Native Plants Help Spring Migrants Across the Great Lakes

Exploring the four major food groups for birds through the lens of native plants

Across the Great Lakes, signs of life are emerging. Spring Beauty, Bloodroot, and other spring ephemerals are poking through the soil and blooming; enormous flocks of migrating Sandhill Cranes can be seen and heard above; trees are flowering and leafing out; the cacophonous sounds of Common Grackles, Red-winged Blackbirds and Killdeer can be heard in both nature preserves and city parks. These abundant signs of spring are welcome after an especially challenging winter under quarantine.

Unfortunately, many people  especially many of those who live in dense urban areas — cannot readily see these signs of spring in their neighborhoods. For them, the most noticable sign of spring might be watching their lawns transform from a drab, hay-colored hue to a deep, lush green as plants start to photosynthesize. What they might not see are insects, both aboveground and underground, birds foraging for bugs or seeds, a diversity of wildflowers and their pollinators eager to drink nectar or collect pollen, and wildlife stopping for a sip of water or taking cover from predators. But believe it or not, everyone has the ability to create biodiversity hotspots at home that can make a real difference in the life of a bird.

Springtime can be difficult if you’re a bird. Long-distance migrants like Scarlet Tanagers undertake a nearly 3,000 mile journey from South America to the Great Lakes twice per year. That journey is littered with dangerous obstacles like violent storms, non-stop flights over open water, predators, lack of food, and glass buildings that millions of birds collide with every year. Therefore, it’s no surprise that migration is the most dangerous period of the year for birds.

One of the best ways Great Lakes residents can help migrating birds is by planting native plants at home. While it might seem like a small task, our front and backyards, parkways, balconies, and porches can all become refuges for migrating birds. By planting native, we can provide birds with adequate food, water, and shelter to get them through the next leg of their remarkable journeys.

Planting native species for the first time can be a daunting task. "What should you plant?" "Where should you plant it?" "Where should you buy them?"  Thankfully, Audubon’s Plants for Birds program provides answers to all of these questions, and resources to help first-time amateurs and green thumbers alike. Enter in your zip code to get a list of native plants that are appropriate to your area, along with information on local native plant nurseries you can buy from, and a list of Audubon chapters who can help.

If you’re new to native plants, it’s important to understand the different food sources that birds rely on. Native plants provide berries and fruits, nectar, and nuts and seeds. The fourth food source is an unlikely one: insects, specifically caterpillars! Here’s a look at some native plant species that work great in a yard and will provide important food sources for migrating birds.


Most people don’t know it, but 96 percent of land birds feed insects to their chicks. In the springtime and early summer, when many birds have nestlings, caterpillars are the most prized food source, because of the nutrients they can provide a baby bird. In one study, chickadee nestlings ate nearly 600 caterpillars per day, or roughly 9,000 caterpillars from hatching to leaving the nest! In the Great Lakes states, trees and shrubs are the biggest magnets for caterpillars, and certain species like oak, willow, cherry, and birch attract the greatest diversity of caterpillars. One of the most important shrubs is the Blackhaw Viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium) which attracts caterpillars from the Hummingbird Clearwing moth and the Spring Azure butterfly, and whose berries, while small, are a delicious treat for birds.

Berries and Fruits

Berries and fruits likely come to mind first when people think of important bird food sources. However, many of our resident and migratory birds are too small to consume the large fruits on a crabapple, cherry, or plum tree. The berries of a Spicebush (Lindera benzoin), however, are small enough for many bird species to enjoy. Loaded with lipids (healthy fats), these bright red berries are ideal for migrating birds. Furthermore, the flowers are fragrant, the leaves and small branches have a distinctly spicy aroma, and the leaves turn a bright yellow, contrasting sharply with the bright red berries. Just be sure to plant at least three Spicebush at a time, since some shrubs are female and some are male.


Nectar is another underappreciated food source for birds. Most people are familiar with the concept of insects lapping up nectar inside of a flower. While most birds are unable to gently access the nectar on a delicate flower, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds have mastered this craft. If you want to attract these tiny birds (which only weigh about 0.1 oz!), you’ll need native plants that bloom red. Red is a fairly uncommon flower color, since many insects cannot perceive the color. However, to a Ruby-throated Hummingbird, red sticks out, which is why most Hummingbird feeders are red. Try Wild Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis), a beautiful spring/early summer bloom that will bring a bright pop of color to your garden. Make sure to keep your binoculars ready. If a Hummingbird finds a Columbine in your yard, you won’t want to miss it.

Nuts and Seeds

Nuts and seeds are a plentiful food source for birds, especially in the late summer and early fall. Nuts can grow on trees and shrubs, and seeds can be found on many types of wildflowers, especially Asters and Goldenrods. Yellow Coneflower (Ratibida pinnata) is an excellent choice, because birds love the seeds and they smell amazing too. I often consider Yellow Coneflower to be the best-smelling plant on the prairie. Once you’ve experienced crushing the dried seed heads in your hand and taking a deep inhale, you’ll feel the same!

Now that you’ve got a handle on the four major food groups for birds, you can start planting! Visit the Audubon Plants for Birds website, enter your zip code, find some local native plant nurseries, and start making plans to build a bird-friendly yard!

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