Caring for and Healing the Earth


Attracting Animal Life To Your Garden

Larry Lamb

(Note: The information in this article is oriented towards southern Ontario.  Your area may have other species which are better suited to it.  As well, some species which are not invasive in southern Ontario may be invasive in your area.)

    Much wildlife habitat is lost daily to urban and agricultural land conversion resulting in a substantial reduction in numbers of desirable native plant and animal species. However, we need not end up with a desert environment replete with House Sparrow, Rock Dove, European Starling, Norway Rat, and roaches; all hay fever sufferers, in a sea of Kentucky Bluegrass. Actually, the situation would never be this grim, for certain species such as Common Nighthawk and Chimney Swift, which nest on gravel roofs or in chimneys, respectively, would be virtually absent here without our commercial or industrial buildings.
    We can make up for habitat loss and actually improve upon the original situation, at least for some species of birds, mammals and insects, through judicious landscape reconstruction on an individual lot basis.
    Herein is an outline of ways to develop or improve a property's potential for animal attraction or habitation. I will deal mainly with means to attract butterflies, birds and small mammals, primarily through vegetative plantings.
    Before beginning, here are some general considerations before planting a certain species. Does your site meet the species' requirements for moisture, pH, soil (texture and drainage) or exposure (sun or shade)? Is the species climate hardy? How big will it get? Do its roots go down deep or spread out at the surface? If you have children around, avoid species with toxic fruit. Will the fruit dent cars or stain sidewalks? Are there overhead wires or underground services where you want to plant? Your plant's sex life is important also. If it is dioecious, you will need a male and a female plant to produce fruit.
    Try to create a natural-looking habitat. Use forest as a model if your yard is shady. If it is sunny, put in a shrubby, old-field system; meadow; prairie; savanna or woodlot edge.
    Avoid a manicured look. Nature is disorderly. Avoid symmetry but maintain balance. Keep shorter materials in the foreground. Plant clumps of the same or different, uneven aged species. Clumps provide impact and good cover. Maximize use of space by planting shrubs under trees, vines twining up them, then herbaceous plants under the shrubs, thereby creating a layered effect. Evergreens provide shelter from wind and/or predators (predators can also hide in them, lurking for prey) and are interesting winter accents. Site evergreens carefully so as to not block views or valuable winter sun. Introduce elements such as rocks, tree stumps, and a diversity of trees, shrubs, vines and herbaceous plants of different species, height, flowering and fruiting time, leaf shape and colour.
    Consider installing a water element. A pond, bird bath, even a margarine container weighted down with a rock, are excellent ways to draw in thirsty animal visitors.
Don't clean up your garden until spring, thereby avoiding the removal of insect egg cases and pupae, potentially valuable cover and a seed source for wintering birds.
Make your effort a neighbourhood one in order to create a larger area for attraction. Plant things your neighbours do not have, to increase diversity. Also, if someone has a male bayberry, sumac or whatever, why not put a female in your yard?
    In a former backyard, I created a fence row environment along three sides with a split rail fence weaving through rows and clumps of primarily native trees, shrubs and herbs. A few scattered boulders, a rock pile, which became a rock garden, and a water basin added to the rustic effect. In another garden I had a tall grass prairie ecosystem (a stupendous butterfly garden) in the backyard and a northern meadowscape in the front yard.
    Use of native wild plants is preferable to using exotics if you want a truly convincing natural habitat. Some alien species are good but tend to be invasive and should be avoided. If you must use non-indigenous plants, use benign species that do not spread vigorously from roots or via seed dispersal from wind or animals. Indigenous plants are adapted to local climate and disease conditions and are familiar to local animal species. They are also the best to use to maintain the purity of your globally unique bioregion. These can be purchased at some nurseries, started from seed or cuttings, or dug with discretion from the wild (along future road or utility corridors, or other areas about to be cleared for development).
    Also keep in mind that all will not be Rose-breasted Grosbeaks. You may also get House Sparrows, European Starlings, Norway Rats and other pests competing with the more desirable species, for they also appreciate a good thing.
A very important note: Free-ranging pets such as cats and dogs will play havoc with the best efforts to attract animal life to your neighbourhood.
    Following is a list, a ranking in order of importance and remarks for the better plants useful for attracting various animal species.


