How to attract birds and butterflies to your garden

Become your neighbourhood’s version of Dr Dolittle with these easy to follow backyard tips.

Watching birds enjoying your garden and bees and butterflies skipping from one flower to the next is one of the pleasures of having a garden.

To enable this, we need to grow a range of plants that provide a source of food throughout the year, in addition to creating a safe habitat and potential nesting sites.

And as housing developments replace areas of native forests and bushland, it becomes even more important for backyards to become a new home for birds and insects.


Some of the best plants for attracting birds are those that are native to your area.

Not only will those plants usually perform better in your garden, but they’re also perfectly suited to provide a source of food and shelter for your local birds. The wider the range of plants grown, providing sources of nectar, fruit, seeds and nesting material, the more diverse the birds that visit your garden.

Nectar-feeding birds such as honeyeaters, wattlebirds and spinebills in Australia will enjoy feasting on banksia, callistemon, grevillea, eucalyptus and correa flowers. In New Zealand, tui and korimako (bellbird) will be drawn to flax, cordyline, rewarewa, kowhai and pohutukawa flowers.

Fruit- and berry-eating birds such as wood pigeons and silvereyes enjoy New Zealand’s Pseudopanax, pittosporum and nikau palm.

In Australia, parrots such as rosellas and lorikeets will feast on lilly pilly and dianella fruit. There is a wonderful range of seed-eating birds, from the largest parrots down to the tiniest finches.

Australian cockatoos and parrots like casuarina, acacia, banksia and hakea seeds, and finches enjoy foraging on native grasses such as kangaroo grass (Themeda australis), tussock grasses (Poa spp.) and Lomandra spp.

Insectivorous birds such as silvereyes and fantails will help reduce the numbers of pest insects, including aphids, moths and caterpillars, so they’re very welcome visitors in gardens. They’ll also enjoy scratching around for insects in mulch and leaf litter. Plants for bird shelter, nesting materials and nest sites can also be included in gardens. Grasses such as Festuca, Lomandra and Poa can provide soft nesting materials as well as places for small birds to hide. Trees provide refuge and nesting sites for many birds. While trees are young, an interim measure is to include nesting boxes around the garden. Different types of nesting boxes will suit different types of birds.

In addition to filling your garden with bird-attracting plants, include a constant source of water for birds to drink and bathe in. And, of course, domestic cats are one of the biggest threats to native birds, so be a responsible cat owner.


The sight of colourful butterflies and delicate moths fluttering around the garden is a pure delight, and other pollinators such as hoverflies and wasps are also regular visitors to flowers. By growing a range of different pollen and nectar-rich flowers, butterflies and other pollinating insects will be enticed into the garden.

Some plants are also needed for butterfly caterpillar food, to enable the life cycle to continue. Monarch butterflies, while not native to Australia or New Zealand, are important pollinators and are loved for the beauty they bring to our gardens in the warmer months.

In New Zealand, an important food source for monarchs is the swan plant, Gomphocarpus fruticosus.

Swan plant, an African member of the milkweed family, is an attractive shrub that produces clusters of small white flowers before developing oddly shaped fruit. After the butterfly lays its eggs under the leaves, the yellow, black and white caterpillars emerge and begin to eat many times their body weight.

One of the best reasons for growing swan plants from seed is that it gives you plenty of plants to feed these determined munchers.  Never use any pesticides on your swan plant and be aware that the plants are toxic, so wash your hands after handling and keep them out of reach of children.

Fully fed caterpillars form a chrysalis that hangs from the plant. Then, after a couple of weeks, the butterfly emerges.

It’s a delight for all ages to watch the brand new butterfly testing its wings as it learns to fly. In Australia, Gomphocarpus fruticosus has become weedy in some areas, so an alternative is to grow Asclepias tuberosa (milkweed), which has bright orange flowers and provides a source of nectar for the butterflies as well as foliage for caterpillar food.

Yates ‘Butterfly Field’ is a quick and easy to sow and grow seed mix of beautiful flowers to attract butterflies and pollinating insects, including Asclepias, which attracts monarch butterflies and provides food for their caterpillars. Other butterfly-attracting plants include pentas, buddleja, sedum, marigolds, scabiosa, dianthus, Queen Anne’s lace, snapdragon, larkspur, geratum, aster and echinacea.

This is an edited extract from Yates Garden Guide by Angela Thomas and is republished here with permission.

Originally published as How to attract birds and butterflies to your garden

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