Feed The Birds: 10 Plants With Great Winter Seedheads

Once their petals fade, cut flowers tend to end up in the garbage. But outside, it’s a different story. Not only do dried blooms enhance a garden, but their seedheads provide food to birds and wildlife. And those two reasons alone should make us think twice before cutting our plants back for winter.

SEEDHEADS ADD STRUCTURE 

It’s true. When left uncut, dried flower stalks can be every bit as striking as bare winter trees. Much like a sepia photo, their rich brown tint lends a warm, comforting feel to the garden. 

Winter interest doesn’t have to be all about evergreens. Take a second look at these faded beauties and see them for their sculptural forms. They’ll provide structure to your cold-weather garden.

BIRDS LOVE THEM

That being said, the primary reason to leave certain plants uncut is for their seedheads. During the winter months, the dried flowers of many summer and fall-blooming perennials provide food to many insects, birds and wildlife. Small birds often perch right on top of the seedhead to forage, while larger birds rummage for seeds on the ground.

And many birds that eat insects in summer switch to seeds in winter once these resources are no longer available.

Sunflower seeds rank high among seed-eating birds like cardinals, chickadees, goldfinches and red-bellied woodpeckers. Birds like American goldfinches, by contrast, tend to gravitate towards smaller composite flowers like asters and coreopsis. And for most birds, the dried inflorescences of ornamental grasses furnish essential food, while the plants themselves provide great wildlife habitats.

rabbit sheltering in dried grass

A rabbit sheltering in dried grass/Photo: shutterstock

Winter is a harsh season for many animals since natural food sources are scarce. Waiting to cut back dried plants directly benefits your local wildlife.

10 PLANTS WITH BEAUTIFUL SEEDHEADS

Of course, you should still prune those plants whose stems collapse or decay. But when it come to the sturdier plants, like the ones listed below, let them remain upright in the garden during the winter. You’ll be rewarded with a flurry of wildlife activity. Chop these plants down in the early spring when new growth starts to appear.

burdock

The beautiful seedheads of burdock/Photo: shutterstock

ECHINACEA (CONEFLOWER)

Stripped of its pink petals, echinacea’s (coneflower) magnificent pyramidal cone is hard to ignore. Blue jays, cardinals and goldfinches all enjoy eating its seeds. The larger the group, the better. 

Echinacea seedhead

RUDBECKIA (BLACK-EYED SUSAN)

Late to the scene, rudbeckias (Black-eyed Susans) add a welcome blast of color to the late-summer garden. And some would say that their distinctive black seedheads are every bit as beautiful as their flowers. Like coneflowers, these sturdy plants will remain standing for much of the winter. And goldfinches, nuthatches, chickadees and towhees all enjoy feasting on their tiny dark cones.

Black-eyed Susans are veritable bird-feeders

JOE PYE WEED

Joe Pye Weed is as happy growing on the roadside as it is in the garden. In the summer, its mauve blooms are covered with pollinators. Once its flowers have faded, the seedheads also provide seeds to chickadees, wrens and titmice as well as the fluff to build their winter nests.

American goldfinch feasting on Joe Pye Weed

Goldfinch feasting on Joe Pye Weed/Photo: shutterstock

SCABIOSA (PINCUSHION FLOWER)

Scabiosa columnaria’s distinctive prickly round seedhead leaves no doubt as to how it acquired its common name, pincushion flower. Birds eat its ripe seeds in the fall.

scabiosa seedhead

Scabiosa seedhead/Photo: shutterstock

ORNAMENTAL GRASSES

During the winter, many native birds like sparrows and finches forage for seeds from ornamental grasses, just as they do in the wild. The plants’ brown flowerheads furnish seeds throughout the winter. And their dense foliage provides great shelter to wildlife. 

snow on ornamental grass

Dried flowers of ornamental grass/Photo: shutterstock

SEDUM

Almost more beautiful in autumn than in summer, sedum’s flat, brick-red flower clusters last well into the winter. During the hot weather months, they’re covered with pollinators. But in the winter, upright varieties like ‘Autumn Joy’ provide an abundance of food to finches, chickadees and other seed-eating birds. 

dried flowerheads of sedum

Dried flowerheads of Sedum/Photo: shutterstock

COREOPSIS

In the summer, this cheerful plant with nectar-rich blooms is a magnet for pollinators, including hummingbirds. And in the fall and early winter, its dried flowers provide food for sparrows, chickadees, cardinals, goldfinches and other seed-eating birds.

coreopsis seedhead

Coreopsis seedheads/Photo: shutterstock

EVENING PRIMROSE

As its name implies, evening primrose is known for its flowers that open at night and generally close in late morning. Its stiff seed pods have four chambers, each of which contains 300+ reddish brown seeds. Produced in September, the seeds are favorites of wildlife and goldfinches, in particular.

evening primrose

Evening Primrose

MULLEIN (VERBASCUM)

This silver, velvety leaved plant with tall yellow flowers often appears unannounced in the garden. Originally from Europe, it has naturalized all over the world. Since its large rosettes survive the cold weather, mullein makes a great home for overwintering insects like ladybugs. Its seeds are also eaten by many birds.