    You would be surprised to know how many butterfly species whisk by your garden already. The trick is to stop them long enough to get a look at and appreciate them. The way to do this for most species is to provide a sunny, sheltered open area with lots of colourful plants which provide nectar for the butterflies and foliage for their caterpillars to feed upon. Many butterflies like to sun themselves on a large rock or other bare surface or to sip moisture from damp soil. Quite a few species are attracted to rotting fruit, some to urine and faeces! Some species hibernate in crevices, cavities, wood piles, etc. Commercial butterfly hibernacula are even available! Look for the first butterflies of the year on warm days in the woods in February where Mourning Cloak, commas, Question Mark, tortoiseshells and Red Admiral can be seen sipping sap from tree wounds.
    If you use insecticides liberally, you will never have breeding populations established. Remember, the caterpillars you may kill are immature butterflies and moths. (They, along with other insects, are also valuable food for attracting birds!)

Although alien, butterfly bushes (Buddleia spp.), are, by far, the best shrubs for attracting a wide range of species; they are not invasive. Avoid white flowering specimens.
    Lilacs (Syringa spp.) are also quite good. Mock oranges (Philadelphus spp.), are excellent for attracting Red Admiral and purples. Avoid double flowering varieties. Potted tropical Lantana is also excellent for drawing in butterflies. The flowers of dogwoods (Cornus spp.) (especially Alternate-leaved) are particularly attractive to our blues, small but some of our more enchanting butterflies. New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus americanus) attracts a wide variety of skippers; a group of smallish, brown, moth-like butterflies, several of which are uncommon or rare in Ontario.

Herbaceous Plants
Butterfly or Orange Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) is your best bet if you want to attract a great variety of butterflies. It likes full sun and will grow in dry, well drained soil; worth planting for its beauty even if it did not attract anything. In spite of being on most noxious weeds lists, our Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) is also excellent but tends to be invasive and difficult to eradicate once established (actually most species of milkweeds are good). Most conscientious weed inspectors will not enforce milkweed removal in urban areas. The Monarch is guaranteed if you use them.
Purple coneflowers (Echinacea spp.) are plants with long lasting flowers that attract a large number of individuals and species.
    Our native asters (or Michaelmus daisies), particularly New England Aster (Aster novae angliae), blazing stars (Liatris spp.), Pale Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), goldenrods (Solidago spp.), thistles (Cirsium spp.), sunflowers (Helianthus spp.), rosinweeds (Silphium spp.), Joe Pye weeds, boneset (Eupatorium spp.), ironweeds (Vernonia spp.), tick-trefoils (Desmodium spp., especially D. canadense) and dogbanes (Apocynum spp.) are also valuable wild plants. Your best conventional garden species are verbenas (especially V. bonariensis), sedum (especially S. spectabile), marigolds (Tagetes spp.), phloxes, tithonia, zinnia and lupines (Lupinus spp.). Red Clover (Trifolium pratense) and Alfalfa (Medicago sativa) are fantastic if you have space for a small patch. Oxeye Daisy (Chrysanthemum leucanthemum) attracts Crescents.
    If you want Black Swallowtail to visit your garden, plant dill, parsley, carrot, Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea) or Queen Anne's Lace (Daucus carota) for its caterpillar. Red Admiral is almost always found near nettles on which its larva feeds. Pussytoes (Antennaria spp.) and Pearly Everlasting (Anaphalis magaritacea) are the larval plants for the painted ladies. The caterpillars of whites feed on mustards, sulphurs on legumes. Black cherry (Prunus serotina) and Tulip Tree (Liriodendron tulipifera) are larval plants for the Tiger Swallowtail. The Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillar feeds on Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) and Sassafras (Sassafras albidum). The caterpillars of purples, Viceroy and Mourning Cloak feed on willows (Salix spp.) and the hop merchants' (Question Mark and commas) larvae, obviously feed on hops (Humulus spp. - caution! alien and invasive). Hackberry (Celtis occidentalis) is the tree that three of our rarer Southwestern Ontario species of caterpillars feed upon - Hackberry, Tawny Emperor and Snout butterflies. The relatively uncommon Baltimore's caterpillar feeds on turtlehead (Chelone glabra). The caterpillars of the crescents feed on asters. Caterpillars of the browns (wood nymphs and satyrs) like grasses and sedges (Carex spp.) and fritillary caterpillars feed on violets (Viola spp.). Hairstreaks' larvae feed on oaks (Quercus spp.) and hickories (Carya spp.). Ontario's largest butterfly, the Giant Swallowtail, is restricted mainly to the southwestern or Carolinian portion of the province. Its larva feeds mainly on Canada's two native citrus family members: Hoptree (Ptelea trifoliata) and Prickly Ash (Zanthoxylum americanum). The rare Zebra Swallowtail's larva feeds on Pawpaw (Asimina triloba). The larvae of many of our skippers feed on legumes, especially indigos (Baptisia spp.) and New Jersey Tea. The larva of the Harvester butterfly is carnivorous and feeds on woolly aphids on alder (Alnus spp.)!

