have a viburnum very similar to yours which is a v. sargentii Onondaga: new leaves have a chocolate tinge on them and flowers look alike except for some more maroon coloured ‘blood’ on the surface. Mine had never produced berries though.
    I love your sambucus with red berries, I’ve never seen one like that before.
    I also guess that birds love evergreen shrubs where they can find shelter during winter, so I’ve planted some, what do you think?

    • There may be other North American or European shrubs with berries that will do well in your garden. Your Viburnum sounds nice, it may not be fruiting because it needs company. A lot of our Viburnums, even if they are monoecious, need other specimens of different varieties.

      There is a Red Elderberry that is native to Europe, which includes the variety ‘Sutherland’s Gold’. And you are definitely right about evergreens. I have a big old Japanese Yew that I don’t really like but I won’t remove it because it’s the only evergreen I have, and the birds use it for shelter.

  3. I inadvertently purchased some shrubs several years ago, for the express purpose of attracting wildlife, but one was bred to NOT produce fruit and the other won’t produce fruit in spite of my efforts to provide a cross pollinator. My serviceberry and chokeberry were girdled by rabbits their first winter and never really recovered. On the other hand, the robins *love* my strawberries.

  4. Hi Jason, our ornamental cherry tree is very popular with the birds, but then we do hang the feeders from it. Fruit trees will have the birds flocking in but we don’t have any due to lack of space. We do have sunflowers that the birds should like but they tend to check out the seed feeders first and the sunflowers come a disappointing second. I don’t know f the birds eat berries from the Sarcococca Confusa either so overall we wouldn’t be doing very well if it weren’t for the artificial feeders.

    • I have feeders also and they definitely bring in a lot more birds. I would say, supplemental rather than artificial. I think birds like the flowers on fruit trees like your ornamental even if there is no fruit. Some eat the buds, others eat the insects drawn to the flowers.

  5. Gorgeous! So warm and inviting for both people and wildlife. I’m going to have to look into the wild currant. I love berry producing plants but I’m limited because many don’t do so well in my zone. Although, I have a Himalayan Mulberry tree that attracts all sorts of birds and butterflies so that provides for a lot of fun. Must be nice to sit out there and gaze. Hopefully you will catch more snapshots of rare birds for your area and get yet another 15 minutes of fame 🙂

  6. I also have a cranberry bush viburnum but don’t get as many berries as you probably do because it doesn’t have the right pollinator shrub nearby. 😦 Voles ate the roots of my spicebush and serviceberries. I also have honeysuckle and a chunk of blackberries that the birds love.

  7. I absolutely adore honeysuckle and it reminds me so much of being at the home I grew up in where my parents had grown a huge display over a fence on the front patio. I really like all the plants you have selected here in this post Jason and will keep this post to hand as I grow my garden over the years. Anything to attract birds and help the plight of the bees is very close to my heart too. A very interesting, useful and inspiring post dude : )

    • Ah yes, that was a bit of a proofing oversight – I didn’t notice that my five favorites had turned into six. Why can’t spell check catch things like that? I’d like to have trumpet vine, but I’m concerned about getting overwhelmed. The honeysuckle is much less rampant.

  8. Love your post! I am having a very hard time with my 6 service berry trees. Gorgeous blooms in the spring, then after the rains they succumb to cedar apple rust. Yes there are cedars all over coastal RI where I live. The fruit and leaves are spoiled. This is their 5th season, and I am thinking of replacing them with another multi-stemmed fruit-bearing native.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: