Five Low-water Plants for Winter Birds

stellar jay in garden
Stellar jay in line for raw peanuts in late fall.

As winter drags on, birds need lots of energy and shelter from the elements and predators. The best bird habitats mix shelter, water, natural seeds and nest-building material as spring approaches. Native plants offer many of these benefits, and the more varied a landscape, the more bird-friendly it is. For example, birds in our garden “stage” their visits to feeders or the ground by moving between the thorniest rose bushes and higher trees.

woodpecker and sparrow on bird feeder
Birds use low bushes as staging spots before visiting the feeder in our redbud.

Here are five plants or plant types that make birds safer and happier when temperatures drop without adding a lot to your work, or to summer watering requirements.

stellar jay on ground in rock garden
We have lots of spots in our garden where jays hide peanuts.

Native grasses

blue grama grass meadow
Blue grama and wildflower meadow. The grama seed spreads and feeds birds, who also help disperse the seed further for us.

Replacing at least some of your turf with native grasses and other native plants helps birds and uses less water. We purposefully leave our native grasses (mostly buffalo and blue grama) long as it dies back in fall to increase  shots at reseeding and filling in bare spots. The seeds also provide food for ground-hopping birds, additional food caches for jays to hide the raw peanuts we put out, and dried grass stalks for nests before the grass greens in summer.

Ornamental grasses

Karl Foerster grass
Karl Foerster grass in a new dry river bed, next to volunteer blanket flower.

Switchgrass, big bluestem and muhly grasses all provide seeds and nesting materials for birds. Karl Foerster feather reed grass (Calamagrostis acutiflora “Karl Foerster”) attracts birds and is a beautiful winter plant, with tall seed stalks that blow in the breeze. There are hundreds of species of the grass, and it grows in zones 5 through 9. Its water requirements are a little higher than some native grasses, but if you plant Karl Foerster grass in a rain garden or low spot, it will get more water naturally and won’t be hurt by the damp soil.

Barberry

barberry
New barberry (upper right) not far from our bird feeder.
barberry foliage
Deep red barberry foliage on right contrasts nicely with gazanias.

Barberry (Berberus) is a hardy shrub with small thorns along its branches. Depending on the variety you choose, you’ll enjoy deep red or pinkish foliage. The shrubs grow in zones 3 through 8 and retain their leaves in winter in most conditions. Fragrant yellow flowers emerge in spring, and the prickly branches provide good cover for small birds. You can plant several barberries a few feet closer together than recommended to create an attractive, bird-friendly hedge.

Boxwood

boxwood and pyracantha near New Mexico home entry
The wedding dress only hung by the front door momentarily, but the boxwood (left) and pyracantha (right) prune into welcoming shapes. Image courtesy Jessican Inman Photography.

Boxwood (Buxus) normally isn’t considered a low-water plant, and I’ve seen countless examples of boxwood to form formal hedges and designs in other areas of the country. It is an easy plant to shape, and makes such a good hedge because its evergreen foliage is so dense.  That’s also why birds love boxwood. Although boxwood might look a little formal for a native rock garden, we use ours as a foundation plant near our front door, where we want a more landscaped effect. Since it’s also on the north side of the house, I’m sure birds hide under the bush for cover. The boxwood’s protected, mostly shady location and slow growth habit help the shrub stay healthy with less water than it might need in a sunny spot.

Pyracantha

pyracantha berries
Partially eaten berries on a pyracantha bush in fall.

Pyracantha shrubs produce berries in late fall to feed birds as temperatures drop. Also a thorny bush (sometimes called Firethorn), pyracanthas provide safe shelter for birds. What I love about the shrub is the diverse ways you can use it in a Southwest landscape. Leave it to grow naturally (maybe with some shoot trimming after rainy summers) or shape it like a hedge. We had several growing along a distant fence and Tim moved one to the front of the house. The pyracantha transplanted without a blink and just a few scratches. We leave the remaining two out in the yard in their natural state and shape the one in front of the house. I get to see the berries from my kitchen window and saw a Stellar jay eating them this past fall.

goldfinch in Apache plume
A finch waits his turn for thistle in o a native Apache plume shrub.

Many native shrubs  attract birds in winter. Berries, seeds and bushy cover all support wildlife. Ask your local nursery or master gardeners for the best low-water plants in your Southwest zone.