    Although nocturnal by nature, moths can be drawn to your garden by bright lights or searched for at flowers with a flashlight. The sphinx or hawk moths (the tomato worm is one of these magnificent moths) are particularly attracted to strongly sweet scented, night blooming, tubular-flowered plants such as petunias, Nicotiana or tobacco (use white flowered varieties). They are fascinating to watch hovering in front of the blossoms. Vine honeysuckles (Lonicera spp.) and Trumpet Creeper (Campsis radicans) are woody vines they really like. Rotten fruit, such as fallen apples or pears, is highly attractive to both butterflies and moths. You can actually prepare and spread mixtures of rotten fruit and sugar on tree trunks to bait butterflies and moths. Adding beer or other alcohol makes them easier to catch or just observe. Remember that the large silk moths, such as Luna, Cecropia, Promethea, Polyphemus, etc., do not eat as adults, so nothing except lights will bring them in.

    Besides providing food shrubs and shelter to attract songbirds, also consider their needs for water and grit. A feeder is all right, but remember to start it up in earnest in late August to contain migrant species. Then keep it active until spring. The right seed is important for many species. Avoid cheap mixes. You get what you pay for, believe me! Suet feeders are cheap and extremely valuable to woodpeckers, nuthatches and chickadees. Keep your suet feeder active all summer. Bird houses and/or nesting platforms will also help to maintain certain species.
    If you have large picture windows, consider sticking or suspending cutouts of hawks and owls in front of them to reduce the possibility of birds hitting reflections on the glass and becoming injured or killed. Coarse-gridded netting outside is also useful. These measures are especially important if you have lots of large houseplants, inside, against the glass.
    If you want Purple Martin, you will need to be close to a water body, in addition to providing its elaborate colonial home. Great Northern Oriole prefers elms (Ulmus spp.) and Silver Maple (Acer saccarhinum) for its nest. Evergreens, such as spruces (Picea spp.) and Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana), go through a cycle of attracting nesting Chipping Sparrow, House Finch, American Robin, Common Grackle, then Mourning Dove, as they mature.
    Everyone appreciates hummingbirds and fortunately these feathered jewels are easy to attract, even for an apartment dweller. Although using living plants is best, commercial feeders, usually a small, red, trumpet-like plastic flower with a sugar-water filled reservoir are available and work well. Do not let the solution mold or the hummers will get ill. Hummers like red flowers (orange and yellow work also). I can guarantee that the following species will bring them into your garden:
    Oswego Tea (Monarda didyma)
    coral bells (Heuchera sanquinea), red flowered forms
    flowering quinces (Chaenomeles spp.)
    Trumpet Creeper (Campsis radicans)
    vine honeysuckles (Lonicera spp.)
    Scarlet Runner - bean (Phaseolus coccineus)
    Fire Sage or salvia (Salvia splendens)
    jewelweed (Impatiens biflorum)
    red hot pokers (Tritoma or Kniphofia spp.)
    Eastern Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis)
    Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis)
    Fire Pink and Royal Catchfly (Silene spp.)

