NC State Extension Publications

Habitat Requirements

At least 100 species of songbirds breed in the Southeast, with many additional species overwintering or passing through as migrants. All of these birds require food, water, and cover (e.g., protection from predators and harsh weather; a place to build a nest). However, habitat requirements differ among species, and many birds can generally be linked with specific successional stages (see table below). Additionally, individual species are associated with specific vegetation layers within a plant community. For example, in a mature forest, some bird species live in the understory and others spend most of the time in the canopy. Some birds, including northern cardinal and tufted titmouse, have generalized habitat requirements and even thrive in urban environments; on the other hand, other species have narrow habitat requirements and may require large areas of undeveloped forest (e.g., wood thrush) or grassland (e.g., eastern meadowlark).

Selected songbird species common to successional stages



Selected songbird species common to successional stages.

Species

Grassland

Shrubland

Mature Pine or Mixed Pine-Hardwood Forest

Mature Hardwood Forest

Eastern meadowlark

X

Grasshopper sparrow

X

American goldfinch

X

X

Northern bobwhite

X

Yellow-breasted chat

X

Indigo bunting

X

Prairie warbler

X

Carolina wren

X

X

X

Northern cardinal

X

X

X

Brown-headed nuthatch

X

Summer tanager

X

Carolina chickadee

X

X

Tufted titmouse

X

X

Downy woodpecker

X

X

Wood thrush

X

Red-eyed vireo

X

Scarlet tanager

X

American redstart

X

Modified from Johnston and Odum (1956) and Meyers and Johnson (1978)


cmcard

Northern cardinal

Chrisropher moorman  CC BY-NC - 4.0

CMparula

Northern parula

Christopher Moorman  CC BY-NC - 4.0

cmpriole

Orchard oriole

Christopher Moorman  CC BY-NC - 4.0

CMREV

Red-eyed vireo

Christopher Moorman  CC BY-NC - 4.0

CMrhp

Red-headed woodpecker

Christopher Moorman  CC BY-NC - 4.0

Cover

Individual nesting behaviors are unique to each species. The majority of songbirds build cup-shaped nests in woody understory vegetation, so it is critical to maintain this vegetation layer on properties when the goal is to promote songbird diversity. About three-fourths of all birds place nests less than 15 feet above the ground, with an average height of eight feet. Other songbirds nest in natural tree cavities, abandoned woodpecker holes, in the side of steep banks and cliffs, and on the ground.

Nest boxes can be constructed and placed on a property to create artificial nesting sites for cavity-nesting birds. For more information about building nest boxes for songbirds, please refer to the Working With Wildlife publication, “Building Songbird Boxes.” https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/building-songbird-boxes

Food

Depending on the species, songbirds eat fruits, seeds, and invertebrates, including spiders and insects. Most songbirds are insectivorous during all or part of their lives (e.g., when raising young, which require the protein), providing an important biological control on overabundant invertebrates.



Native plants that provide seeds or fruits commonly eaten by songbirds.

Trees

Shrubs and Vines

Grasses and Forbs

Pine

Blackberry

Foxtail grass

Oak

Elderberry

Panicgrass

Mulberry

Blueberry

Native sunflowers

Dogwood

Virginia creeper

Pokeweed

Blackgum

Poison ivy

Ragweed

Wild cherry

Grape

Smartweed (Polygonum)

Holly

Wax myrtle

Doveweed (Croton)

CCLB

Carolina chickadee bringing worm to nestilings

Liessa Bowen  CC BY-NC - 4.0

NCLB

Northern cardinal perched at a feeding station

Liessa Bowen  CC BY-NC - 4.0

Water

Many songbirds use shallow open water for bathing, so a bathing area can be created in a yard to attract birds. A bathing area should be no more than 2 to 3 inches deep with a relatively hard bottom. The bath should be gently sloping, free of vegetation, and frequently replenished with fresh water. The bathing areas should be at least 10 to 15 feet away from dense ground cover. Similarly, naturally occurring areas of open water, including man-made impoundments, marshes, and beaver ponds, can attract a diverse variety of birds and other wildlife.

LBST

Scarlet tanager (female)

Liessa Bowen  CC BY-NC - 4.0

CCLB2

Carolina chickadee

Liessa Bowen  CC BY-NC - 4.0

Home Range

Some forest-dwelling songbirds are migratory, and others remain year round. Neotropical migrants – such as many warblers, vireos, and flycatchers - spend only the spring and summer in United States and Canada and overwinter in the Caribbean and Central and South America. Other songbirds, such as northern cardinal, Carolina chickadee, tufted titmouse, Carolina wren, American goldfinch, eastern towhee, and most woodpeckers, overwinter within the region and are termed “residents.” The home range (or defended territory) for nesting birds is usually correlated to body mass. For example, warblers are small and generally have a home range of 1 to 15 acres; woodpeckers are larger and may range 200 acres; and ravens have a home range of up to 10 square miles.

