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Two Overlooked Wildlife Food Sources: Nuts and Tree Sap

A profile pic of MaryGardening for wildlife means growing food for the wildlife that lives and visits your garden.  Two food sources that are appreciated by all wildlife in the spring and in autumn are nuts and tree sap.  Nuts provide energy for birds migrating south and last-minute food for mammals getting ready to hibernate.  Tree sap provides an early-spring food source for nectar-loving butterflies.


Nut-bearing trees are an important component of a natural habitat, or wildlife garden. Oaks and hickories are necessary if you want a healthy population of deer, raccoons, fox, turkeys, mice, squirrels, and wood ducks since the nuts produced by these trees are an important food source for these animals. Depending on where you live, you may also catch a glimpse of a black bear enjoying a nutty treat. Oaks and hickories are slow to mature so it will take a few years for the trees to produce nuts, all the more reason to plant oak and hickory trees this autumn.

  • White oak (Quercus alba) is a great native tree. As I'm sure you have read, oak trees support more types of bird food than any other plant in North America. So as you wait for the tree to produce acorns, enjoy the birds as they feed on the many insects that live in the white oak.
  • Shagbark hickory (Carya ovata) has interesting, pealing bark. The hickory nut provides food and visual interest in the winter with its shaggy bark and tasty nuts.

Yes, many of the creatures that are attracted to nuts can be a nuisance, so keep that in mind when adding an oak or hickory to your landscape. I have gotten to the 'If you can't beat 'em, join 'em' mind set so I share my gardens with the local wildlife. I don't have the energy anymore to trap, zap, or put up barriers.

Tree Sap 

I never thought much about tree sap providing food for wildlife until this past spring. We had a long stretch of 80-degree weather in March then normal spring weather in April and May. This early summer weather caused many trees and flowering plants to flower early, before migrating birds and butterflies made it north.  So what did these birds and butterflies eat when they got here? Tree sap.

When I was looking up information on what trees provide sap for wildlife, I became more interested in how and when sap becomes available. Sap, as a spring food source, becomes available because of warming temperatures, winter storms, ants, and woodpeckers.  The availability of sap is interwoven in so many other life cycles that I discovered it is best not to interfere and let nature take its course, though there are a few things I can do and not do to keep sap available when the local wildlife needs it in the spring.

  • I need to leave winter-damaged trees standing. The sap that oozes out of trees when they loose a branch in a wind or ice storm provides food to Red Admiral, Comma, Morning Cloak, and Question Mark butterflies.
  • I also need to NOT use insecticide in the garden so I do not kill the ants that bite through tree bark, making the sap accessible to butterflies and bees.  Ants are also a food source for insect-eating birds, such as nuthatches.  
  • Lastly, I want to look as the trees in my garden as home and food source for wildlife, not just as a piece of garden architecture.  Gardening for wildlife means that trees will get damaged by woodpeckers, such as the yellow-belled sapsucker, that drill holes in beech, popular, and willow trees to get to the sap that they and other wildlife feast on.

The more I learn about wildlife gardening, the more I realize that it is more of a mindset than a design approach.  If I want to measure my success, I can look at the number of birds and butterflies visiting the garden and my ability to fight the urge to cut down that damaged tree in the woodland.