Also good are:
    bleeding hearts (Dicentra spp.)
    Crown Imperial (Fritillaria imperialis)
    Rose Tree of China (Prunus triloba)
    Fragrant Currant (Ribes odoratum)
    Apple (pink blossomed types) (Pyrus malus)
    cannas (Canna spp.)
    Saucer Hollyhock (Althea rosea)
    Magnolia (Magnolia soulangeana)

On several occasions I have witnessed humming birds gathering spider web silk for their nests.

Berry Producing Plants Useful for Attracting Birds
    Use our native species. No alien species is better than a native counterpart growing here naturally. Especially avoid species such as: buckthorns (Rhamnus spp.), Multiflora Rose (Rosa multiflora), privets (Ligustrum spp.), barberries (Berberis thunbergii and B. vulgaris) and the others noted throughout the following text.
    Shadbushes, Saskatoonberries, serviceberries, Juneberries (Amelanchier spp., especially A. arborea and A. laevis) are by far our best species for attracting berry birds. They also have attractive bark and showy white flowers, as well as magnificent, red fall colour. The berries are generically called Saskatoon berries. Try some yourself. Nannyberry (Viburnum lentago) is an attractive large shrub/small tree that has blue-black berries on red stems. It also has attractive flowers and magnificent, red fall colour. The other viburnums are also valuable, especially arrowwoods (V. rafinesquianum and V. dentatum). Highbush Cranberry (V. trilobum) for some reason is of little value, except as a late winter survival food for a few species (especially Bohemian waxwing).
    Red Osier Dogwood (C. stolonifera) is excellent for attracting birds. The red bark is also a visual treat in winter, especially when combined with evergreens. Flowering Dogwood (C. florida) is also excellent, but is not quite flower (bract) hardy, except for in Southwestern Ontario. It also has magnificent crimson fall colour. Grey (C. racemosa), Silky (C. obliqua), Rough-leaved (C. rugosa) and Alternate-leaved or Pagoda Tree (C. alternifolia) are also excellent and have red - burgundy fall colour.
    Tartarian Honeysuckle (Lonicera tatarica; also L. morrowii) is an excellent species that has attractive flowers as well in spring. This species, however, is highly invasive from berries and poses a threat to natural areas and really should be avoided in favour of one of our native species such as Fly Honeysuckle (L. canadensis, requires shade) or Smooth Vine honeysuckle (L. dioica).
    Cherries (Prunus spp.): Chokecherry (P. virginiana) and Bird, Fire, or Pin Cherry (P. pensylvanica) are the best wild cherries to use. Black (P. serotina) and Sand cherries (P. pumilla) are also good. Most have excellent, red fall colour. Try these different cherries yourself, why let the birds have all the fun? Needless to say, we know how well the cultivated sweet and sour cherries attract birds.
    Mulberries (Morus rubra, M. alba or M. nigra) are attractive trees with incredibly good fruit, highly attractive to birds. Mulberry fruit stains cars and sidewalks badly. The native Morus rubra is quite rare, but is the only one you should use. Remove alien mulberries, (especially, white) as they hybridize with our rare, native tree and invade our natural areas.
    Mountain ashes (Sorbus americana, S. decora or S. aucuparia) are very attractive flowering and fruiting trees birds like. Use our native Showy Mountain Ash (S. decora) if you can obtain it. European Mountain Ash or Rowan Tree (S. aucuparia) is somewhat invasive.
    Blueberries (Vaccinium corymbosum, in particular) are excellent bird bushes.
The shrubby forms of Poison ivy (Rhus radicans) are excellent attractive plants with regard to their white berries and foliage (red fall colour). The berries are much appreciated by birds. Too bad the plant causes dermatitis. It is also a noxious weed, especially in urban situations, but leave it in the wild.
    Bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica) is worth planting for its attractive waxy, white fruit and aromatic foliage. You need a male and female, but it is worth it.
Raspberries, blackberries, and salmonberry (Rubus spp.) are good for drawing in birds. Try Purple Flowering Raspberry (Rubus odoratus) for its large, single, purple, rose-like flowers and unusual fruit.
    Apples, domestic and crab varieties (Pyrus spp.), if left to rot on the trees, are particularly good for winter birds, as well as mammals. Try our native Crab Apple (P. coronaria) instead of the alien ornamentals.
    Russian olives and oleasters (Elaeagnus spp.) are very attractive, silvery-foliaged trees and shrubs reputed to be of value for attracting birds. Autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellata) should definitely not be used due to its highly invasive nature. If you have one, eradicate it!
    Red Cedar, when in fruit, is highly attractive to "cedar" waxwings.
    The following species are also valuable:  Elderberries (Sambucus canadensis, and S. pubens), greenbriers (Smilax spp.), wild grapes (Vitis spp.), Virginia creepers (Parthenocissus spp.), currants (Ribes spp.), chokebenies (Pyrus or Aronia spp.), winterberry and american hollies (Ilex verticillata and I. opaca), and cotoneasters (alien).  Sumacs (Rhus spp.), especially Fragrant Sumac (R. aromatica), Staghorn (R. typhina), and Smooth (R. glabra), also attract birds, especially chickadees and woodpeckers; probably more for the insects in the seed heads though, than for the seed!

