Out My Backdoor: Feed Birds With Flowers in Fall

By Terry W. Johnson

The stress of the long, hot summer is beginning to show on the flowers in my backyard. For weeks, the zinnias, salvias, coneflowers and a host of others along with untold numbers of hummingbirds and butterflies attracted to them have treated my family to a veritable kaleidoscope of color. Knowing that soon the flowers time will be over, I must admit that I am filled with mixed emotions. Hummingbirds are departing in droves. As the flowers continue to wither and die, the butterflies will also disappear.

Meanwhile, I also realize that the flowers that fed nectar feeders throughout the summer will continue to attract and feed a host of birds if I don't do anything at all. 

As amazing as that may seem, leaving flowers standing after they have gone to seed is a great way to feed birds. However, for some reason, we backyard gardeners learn someplace along the way that good gardeners cut down flowers at the end of the growing season. Consequently,  this form of bird feeding is not practiced in most backyards.

This fall, when temperatures plummet and Jack Frost makes his first visit, blanketing our gardens with white, resist the temptation to cut down the flowers that were killed by the frost. Instead, sit back and watch. Soon you will see goldfinches and a host of other seed-eating birds bending the brown plant stalks down as they delicately remove the nutritious seeds from brown, withered seed heads. These forays into your flower garden will continue until all of the seeds are eaten.

One lesson that I have learned is that birds don't follow our concept of when the seasons begin and end. For example most birds have passed through Georgia on their fall migration long before fall officially begins. Consequently, birds gobble up what we consider traditional fall and winter foods whenever they are available. For that reason, I have seen male goldfinches still bedecked in their bright yellow and black breeding plumage feeding on coneflower seed heads in August.

Here is a list of 10 popular flowering plants that produce seeds eaten by birds in Georgia backyards.

More different species of birds dine on the seeds of the sunflower than any other plant that adorns Georgia gardens. The list of birds that relish sunflower seeds includes Carolina chickadees, purple and house finches, brown-headed and white-breasted nuthatches, eastern towhees, northern cardinals, red-bellied, downy and hairy woodpeckers, blue jays, and tufted titmice, to name but a few. You don't have to purchase an expensive small packet of seeds to plant a bed of sunflowers. Next spring, simply grab a handful of sunflower seeds purchased to feed the birds and plant them in a sunny spot in your garden. They will grow just fine.

Each year I plant a large bed of zinnias to attract butterflies. To keep the plants blooming throughout the summer, I deadhead the spent blooms. However, late in the summer, I cease deadheading the flowers, knowing that those heads I leave will provide seeds for American goldfinches, mourning doves, dark-eyed juncos, sparrows and even quail that may venture into my yard.

Purple coneflower
During the past three decades, purple coneflowers have become increasingly popular with Georgia gardeners. Originally planted strictly for their beauty, it didn't take long for homeowners to discover these showy flowers also attract butterflies. Hopefully, more folks will realize that if they leave the brown, cone-shaped seed heads on the plant they will also attract American goldfinches, blackbirds, sparrows and quail.

Petunias have long been a favorite of Georgia homeowners. The plant's beautiful trumpet-shaped blooms attract ruby-throated hummingbirds, cloudless sulphur butterflies and other nectar feeders throughout summer. Petunia seeds, on the other hand, are relished by our largest sparrows -- the fox sparrow, dark-eyed juncos and American goldfinches.

Four Oclock
This hardy plant provides nectar for hummingbirds late in the afternoon and early in the morning. During the night, the long bugle-shaped flowers are visited by sphinx moths. Some of these nocturnal visitors are larger than hummingbirds. The plants hard, black seeds are also gobbled up by cardinals. In fact, in my backyard, cardinals begin eating the seeds while they are still green. Those seeds that fall to the ground are devoured by quail.

Single-flowered hollyhocks were once a common sight around Peach State homes. For some reason, they have fallen out of favor. However, if you plant hollyhocks for hummingbirds and leave the plants tall stalks standing you may be surprised to look outside and see a breathtakingly beautiful Baltimore oriole dining on the plants seeds.

Salvias are among the best sources of nectar for hummingbirds. Yet, did you know that salvia seeds are eaten by house finches, American goldfinches and other birds? It's true.

Cosmos are easy to grow and are a great source of nectar for butterflies. Cosmos seeds are consumed by a number of birds including white-throated sparrows, mourning doves and American goldfinches.

Bachelor's button
Long recognized as a wonderful source of nectar for bees and butterflies, the seeds of this plant supply food for house finches, goldfinches and other birds.

This plant's unusual flowers provide nectar for hummingbirds. Additionally, its tiny seeds are eaten by sparrows and other birds.

To those among us who complain about not having enough time in the day to get everything done, discovering that you can actually benefit the birds in your backyard without having to do anything should be comforting. I know it is for me.

Terry Johnson is a former Nongame program manager with the Wildlife Resources Division, a noted backyard wildlife writer and expert, and executive director of TERN, the friends group for Wildlife Resources' Nongame Conservation Section. Read previous columns at www.georgiawildlife.com . Find out more about TERN at http://tern.homestead.com/ .