A hedge that’s a haven for birds of all runs

Bird gobbling a berry from a hedge shrub

Inviting wild birds to come forage for snacks in your garden hedges is one of the most thrilling garden shows – and it’s great for the environment, too. Miles of hedges along fields disappeared from our countryside when mechanization took over farming, and these used to be a home and source of food. Today, decades later, the consequences are getting back at us: with less helpful birds around, pests and insects become uncontrollable.

1. Clear benefits

For birds

  • Growing plants that provide food for birds is often much more helpful than giving them seeds and seed cakes directly. Feeders and seed cakes have one major drawback: they make birds dependent on them, and you yourself are locked into having to top them up until spring and summer are back. During long, harsh winters, this is a valuable supplement, though!
  • Also, hedges that produce berries attract a great many insects when they bloom: this is also a new source of food for birds. Foreign species often have a more nectar than local ones, which is appealing to many of our own birds. However, note that double-flowered hybrids should be avoided: they’re often sterile and won’t bear fruit.
  • Many birds take shelter in hedges, all the more so when they’re dense and thorny, as Pyracantha, barberry (Berberis), Mahonia and blackthorn can be. This protective shelter keeps predators away, birds of prey of course, but more importantly, cats. Some even choose thorny shrubs over tall trees for that very reason!

A nest with robin chicks, well protected in a thorny hedge

For people

  • Blue tit helping the gardener out, eating a caterpillarBirds, even though some are considered pests by some gardeners, are generally excellent insect pest control. A single song thrush can eat up to 10,000 larvae (caterpillars, codling moths), flies, snails and more just during the mating and reproduction season. Birds that discover that your garden is a food haven during winter will also choose to nest in the area – flying left and right picking pests off your flowers and vegetables as they raise their broods!
  • Beneficial insects like ladybugs, hoverflies, lacewing that come look for pollen or reproduce on the these shrubs also help control pest populations, especially aphids and mites.

2. How to select your hedge shrubs?

The goal of such hedges is to have as much diversity as can be, so that food is available over a long span of time, ideally ranging from August to the beginning of March. Some berries are known to attract specific bird species:

  • Amelanchier is a type of hedge shrub that has few but nutrient-packed berriesamelanchier attracts robins, whitethroats, bullfinches and starlings;
  • barberry (Berberis) tends to appeal to thrush, flycatchers, tits and nuthatches.

This illustrates how important it is to have different types of shrubs. As should be when planting anything, check that the species you select are compatible with your soil type: for instance, blueberry must have acidic soil. Luckily, most available hedge shrubs can make do with any kind of soil, except perhaps those areas where chalk and lime is particularly active.

Ideally, you’d let the hedge grow wild, pairing tree-like shrubs with shorter, bushy ones: this will give birds different levels of shrubbery to roost and nest in. In a city, you won’t have as many option: best find a few compact, short-growing species or control growth with regular pruning.

Remember to keep a strip of wild grasses along the base, this hinders predators.

3. Shrubs that birds like

European spindle (Euonymus europaeus)

Spindle hedge shrubs produce some of the most visually attractive fruits everThis native-to-Europe species does well even in chalky soil. Its “bishop’s hat”-like fruits open into four bright coral-colored quarters, revealing orange seeds hidden inside. E. alatus ‘Compactus’ is a shorter, stouter variety, (3 feet tall by 5 feet across) that has knobby growth along the branches.  Its carmine red fall colors are truly spectacular. Spindle is where bullfinches, black-capped chickadees and long-tailed tits set up shop.

Firethorn (Pyracantha)

Pyracantha shrubs bear loads of berries Pyracantha stands out thanks to its dense, shiny foliage and cream-colored blooming in April-May. Bees love foraging for pollen, and birds love the red, orange or yellow berries that appear over summer. Birds get to feast on them during the entire winter. It does have a defensive role against intruders, but you can also just train it along the side of the house to great heights, over 12 feet or 4 meters high.

Wild privet (Ligustrum vulgare)

Black berries of a privet shrub, waiting for birds to come pick themThis small evergreen tree produces clusters of creamy-white flowers in May-June, replaced in time by just as many black berries that tits, hawfinches and greenfinches adore…

Mahonia

Mahonia berries appear in different seasons for birdsIdeal for shaded areas under trees, or wedged between other shrubs in a hedge for a bright, fragrant blooming during winter, Mahonia also does well as a standalone thanks to its shiny, holly-like leaves. Its blue-gray berries (which are delicious in jam) are a favorite of birds.

Snowball viburnum (Viburnum opulus)

Viburnum snowball shrubs have bird-attracting berries in a hedgeThis European shrub unveils flat, white flower clusters in May-June. The three-lobed leaves take on beautiful hues in fall, and at the same time deep red clusters of berries appear (not edible). It appreciates cool soil. Ah, one thing to know: the famous ‘Roseum’ cultivar won’t produce berries!

Other excellent options: Callicarpa, ivy, Skimmia, Cotoneaster, snowberry, elder, rowan, holly, hawthorn

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Image credits (edits Gaspard Lorthiois):
Pixabay: PenjaK, an anonymous photographer, J. Henning, Sirounian Armen, Светлана Бердник, Albert Dezetter
CC BY-SA 2.0: Cameron McGary
own work: Rosalyn & Gaspard Lorthiois