Habitat Use by Songbirds - Dr. Sara Morris

Assistant Professor of Biology, Canisius College, 2001 Main Street, Buffalo, NY 14208. (716) 888-2567


Songbirds are a diverse group that includes species that use a variety of habitats. Open fields attract many seed-eating species including sparrows, blackbirds, and finches. Woods attract other species particularly those that eat insects, fruits, and some seeds. Woodland birds include chickadees, titmice, thrushes, and warblers. Still other species prefer the edges between habitat types. Regardless of the preferred habitat, all birds need areas that will provide food and areas that provide shelter for avoiding predators throughout the year and for rearing young during the breeding season. Unfortunately, many songbird habitats are decreasing in both quantity and quality.

More than one half of New York state’s songbirds are migrants. Migrants split their time between breeding grounds, wintering grounds, and the migratory paths between them. These birds have additional nutritional needs during the migratory period when they are building up the fat stores used to fuel migratory flights. In preparation for migration, migrants increase their foraging activity and many will also stop during migration to refuel. During fall migration, fruiting plants are especially important as a fuel for migration for a variety of species of migrants. Thus, access to quality habitats between breeding and wintering grounds are also important for the success of migrants. These areas where migrants stop during migration must provide shelter from predators and inclement weather in addition to substantial food resources.

When habitats are being managing for songbirds, these areas should provide appropriate food sources, water if possible, shelter from predators and the elements, and appropriate nest sites. Multiple layers of vegetation are particularly important in providing shelter for birds. If landowners are interested in attracting particular birds, they can research the needs of that species to determine if it has special habitat requirements. For example, Cedar Waxwings are more likely to be found in winter habitats with substantial fruit stores and Tree Swallows need cavities in which to nest during the breeding season. Some species also have space requirements and benefit greatly from larger tracts of habitat. The Wood Thrush is a species that requires a certain sized area for breeding and will not settle in relatively small wooded patches. Thus continuous patches of habitat may also be important for attracting certain birds.

Any alterations of habitat will change the species that use the area. For example, allowing fields to go fallow and develop into woodlots will increase the number of woodland species and decrease the number of grassland species. Frequently landowners want to plant new trees on their property. In these cases, it is recommended that native species be chosen and that exotics be avoided. Ideally, plants that are added to an area should increase the shelter provided and the food available for songbirds. Some particularly beneficial plants, especially for fruits, include native dogwoods, winterberry, elderberry, and arrowwood.

Suggested References:

Ehrlich, Paul R., David S. Dobkin, and Darryl Wheye. 1988. The Birder’s Handbook: A Field Guide to the Natural History of North American Birds. Simon & Schuster Inc.: New York.

Greenberg, Russell and Jamie Greenberg. 1995. Bring Back the Birds: What You Can Do to Save Threatened Species. Stackpole Books: Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania

Kress, Stephen W. 1995. The Bird Garden. Dorling Kindersley Limited: New York.

Kress, Stephen W., editor. 1998. Bird Gardens: Welcoming Wild Birds to Your Yard. Brooklyn Botanic Garden, Inc.: Brooklyn, New York.

Terborgh, John. 1989. Where Have All the Birds Gone?: Essays on the Biology and Conservation of Birds that Migrate to the American Tropics. Princeton University Press: Oxford.

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