Turn Up the Volume

A songbird garden guarantees a joyful noise.

May 7, 2012

Gardeners select plants for their visual beauty, aromatic splendor, or edible glory. We see our gardens, we smell our gardens, and we taste our gardens. But do we listen to our gardens? By focusing on plants that attract songbirds, we can create gardens that literally sing.

“Birdsong has two primary purposes,” explains Sergio Harding, a biologist with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries: “To establish a territory and to attract a mate.” Thus, incorporating birdsong into a garden is as simple as creating an environment that encourages songbirds to settle down and raise a family. How to do that? “Think like a bird,” says Cliff Fairweather, a naturalist and the Northern Virginia organizer for Audubon at Home, the Audubon Society’s backyard wildlife habitat education program. “What does a bird need to survive? Food, water, shelter, and space are the key components of habitats that birds seek.”

To plan an audible garden, think about the birds you’d like to attract and the sorts of environments they prefer.

Musical Phenoms: Bluebirds, Robins, and Other Thrushes

Field guides use terms like ethereal, liquid, flutelike, and hauntingly beautiful to describe these birds’ voices. “The thrushes have, for my money, the most beautiful songs of North American songbirds,” says Fairweather. “The veery actually sings in harmony with itself.”

  • Live in a range of habitats. Robins and bluebirds prefer fields, yards, and open woods, while the remaining thrushes seek forests and shrubby habitats.
  • Eat insects and fruit.
  • Nest in trees and shrubs or on the ground. Bluebirds nest in cavities.
  • Attract with grasses, shrubs, and trees. Some species are true forest-dwellers. Nesting boxes entice bluebirds.


Big, Bubbling Songs: Wrens

For nonstop song, it’s hard to beat the various species of wrens. One captive male Carolina wren, for example, sang nearly 3,000 times in a single day. Most species readily adapt to backyard living and will fill the garden with song from dawn to dusk.

  • Live primarily in forests, open woodlands, and well-planted back yards.
  • Eat insects and spiders.
  • Nest primarily in cavities. Also shrubs.
  • Attract with a mix of trees, shrubs, and nesting boxes.



Whistles, Chirps, Buzzes, and Trills: Sparrows and Finches

This large group of songbirds includes towhees, grosbeaks, juncos, and a plethora of sparrows and finches. Some of the most common species—such as song sparrows, fox sparrows, white-throated sparrows, purple finches, and house finches—are real standout vocal artists.


  • Live in fields, yards, and open woodlands.
  • Eat seeds. Occasionally fruit and insects.
  • Nest in trees and shrubs or on the ground.
  • Attract with dense plantings of seed-bearing plants, such as purple coneflower, native grasses, and sunflowers.

Clear Notes and Cheerful Voices: Warblers

Bright colors and variable songs make the warblers some of the most beloved songbirds in North America. Tempt these insect-eaters with dense, multitiered plantings of shrubs and trees, which offer shelter and harbor insects. Warblers are also attracted to water.

  • Live in forests, open woodlands, and densely planted back yards.
  • Eat insects, usually harvested from trees or shrubs. Also fruit, in fall and winter.
  • Nest in trees or shrubs or on the ground. The prothonotary warbler nests in cavities.
  • Attract with dense, insect-harboring shrubs and moving water.



Mimics and Late-Night Performers: Mockingbirds, Catbirds, and Other Thrashers

They may not be the most melodious songbirds, but these renowned mimics are certainly among the most enthusiastic; both mockingbirds and catbirds will sing into the night, often performing until the early morning hours.

  • Live in shrubby habitats, yards, and woodland edges.
  • Eat insects and fruit.
  • Nest in shrubs.
  • Attract with fruiting shrubs, dense cover, and last year’s unraked leaves.



Garden Gossips and Winter Chatter: Chickadees, Titmice, and Other Talkers

Chickadees and titmice chatter while foraging, and are not shy about scolding gardeners who venture too close. Because these diminutive birds rarely migrate, they provide gardeners with a soundtrack throughout the year. “The Peter-Peter-Peter song of tufted titmice can be heard not long after the winter solstice,” says Fairweather. “It’s my sign that spring will come.”

  • Live in forests, open woodlands, and well-treed back yards.
  • Eat insects, usually harvested from trees or shrubs. Also fruits and seeds.
  • Nest in cavities.
  • Attract with trees, shrubs, and nesting boxes.

“When you get down to it, all bird vocalizations have something to offer for the attentive listener,” says Harding, who believes there are no wrong choices when selecting the soundtrack for your garden.



Five Tips for Attracting Birds

  • Start with water. If you add only one songbird-attracting element, this should be it, says naturalist Cliff Fairweather, who recommends incorporating a drip or fountain if possible.
  • Offer a variety of natural foods. “Native plants are what native insects have evolved to eat,” says Fairweather. “Seed eaters depend on native grasses, thistles, and flower heads.” Many birds also eat fruits.
  • Create tempting nesting sites. Cavity nesters—bluebirds, wrens, and others—benefit from a variety of nesting boxes.
  • Design from ground to treetop. “Dense, layered vegetation is the best shelter and space for many birds,” says Fairweather.
  • Learn more. The more you know about your favorite birds, the better your chances of welcoming them into your garden.

Attracting Songbirds to Your Backyard: Hundreds of Easy Ways to Bring the Music and Beauty of Songbirds to Your Yard, a new book by Sally Roth, explains which birds sing when and why, and how to provide food and create habitat to encourage songbirds to make a home in your garden. Rodale, $31.95. Learn more.