Backyard Wildlife - Planting for Habitat

This NebGuide, the third in a series of four, provides information on planning and planting for wildlife habitat in the backyard.  Portions edited by Songbird Garden.

Ron J. Johnson, Extension Wildlife Specialist
Carl W. Wolfe, Outdoor Education Specialist, Nebraska Game and Parks Commission

 Plants are perhaps the most important part of a backyard habitat because they provide an environment for the family as well as for songbirds and other wildlife. Plants add beauty and comfort to your home and often increase the property value.

Trees and shrubs help reduce heating and cooling bills by providing summer shade and protection from winter winds. A hedge can add privacy, and plants of various shapes or sizes can be used to screen an unpleasant view.

For wildlife, plants provide shelter, nesting sites, and a variety of foods such as fruits that may otherwise be unavailable. Proper selection of plants can fill family needs for beauty and comfort and at the same time provide a haven for wildlife.

How to Start

First, set a goal. Take into consideration the size of your backyard, what plants are already present, and what wildlife you would like to attract.

Next, form a plan. Trees and shrubs will continue to grow; therefore, it is important to consider mature plant size, shape and spacing.

Outline your yard on a piece of paper. Sketch in ideas to make your basic plan (drawing on graph paper helps with dimensions).

A sketch is particularly helpful in planning where future shade will be needed and where shading may not be desirable, such as over solar collectors or gardens. See your extension educator for possible horticultural tips on this topic.

Plants used for screening sometimes have a short life span. Allow flexibility in your plan to provide for replacing such trees or shrubs. Remember that open space is important too--for viewing wildlife, for recreation, and for separating use areas. Additional information on landscape planning, including many helpful tips, is available in NebGuide G74-135, Basic Landscaping.

Guidelines to Plant Selection

Where You Live---Soil type, climate, and other growing conditions are important in plant selection. Results of a soil test can be helpful when selecting plants and in knowing what soil treatments might be needed for them. Your Cooperative Extension office can usually help in getting a soil test made.

Choose plants that are adapted to the growing conditions in your area. Long-lived plants, such as trees and shrubs, must be able to withstand the climate during all seasons, especially winter and summer extremes. It's good to get advice on which plants are best suited. Reputable nursery personnel, the State Forest Service, Cooperative Extension and others can help with plant selection.

Both Food and Cover---Birds need both food and cover, so a berry bush or feeder standing alone in the middle of the lawn is unlikely to have many visitors. Cover plants as well as food plants are needed. Some attractive trees or shrub varieties will help supply both of these needs.

Sheltering evergreens, such as spruce, cedar or pine, as well as shrubby thickets of dogwood, viburnum, cotoneaster and honeysuckle, provide good nesting sites for many species of birds. Fruit-bearing shrubs and trees also attract birds and often provide fruits and berries well into the lean winter months.

Hawthorns, shadbush, dogwood, viburnum and others offer a plentiful food supply. Crabapple varieties such as Red Jade or Snowdrift provide flowering beauty plus a fruit supply that lasts well into winter.

Some Backyard Plants That Help Wildlife

Bur Oak (Quercus macrocarpa)
White Oak (Quercus alba)
Red Oak (Quercus borealis [rubra])
Black Walnut (Juglans nigra)
Hickory (Carya spp.)
Black Cherry (Prunus serotina)
Hackberry (Celtis occidentalis)
Russian Olive (Elaeagnus angustifolia)
Crabapple (Malus spp.)
Hawthorn (Crataegus spp.)
Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana)
Rocky Mountain Juniper (Juniperus scopulorum)
Pines (Pinus spp.)
Spruce (Picea spp.)

Dogwood (Cornus spp.)
Sumacs (Rhus spp.)
Elderberry (Sambucas spp.)
Wild Plum (Prunus americana)
Chokecherry (Prunus virginiana)
Cotoneaster (Cotoneaster spp.)
Honeysuckles (Lonicera spp.)
Serviceberry (Amelanchier spp.)
Viburnums (Viburnum spp.)
American Cranberry bush or highbush cranberry (Viburnum trilobum)
Firethorn (Pyracantha spp.)


American Bittersweet (Celastrus scandens)
Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquifolia)
Trumpet Creeper (Campsis radicans)
Wild Grape (Vitis spp.)
Raspberry and Blackberry (Rubus spp.)


Black-eyed susan
Grasses Spiderplant (Cleome spp.)

Native species are usually your best bet as they are generally more adapted to the area, tend to be disease-resistant, and are more familiar to the birds.

It is best to avoid shrubs or trees that offer little, no, or poor quality food. For example, "seedless" tree varieties offer no food, while some plants such as coralberry have fruit, but are of little value to wildlife.

Forsythias, redbud and lilacs offer some cover, but no food. Lilacs, however, are great for attracting butterflies, and many people like the spring color of redbuds. These plants should be used sparingly in your wildlife landscaping plan.

Small herbaceous plants are also good for backyard habitats; sunflowers, zinnias, marigolds, millet and native prairie grasses provide food and/or cover for songbirds.

Plants for All Season---Different kinds of birds will visit your backyard at different times of the year. Migrants pass through during spring and fall. Winter and summer residents stay for only a few months each year, while still other birds are year-round residents.

Plant combinations that provide food and cover throughout the year, especially for the winter months, are best. Mountain ash, highbush cranberry, native sumacs, hawthorn and crabapples are examples of winter food-bearing plants. Evergreen trees provide good cold-weather shelter, and some plants such as red cedar provide winter cover as well as winter food for birds.

Because of potential problems with cedar-apple rust, cedars aren't suitable for growing next to an apple orchard. Instead, use resistant cultivars of apples or other evergreens such as pine or spruce.

Plant Diversity--A backyard with a variety of different plants generally attracts more wildlife species, and is often more attractive in appearance, as well. A variety of plants also offers a greater choice of food and cover.

Providing a variety of different species will alleviate many seasonal or weather-related effects. For example, unfavorable conditions such as very cold winters or drought may cause some plants not to bear fruit. Other plants such as some oaks bear fruit only in alternate years. Planting a variety of different species helps ensure a steady food supply every year.