Guide to Plants That Attract Birds | At Home With Wildlife Painter Barry Van Dusenand

The right garden attracts colorful visitors from far and wide. Learn how gardening and artistry go hand-in-hand for Massachusetts wildlife painter Barry Van Dusenand.

By Kate Grip Denon

Jul 08 2016

bird illustration

Barry Van Dusen

Photo Credit : Kozowyk, Christian

Just off the beaten path in tiny Princeton, Massachusetts, resides a natural attraction that all the birds and bees are buzzing about. On a two-and-a-half-acre plot of land, a ring-shaped collection of gardens bursts with blooms and berries alike, serving as an ultimate stomping (and feeding) ground for countless robins, phoebes, rose-breasted grosbeaks, and orioles–not to mention dragonflies, butterflies, toads, and bees. No surprise, then, that the owner of this garden oasis has more than gardening on the mind: He’s also an internationally recognized wildlife painter.

Wildlife painter Barry Van Dusenand.
Photo Credit : Kozowyk, Christian

When Barry Van Dusen and his wife, Lisa, began shopping for a house more than 25 years ago, it was really more about garden shopping. “This is the first and only house we’ve owned, and we looked for one with gardening potential,” Barry says. “We wanted to attract birds.” It was a matter of business and pleasure for him–he’s an award-winning bird artist. When he and Lisa came across the parcel of land in Princeton surrounded by woodlands, they knew they were home. Right away the couple began preparing their new property for nonhuman inhabitants. “We put in birdbaths along with bird boxes and perch poles,” Barry recalls, “and we planted tall saplings with native shrubs around birdfeeders.” Today, he’s right at home sketching his feathered friends–literally. “I do many of my paintings right from the windows of my studio, even from the skylight,” he explains. The Norway spruces towering over his studio’s skylight are perfect perches for scarlet tanagers in late spring, along with grosbeaks, red-tailed hawks, and crested flycatchers: “They get a beautiful vantage point of the yard and garden,” he explains. “I’ve even seen wild turkeys up there.”

While Barry reaps the garden’s winged rewards, the garden’s design and fruition are thanks largely to Lisa. “Barry prunes and mows, but the actual gardening and planning is more me,” she says. “I’ll get an idea and do some research, then sit down and talk about options so that we’re both in agreement.”

Barry Van Dusen has contributed to books and pocket guides for the Massachusetts Audubon society, filed guides for HarperCollins, and magazines such as Birder’s World, Bird Watcher’s Digest, and Birds Illustrated.
Photo Credit : Kozowyk, Christian

Near the couple’s home, 10 different planted areas take root, while mown lawn pathways lead past an untamed open meadow dotted with wildflowers, apple trees, and evergreens, and on toward an old red barn at the back. “Every year I’m getting bolder and doing what I want,” Lisa notes. “I realize now it’s okay to break up giant lawn spaces, because the more I do, the more wildlife I’ll see.”

More than half of the garden is filled with native plants and shrubs, but Lisa builds on this every year. “Native plants attract more birds and wildlife, and you can be more assured you won’t get an invasive plant going,” she says.

Although every season sees new blooms beginning and different birds and insects arriving, spring ushers in a long-awaited burst of activity and color in the Van Dusen garden. “We plant with four seasons of birds in mind,” Barry says, “but spring is obviously a big time for migration, so we’ll see tree swallows in early April, wood warblers in May, and also bluebirds, hummingbirds, and phoebes.”

“I see the fox sparrows pecking around leaf litter as early as March, and woodcocks strutting and moth diving,” Lisa adds. In early June, bluish-purple scabiosas seem to turn orange as skipper butterflies cover the blossoms, and still other butterflies and bees descend on knee-high blue starflowers.

“I love working with the birds I know well, like the American robin,” Barry says. “I can paint them in winter when they’re puffed out from cold, or when they’re panting from heat in the summer. You get an emotional connection, almost like painting your own family.”

Plants That Attract Birds

Click on chart to enlarge.
Click on chart to enlarge.