How to Plant Your Backyard for Birds!

A yard planted for birds (photo by Gwen Grace)

Kathleen McCoy and Gwen Grace

Desert Rivers Audubon is often asked for recommendations for plants to attract birds. Throwing out bird seed usually ends in a yard full of pigeons and upset neighbors.

We asked Kathleen McCoy, a member of Desert Rivers Audubon, for her recommendations. She is a Master Gardener and Master Naturalist, a member of Arizona Native Plant Society and Arizona Herb Association, and a volunteer at Desert Botanical Garden. Whew! Kathleen answered these questions.

What would you recommend to bring birds into yards?

Birds are attracted to areas that provide food, water, and shelter. Birds spend a great deal of time foraging for food. Areas planted with native trees, bushes, and plants are the richest and most nutritious sources of food. Native plants attract native insects, which are needed to provide protein for their young. Other pollinators impact the number of seeds and fruit available. Birds that eat “local” produce from native plants have been documented as healthier than those who feed from nonnative plants. Water is critical for any desert dweller. Birds are no exception. Water in your yard is sure to draw the attention of our feathered friends. Water features can range from highly elaborate bubbling rock systems to a shallow dish. Whatever the feature, strategic placement, such as dense plantings hopefully comprised of native plants, can provide protective covering for the birds.

To keep our birds healthy, the water source should be shallow enough for the birds to drink and exit without fear of drowning—think baby quail. A simple solution is to provide islands of rocks birds can use to enter or exit the water or simply tip the water source so that different depths, much like the shore of a lake, to allow the birds to “walk out” of the water source.

What bushes or trees would you recommend for here in Sun Lakes?

Having read so far, you probably have picked up the idea that native plants of the Sonoran Desert, including Sun Lakes, are highly recommended landscape features. In addition to the fact that native plants are desert adapted, needing very little water once established, they have evolved along with our native birds. Native plants have specific growing needs. Take note of the plant’s requirements in relation to time of year, as sunlight varies across seasons, as well as how much sun is needed. The soil is another factor when considering planting. Some desert plants thrive in rocky arid soil, while others need a riparian or moister setting. Many unfortunate desert plants are overwatered and find themselves in a compost pile. Native plants rarely need fertilizing. Birds drawn to your native plants will reduce pests from your yard. Using pesticides and herbicides are not only unnecessary but can be harmful to the birds who eat insects and food from plants.

What would you recommend for bird feeders?

To attract the greatest variety of birds to your yard, consider offering several different feeder types to increase the variety of available foods. Birds, like humans, have their favorite types of food. Lesser goldfinches, for example, will gravitate to nyger seeds, whereas the Hooded Oriole is on the lookout for orange slices. Suet feeders attract a variety of woodpeckers, nuthatches, chickadees, titmice, jays, and starlings.

More importantly, feeders must be kept clean. Sadly, many a bird has contracted an illness from dirty feeders. Tray feeders placed near the ground are most likely to attract ground-feeding birds such as juncos, doves, jays, blackbirds, and sparrows. The ideal bird feeder is sturdy enough to withstand monsoons and squirrels, tight enough to keep seeds dry, easy to assemble, and, most important of all, easy to keep clean. Seeds that become wet enough to sprout may foster fungal and bacterial growth. Bird droppings can quickly soil the seed in tray feeders or seeds that have dropped to the ground.

What last recommendation would you leave us?

So many thoughts … Let’s go with this parting word about plants in your yard. Let the native plants provide food for local birds. Rather than planting a single plant throughout the landscape, cluster plants to attract birds. Consult

Desert Rivers Audubon continues its speaker series in summer, held the second Tuesday of the month at 7 p.m., June through August, on Zoom only. To register, go to

June 13 at 7 p.m., author Will McLean Greeley, “How the Migratory Bird Treaty Act Became Law”