Songbird Management

Tips for Improving Songbird Habitat

General

  • If possible, avoid harvesting trees from April through June (the nesting season), especially if harvests are large or extend across a large portion of the landscape.
  • Choose native plant species for landscaping, especially when songbirds are an emphasis. The caterpillar host plants for moths and butterflies generally are native plants, so vegetation dominated by non-native plants will lack the caterpillars that are an important food source for many breeding and migrating songbirds.
  • Promote vertical structure in forests and suburban landscapes when managing for songbirds. Songbird species segregate themselves vertically among all vegetation layers, with some species using the canopy and others using the understory. Having all the layers ensures the greatest number of bird species will be present.

Regeneration

  • Favor shelterwood or seed-tree harvests when possible, because these methods retain overstory trees that provide food and cover for canopy-dwelling songbirds.
  • Maintain a diversity of seral stages (i.e., stand ages) across the landscape by distributing timber harvests over space and time.
  • Leave snags in place for cavity nesters and for perching, as long as the snag is not a threat to loggers or permanent structures.

Intermediate Treatments

  • Thin early in the rotation and frequently, targeting lower basal areas (<60 square feet per acre) when possible. The lower basal area allows light to reach the ground, so understory plants can grow.
  • Use prescribed burning to maintain an understory of grasses, forbs, and shrubs.
  • Follow thinning with prescribed burning to consume leaf litter and expose bare soil for germination of forbs and grasses.
  • Implement the fire frequency most appropriate for the focal species. For example, a return interval of every 2 or 3 years is appropriate for ground-nesting Bachman’s sparrow and a return interval of every 3 to 5 years is appropriate for a shrub-nesting species like prairie warbler or northern cardinal.
  • Avoid prescribed fires in the early, growing season (April through June) when birds are nesting, especially when burning large areas at once.

Direct Improvements

  • In suburban or urban landscapes, provide open water for drinking and bathing and erect nest boxes suited to desired cavity-nesting bird species.
  • Construct/maintain scattered brush piles, or piles of residual logging debris during harvest operations.
  • Keep cats indoors. Free-ranging domestic cats (both pets and feral individuals) are a major predator of songbirds and kill more than 1 billion birds each year in the United States alone.

Songbirds respond very predictably to the structure and composition of vegetation communities and therefore are unique barometers of environmental conditions. Management techniques designed to foster diverse and abundant songbird populations will benefit many other wildlife species, such as the examples below.

Species that benefit from songbird management.

Mature Forest

Forested Wetland

Fallow Fields (Grass-Forb Communities)

Young Forest

Gray squirrel

Great blue heron

Bobwhite quail

Fox squirrel

Red-headed woodpecker

Red fox

Ruffed grouse

Raccoon

Wood duck

Northern harrier

Gray fox

Wild turkey

Beaver

American kestrel

White-tailed deer

Black bear

Red-tailed hawk

Cottontail Rabbit

CMIB

Indigo bunting

Christopher Moorman  CC BY-NC - 4.0

CMGcF

Great crested flycatcher

Christopher Moorman  CC BY-NC - 4.0

CPKW

Kentucky warbler

Christopher Moorman  CC BY-NC - 4.0

References

Johnston, D. W., and E. P. Odum. 1956. Breeding bird populations in relation to plant succession on the piedmont of Georgia. Ecology 37:50-62.

Meyers, J. M. and A. S. Johnson. 1978. Bird communities associated with succession and management of loblolly-shortleaf pine forests. In: U. S. For. Serv. Gen. Tech. Rep. SE-14.

Authors

Wildlife Biologist
Professor (Wildlife)
Forestry & Environmental Resources
Extension Professor
Forestry & Environmental Resources

Publication date: Jan. 1, 2019
Revised: May 15, 2019

North Carolina State University and North Carolina A&T State University commit themselves to positive action to secure equal opportunity regardless of race, color, creed, national origin, religion, sex, age, veteran status or disability. In addition, the two Universities welcome all persons without regard to sexual orientation.

North Carolina State University and North Carolina A&T State University commit themselves to positive action to secure equal opportunity regardless of race, color, creed, national origin, religion, sex, age, veteran status or disability. In addition, the two Universities welcome all persons without regard to sexual orientation.