Mullein growing wild in a field

 

The Return of the Purple Martin

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As all gardeners know, working in the garden is not just about plants. Being outside with your hands in the soil makes you keenly aware of animal life, too. Over the years, I’ve gardened in tandem with a majestic blue heron, a band of three crows and a playful red fox. Now, with the arrival of warmer weather, I’m looking forward to the return of the purple martins.

Aside from being able to identify their houses (virtual mansions of the ornithological kind), I didn’t know much about these birds until recently, when my garden club hosted two members of a local purple martin society. Ever since, I’ve been scanning the skies for the colorful species. According to the experts, the first wave of birds will be arriving in my area soon.

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Purple martin house

PURPLE MARTINS HEAD NORTH IN THEIR ‘WINTER’

Of the eight swallow species, purple martins are the largest. The dark, bluish-black birds arrive in North America each spring, soaring on the jet stream from their native southern Brazil. It takes them about five weeks to fly the 10,000 miles, which is quite a feat for a bird that weighs only about 2 ½ ounces.

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Female purple martin in flight

Like many neotropical birds, purple martins travel north in order to breed. The birds arrive at the height of the insect season, establishing themselves in colonies located close to water where there is the greatest food supply. In total, the migration can take up to 2 to 3 months to complete.

ONLY MAN-MADE HOUSING WILL DO

In Brazil, purple martins are considered a public nuisance, mainly due to their large numbers and preference for roosting in trees around central plazas. As a result, some municipalities have gone so far as to install sirens and other devices to chase the birds away.

In the United States, on the other hand, it’s a different story. Here, large groups of purple martins return each year to establish neighborhoods in man-made housing only. In fact, they are the only bird species that is totally dependent on human-supplied housing. Not only do they like people, but they actually prefer living in close proximity. 

Purple Martin Birdhouse Community

As a species, purple martins favor locations in wide-open terrain, usually in the form of pole-mounted martin houses or gourds. This keeps them out of reach of predators like owls and hawks that dwell in tree cavities. They’ll generally avoid congested suburban areas and instead roost in open meadows or fields located near lakes or other bodies of water.

Although just one male and female live together in a room or gourd, the highly sociable birds house together in colonies, where they interact as a unit, sharing food and singing to each other. All told, a group of houses or gourds can host as many as 60 to 70 birds over a 2-month period.

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Purple martin pair

THEY SEND SCOUTS

Now is the time of year when the first scouts (who are the oldest birds) begin arriving from Brazil to check out their nesting sites from the previous year. The scouts pave the way for the rest of the flock, which arrives 4 to 6 weeks later. Built like a glider, the birds can travel at speeds of more than 40 miles per hour.

THEY ONLY FEED ON THE FLY

And purple martins bring a whole new meaning to eating ‘on the fly.’ According to Mike Dickson of the Purple Martin Society of Frederick, Maryland, they only recognize food that is in flight, meaning that they primarily snatch insects in midair. Adept in performing complex aerial acrobatics, the birds even drink in the air. They accomplish this by flying low over lakes or ponds while scooping up water with their bills.

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A female in flight

Indeed, you’ll never find purple martins foraging for food on the ground, or eating seed from a feeder. People who choose to feed the friendly birds will discover they’re quite open to the idea, but only if the food is flung to them. On occasion, human intervention is necessary when periods of cold or rain suppress insect populations. This can spell death to entire colonies.

THEY SING REALLY WELL

One of only a few colony birds that love to sing, purple martins’ throaty chirps can be heard May through June during the breeding season. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, males make a croaking song during courtship that can last up to 4 seconds. People say that once you’ve heard it, you’ll never forget it.

pm.male standing on post in British columbia

Males perform the dawn song

Purple martins sing in a combination of gurgles, clicks and song, with the loudest singing occurring before daylight. Males perform this dawn song possibly to attract other birds to the nesting site. Click here to hear a few of their beautiful songs.

AN EARLY DEPARTURE

All too soon, by the end of July or first week in August, the birds prepare to leave for their migratory roost. Many purple martin lovers describe this time as a sad one, when they awake to find the birds gone and their houses empty. It’s as if suddenly, the countryside has fallen silent.

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Female purple martin

Once airborne, the birds fly south to a designated spot to roost before heading back to Brazil. Often they gather by the tens of thousands. In fact, the largest roosting colony on record was estimated to have 700,000 birds at one time. All told, there can be thousands of purple martins in the sky at one time, so many that they often show up on Doppler radar as giant rings.

Interested in attracting purple martins? Here’s a great article from the Purple Martin Conservation Association in Edinboro, PA, a non-profit conservation organization.