Dry Seed Producing Plants for Birds
Wintering finches (Pine Siskin, redpolls, Purple Finch, etc.), will go for the following:
    Speckled Alder (Alnus rugosa)
    birches (Betula alba [alien], B. lutea, B. papyiifera, B. populifolia)
    White Cedar (Thuja occidentalis)
    Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) cones are for crossbills
    Manitoba Maple (Acer negundo) and ashes (Fraxinus spp.) will draw Evening Grosbeaks.
    Beech nuts and acorns will draw Blue Jay.
Also, of some general use are Tamarack (Larix laricina), yews (Taxus spp.), hazels (Corylus spp.), and Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis).

    If you want Goldfinch, plant sunflowers, rosin weeds, coreopsis, thistles, evening primroses (Oenothera spp., especially O. biennis), and Chicory (Cichorium intybus).
    Other useful herbaceous plants for a broad range of wintering birds are zinnia, coreopsis, marigolds, beggar ticks (Bidens spp.), asters, hollyhock, cereal crops (wheat, corn, oats, etc.) and native grasses with large seeds.
    Again, remember to include a few evergreen trees or shrubs in your planting scheme. These provide good nesting habitat for many species and are of tremendous shelter value, especially in winter.

Small Mammals
    Rabbits, Raccoon, Virginia Opossum, Eastern Chipmunk, mice and squirrels are controversial garden denizens. Some gardeners feel they do more harm than good. However, if you want them, provide cover through dense shrub plantings or a rock or log pile, retain trees with cavities or construct shelters. Bats take readily to bat houses and roosts put out for them. Plant plenty of berry plants or nut producing plants such as hazels, oaks, walnuts (black and English, butternut, Japanese heartnut, (Juglans spp.), horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum, caution! alien and invasive), native Sweet Chestnut (Castanea dentata), hickories and American Beech (Fagus grandifolia).
    In all probability, small mammals will visit your garden without your enticement.

    If you live in or adjacent to a forested area, especially one with a wet area, consider putting out log sections, bark slabs, rocks, etc. to provide shelter for salamanders, snakes, and toads. Toad abodes can be purchased or made from clay flower pots, bark or groups of stones. It is a good idea though to keep these constructions a bit away from your foundation to avoid Carpenter Ant invasions into your house. Water elements will encourage visits from frogs.

    I hope these suggestions are of help in establishing your own wildlife sanctuary. It is challenging, rewarding and educating to work with nature and obtain an idea of the complex interrelationships between plants and animals.

    Good luck!


Copyright 1967-2001 by Larry Lamb, reproduced with permission.
Larry Lamb has written other articles on plants which appear on this website. See the Naturalization and Alien Plants sections.


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