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Bird-ify Your Garden, Yard, or Balcony

A bird garden at the Los Angeles Zoo. Photo by Jamie Pham

Bird watching, or birding, is a wonderful way to connect with nature, even if you feel like nature is far away. Scientists estimate there are roughly 5,500 mammal species on Earth. Estimates for bird species range from 11,000 to 20,000. So, even conservatively, there are about twice as many bird as mammal species sharing this planet with us! Because so many birds share our world, you don’t have to go very far to find some. If you offer birds incentives to make themselves at home, you can even go birding without leaving your home!


Bird standing in water
Birds need water for drinking and bathing. Photo by Michael Elliott

Different types of food appeal to different bird species and this can vary seasonally, but all birds need water for drinking and bathing, so offering a bird bath can be more of a draw than feeders. You can make a simple bird bath with a shallow saucer—the type used to put under potted plants is perfect, but you could also use a shallow pan or a pie plate. It needs to be big enough for birds to comfortably splash around and placing some stones or a brick in it gives them somewhere to perch while they bathe. As the weather warms up, you’ll need to change the water at least every four days. In recent years, non-native mosquitos (genus Aedes) introduced from Asia, Australia, and Africa have been spreading throughout Southern California. Even a tiny amount of standing water is all they need to breed, and they mature from egg to adult in five to seven days. So, if you offer birds water, be sure to change it often. Alternatively, adding a solar-powered fountain can help deter the insects from laying eggs by keeping the water moving. Solar fountains can be added to any pool of water, are inexpensive (many are under $15), and can be purchased from a variety of online sources.


House finch perched on toyon
Native plants are important food sources for migratory birds and year-round residents. Toyon berries attract a wide variety of birds. Photo by Tad Motoyama

Bird feeders do attract birds, though there are a few issues with them to keep in mind. Some blends of bird seed include invasive weeds, and some evidence suggests that when people offer migratory bird species year-round food sources, it can have a negative effect on their normal migration patterns. In addition, communal feeders can sometimes provide conditions for pathogens to spread. This year, an outbreak of salmonella among wild birds was linked to groups of birds congregating at feeders. So, if you offer food, be sure to clean your feeders regularly and thoroughly. If you choose to offer a hummingbird feeder, you must be careful to clean it once a week or more because fungi and bacteria from dirty feeders can make birds sick. Another option is to grow plants that provide birds with food—and more!

Some plants that are easy to grow in Southern California are guaranteed to attract hummingbirds:

* California native plants or genera with many species native to California.

Aloe (genus Aloe)

Aloe (genus Aloe) in green and red
A variety of Aloes are available from nurseries. Different species and cultivars attain different sizes—smaller selections will happily live in pots and planters. Photo by Andrew Lyell

Sage (genus Salvia)*

Hummingbird sage with pink flowers on a leafy green background
About 600 species of Salvia are found in the Americas, and all are important wildlife plants, attracting birds and pollinators. In addition to providing food, this hummingbird sage also helps reduce erosion. Photo by Andrew Lyell

Bladderpod (Peritoma arborea)*

Bladderpod (Peritoma arborea) with bee in its yellow bloom
Bladderpod is a versatile, hardy California native that will bloom throughout the year when light and watering conditions are favorable. Photo by Andrew Lyell

Red yucca (Hesperaloe parvifolia)

Red yucca (Hesperaloe parvifolia) blooming in yellow and pink
Red yucca is actually more closely related to Agaves. Native to the Chihuahuan desert in western Texas south into northeastern Mexico, it is extremely drought-tolerant, long-blooming, and intensely attractive to hummingbirds. Photo by Sandy Masuo


Grevillea in red
Roughly 360 species of grevillea are native to New Guinea, Australia, New Caledonia, Indonesia, and Sulawesi. Many are vibrantly colored, grow well in Southern California, and are extremely attractive to hummingbirds. Photo by Bob Wickham

If you have room for a tree or large shrub, these are guaranteed bird magnets:

