The best plants to help birds through winter

Winter is here…

like the new season of Game of Thrones . If you’re like me you’ll spend winter by the fire, over-eating, watching tv and maybe considering going outside. Getting through winter in Queenstown for humans is hard enough, how do the region’s birds survive without inadequate heaters and arctic fleece blankets?

Bird feathers may look thin and light but they do a great job at trapping heat, that birds maximize by plumping up their feathers, making them look fat and cute. They will also find shelter and some birds that are normally solitary will snuggle up with other birds to keep warm. Birds must also eat a lot of food to make enough energy to generate heat. However, in the depths of winter food is usually difficult to find, with most of autumn’s bounty being depleted.

Many New Zealanders give their feathered friends a helping hand by providing food, but there is no clear evidence that shows this is beneficial in the long run. Feeding birds does however make us appreciate birds more, can encourage conservation efforts, and creates a warm fuzzy feeling inside. If you do wish to feed the birds hang nectar feeders filled with sugar water, which will feed native birds such as tuis and bellbirds. Fruit will also help many of our native birds. Non native birds such as sparrows and finches eat nuts and seeds. Feeding non native birds can be detrimental in the long term for our native birds as the non natives may compete for food, nest sites and territory, capiche?


Naturally birds should be able to get everything they need without human intervention, but human activity, like farming, has caused destruction of bird habitat. The Queenstown Lakes District is especially barren of native beneficial trees and shrubs that are essential for a healthy population of birds. Rather than hanging out feeders it is much more beneficial to support revegetation projects and choose bird friendly plants for your green space.

Here is a list of our top 10 plants to help native birds survive the colder weather in the Queenstown Lakes District.

  1. Kowhai

South Island Kowhai Trees / Sophora microphylla or North Island Kowhai Trees / Sophora tetraptera flower in spring and are favourites for bellbirds and tuis. NZ pigeons love the foliage of the North Island Kowhai. Most smaller gardens can house a Dragon’s gold Kowhai or Dwarf kowhai. Click here to learn more about Kowhai.

2. Olearia

Olearia do not provide food directly to birds but they do encourage lots of insects, which in turn feed birds like fantails, silvereyes and bellbirds. There are many varieties for any location, from the endangered Olearia hectorii to the small ball shaped Olearia nummarifolia.

3. Winter flowering camellia and flowering cherry trees

These two species of exotic plants can really help nectar feeders such as tuis and bellbirds. They will also help any early emerging bees and insects.

4. Miro – Prumnopitys ferruginea

A large slow growing tree provides canopy and cover for many bird and plant species. Hangs onto berries well into winter which are eaten by NZ pigeons.

5. Native broom

Provides food for bees and insects. NZ pigeons will also feed on foliage in winter.

6. Mountain beech and large evergreen trees.

Large evergreen trees such as the mountain beech provide sought after leaf cover and shelter against the cold weather. Leaf litter also provides a habitat for insects which are eaten by tomtits, robins and fantails.

7. Coprosma

There are many species of Coprosma and they all bear fruit in autumn. While they technically don’t always feed in winter they help massively in getting birds ready for the coming season. With 53 different types of coprosma there’s one for every garden or patio.

8. Tree lucerne

The tree lucerne is fantastic for tuis and bellbirds that love the white pea flowers while the NZ pigeon dines on the leaves.

9. Mapou aka. Myrsine australis

Flowering in spring or late winter in warmer climes. Bellbirds and tuis feed on the flowers and the berries feed many birds in summer.

10. Corokia cotoneaster

Tiny yellow flowers in spring are are well needed food source for nectar feeders and the berries are formed in autumn.

For more bird friendly plants follow this link (please keep in mind, some plants won’t grow in Queenstown).

The bad news is that most of these plants shouldn’t be planted in winter but planting some bird friendly plants gives you another reason to look to spring. The best thing to do now is to get some nectar feeders and leave leaf litter on the soil as this provides shelter for insects – lazy gardeners rejoice!


Photos taken in Queenstown by David Reese.