How to Feed the Birds Without Buying Seed

Joe Pye Weed in bloom_cleaned

Joe Pye Weed feeds the birds and the butterflies, and attracts lots of bees.

Want to Know How to Feed the Birds Without Spending Money?

Let your Native Plants Go to Seed!

Although I used to love having seed feeders,  I gave up using them in my yard many years ago when I was living in a little rental row home in Baltimore. 

The rats in that neighborhood were so big and so fierce that I half expected one to take my keys and steal my car.  Nothing scared them.  More than once I stood up from weeding the garden to find one on the lawn behind me, calmly watching me work, and although I loved having birds dance around the feeders we had outside our windows I hated the idea that the rats were also getting fat on my subsidies.  And those rats really loved my bird feeders.

Around that same time I became interested in native plants and realized many of my favorite flowers were chock full of seeds each fall.  By selectively leaving seed heads on the plants as winter approached I could encourage birds to visit.  By adding shrubs with berries we got both birds and winter color.  Meanwhile, there were no feeders to clean or fill, and I saved a ton of money.

If you start feeding the birds this way, you will wonder why you ever bought seed in the first place.  In some ways it feels a lot like eating fruits and vegetables that you grow in your own garden.  There’s a healthy feeling to the whole thing, a sense that you are in tune with nature’s cycles and the seasons and not just a hired hand hauling 50 lb bags home from the hardware store.

I also guarantee that you will see a diverse group of birds in your yard if you take up this practice.  You may not have the huge crowds of birds every day that feeders tend to bring, but it is quite exciting to discover what each species likes to eat and how they like to eat it.

Goldfinches love to eat coneflowers.

Goldfinches love to eat coneflowers.

In addition to the native plants, many non-natives will provide seeds for the birds.  Zinnias, those colorful annuals which provide nectar for butterflies all summer, are sometimes left to stand the winter in my yard where they serve the duel role of providing seeds for birds and seedlings for next year. 

I am concerned, however, about the destructive power of invasive exotic plants, and so I stay on constant vigil to make sure that nothing in my garden harbors destructive potential.  For this reason I avoid non-native plants which are known to be particularly problematic.  (Many states publish lists of invasive exotics that gardeners should avoid.  In Maryland, for example, you can use this list from the Department of Natural Resources.)

It is confusing, I think, for novice gardeners to figure out the ecology behind invasive exotics.  Some people ask why it is bad to plant something that birds like to eat, such as Porcelain-berry (Ampelopsis brevipedunculata).  If the birds like it, how can it be bad?  The problem is that a bird eats the seeds of those vines, then deposits them elsewhere in a park or wild area.  In your yard that vine might not be allowed to take over, but untended in a park it becomes an aggressive monster, killing trees and destroying the places which birds need to nest or mate.

There’s another, more hidden problem in such situations, too.  Birds and plants which are native to our area have evolved over thousands of years together.  Because of those relationships, the plants sometimes provide certain nutrients which the animals need.  When they eat non-native foods they may miss out on those nutrients and may not migrate as successfully or reproduce in abundance.  They may lack defenses needed to cope with other environmental stressors, too.

That said, I do have a rather small urban lot and I have to make some judicious decisions among my native plants when autumn arrives.  Like the director of a large Broadway chorus line, I have to think of the overall effect that the dying plants will have on the appearance of our tiny yard.  Some of Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia) don’t make the cut, for example, because they are growing too close to a path and will flop over and become ugly.  Some of the Joe Pye Weed (Eupatoriadelphus maculatus) stems get cut back to the ground because their tall branches block the window, an effect we love in summer but disdain in the darker days of winter.  And Liatris (Liatris spicata) is a great native plant which birds like, but would surely take over my entire yard if I let it, so once Halloween is over I cut all of its stems back.

But even the seeds which get cut do not always go to waste.  They are given to friends and neighbors or swapped at various plant exchanges.  Most of them are so easy to grow you don’t need a lot of gardening experience to make them work, you just clear some space, sprinkle them down and forget about them until spring.

In a future post I’ll present a photo gallery and list of good native plants to use for feeding the birds.

In the meantime, you might also enjoy:

 Stop Raking Leaves, Start Seeing More Birds

More Than One Hummingbird Species East of the Mississippi?



One Thought on “How to Feed the Birds Without Buying Seed

  1. great post! live in California, Bay Area. Adding natives and suspected seeds from erigonum buckwheat and Joe Pye (not native, but such a great pollinator attractor) might provide food for birds rather than just pruning them off.

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