* California native plants or genera with many species native to California.

bottlebrush tree (genus Callistemon)

Bottlebrush tree (genus Callistemon) with bright red flowers
About 40 species of bottlebrush tree are native to Australia. Their flowers are highly attractive to hummingbirds and insect pollinators. Photo by Tad Motoyama

Blue elderberry (Sambucus mexicana)*

Mexican elderberry (Sambucus mexicana) flowers
This great native California shrub is hardy and versatile—it can be grown as a shrubby hedge or pruned to grow in a tree form. It is common in Griffith Park and provides food, shelter, and nesting materials for a wide range of wildlife, including birds. Photo by Sandy Masuo

toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia)*

Toyon with its white flowers and red berries
Los Angeles’s official native shrub is a vital part of our local ecosystems and in your garden will provide food, shelter, and nesting materials for birds and pollinators. Photo by Sandy Masuo

These smaller perennial and annual flowers provide food sources for pollinators and then produce seeds as a food source for birds:

California sunflower (Helianthus californicus)*

California sunflower (Helianthus californicus) with bee in its center
This native sunflower is easy to grow from seed and, once established, is a drought-tolerant perennial. Its seeds are a reliable food source for birds. Photo by Sandy Masuo

blanketflower (genus Gaillardia)

Gaillardia in colorful red and pink with yellow petal tips
These colorful flowers attract birds and bees. Photo by Sandy Masuo

California buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum)*

California buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum) flowers with a backdrop of a blue sky and green grass
California’s wild buckwheats belong to the same family as the European buckwheat used in baking but are not generally used for human consumption. The seeds produced by these native shrubs are important food sources for birds and the flowers are nectar sources for many insects. Photo by Andrew Lyell

Even if you don’t have a yard, you can grow bird-friendly plants in pots on balconies or windowsills. Aloes come in a wide range of sizes and many are easy to grow in pots. Their close relatives, the Gasterias also produce orange flowers that are attractive to hummingbirds. California fuchsia (which actually belongs to the primrose family) and columbine will also grow in pots.

Zauschneria californicum orange flowers in situ
California fuchsia grows wild in Griffith Park and, as you might guess from the orange, tubular flowers, is favored by hummingbirds. Photo by Sandy Masuo
Yellow colombine blooming on a leafy green backdrop
Various types of columbine bloom on Zoo grounds. These can also be grown in pots and are attractive to hummingbirds and pollinator insects. Photo by Sandy Masuo

Avoiding pesticides is also important for helping birds because most of them eat insects—even birds that you might not think do so, such as hummingbirds. According to Audubon, a single clutch of Carolina chickadee chicks may consume more than 9,000 caterpillars in the weeks between hatching and fledging. Many birds, including hummingbirds and bushtits, gather spiderwebbing to use in constructing nests. So, tolerating the bugs and other invertebrates in your yard is a boon to birds.

If you have a yard, try leaving some small piles of plant debris in out-of-the-way spots. Insects will be drawn to them and start breaking down the plant matter, and these will in turn offer a banquet for birds.

California towhee holding caterpillars with beak
Ninety-six percent of terrestrial birds rear their young on insects, and caterpillars are a particularly important food source. This California towhee is bringing several to waiting chicks. Photo by Matt Carey
Bewicks Wren gathering nest materials
Plants also provide birds with important nesting materials, from twigs and stems to seed pod fluff and bark. Photo by Charlie Morey

Another advantage to offering birds plants instead of feeders is that many of the same plants that serve as good food sources will also provide wild birds with places to hide from predators, shelter during stormy weather, and materials to build nests! Stems, leaves, and twigs, as well as seeds that are enveloped in fluff such as kapok and thistle are welcome nesting materials. You can also offer next boxes, which are available from many sources. It’s advisable to shop from reliable vendors who understand the needs of different bird species. It’s important that the boxes not be made with any wood treatments that might be toxic to birds.