Source: National Audubon Society
Restoring native plant habitat is vital to preserving biodiversity. By creating a native plant garden, each patch of habitat becomes part of a collective effort to nurture and sustain the living landscape for birds and other animals.
Over the past century, urbanization has taken intact, ecologically productive land and fragmented and transformed it with lawns and exotic ornamental plants. The continental U.S. lost a staggering 150 million acres of habitat and farmland to urban sprawl, and that trend isn’t slowing. The modern obsession with highly manicured “perfect” lawns alone has created a green, monoculture carpet across the country that covers over 40 million acres. The human-dominated landscape no longer supports functioning ecosystems, and the remaining isolated natural areas are not large enough to support wildlife.
Native plants are those that occur naturally in a region in which they evolved. They are the ecological basis upon which life depends, including birds and people. Without them and the insects that co-evolved with them, local birds cannot survive. For example, research by the entomologist Doug Tallamy has shown that native oak trees support over 500 species of caterpillars whereas ginkgos, a commonly planted landscape tree from Asia, host only 5 species of caterpillars. When it takes over 6,000 caterpillars to raise one brood of chickadees, that is a significant difference.
Unfortunately, most of the landscaping plants available in nurseries are alien species from other countries. These exotic plants not only sever the food web, but many have become invasive pests, outcompeting native species and degrading habitat in remaining natural areas.
Landscaping choices have meaningful effects on the populations of birds and the insects they need to survive. The bottom line is this--homeowners, landscapers, and local policy makers can benefit birds and other wildlife by simply selecting native plants when making their landscaping decisions.
Gardening with native plants has many benefits: They’re beautiful, they’re already adapted to your precipitation and soil conditions, and they don’t need artificial fertilizers or pesticides. Of course the biggest benefit might be that native plants are great for birds and other wildlife.
Native plants provide nectar for hummingbirds, butterflies, and bees. They provide nourishing seeds and irresistible fruits for your feathered neighbors, and they offer places to nest and shelter from harm. They’re also a critical part of the food chain—insects evolved to feed on native plants, and by and large, backyard birds raise their young on insects, explains Douglas Tallamy, the author of Bringing Nature Home. Take the Carolina Chickadee: A single clutch of four to six chicks will gobble up more than 9,000 caterpillars in the 16 days between when they hatch and when they leave the nest. So thriving insects mean thriving birds.
The key is to pick the right plants for your area. There are thousands of native plants out there to choose from (more resources below). Also don't leave out shrubs, trees and vines that are native as well.
Benefits of Native Plants:
Once established, native plants generally require little maintenance.
Many native plants offer beautiful showy flowers, produce abundant colorful fruits and seeds, and brilliant seasonal changes in colors from the pale, thin greens of early spring, to the vibrant yellows and reds of autumn.
Healthy Places for People:
Lawns and the ubiquitous bark-mulched landscapes are notorious for requiring profuse amounts of artificial fertilizers and synthetic chemical pesticides and herbicides. The traditional suburban lawn, on average, has 10x more chemical pesticides per acre than farmland. By choosing native plants for your landscaping, you are not only helping wildlife, but you are creating a healthier place for yourself, your family, and your community.
Helping the Climate:
Landscaping with native plants can combat climate change. In addition to the reduced noise and carbon pollution from lawn mower exhaust, many native plants, especially long-living trees like oaks and maples, are effective at storing the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide.
Because native plants are adapted to local environmental conditions, they require far less water, saving time, money, and perhaps the most valuable natural resource, water.
In addition to providing vital habitat for birds, many other species of wildlife benefits as well. The colorful array of butterflies and moths, including the iconic monarch, the swallowtails, tortoiseshells, and beautiful blues, are all dependent on very specific native plant species. Native plants provide nectar for pollinators including hummingbirds, native bees, butterflies, moths, and bats. They provide protective shelter for many mammals. The native nuts, seeds, and fruits produced by these plants offer essential foods for all forms of wildlife.
Some Simple Examples of Native Flowering Plants:
Purple Coneflowers (Echinacea spp.)
Coneflowers are a tried-and-true garden staple, and wildlife are drawn to them, too.
Birds that love them: These beautiful blooms attract butterflies and other pollinators during the summer and provide seeds for goldfinches and other birds in the fall.
Sunflowers (Helianthus spp.)
Sunflowers may signify loyalty and longevity for people, but they mean food for many birds.
Birds that love them: Birds often use the sunflower seeds to fuel their long migrations.
Milkweed (Asclepias spp.)
Milkweed is best known for hosting monarch butterfly caterpillars, but they attract loads of insects that are great for birds, too. Bonus: the flowers are gorgeous.
Birds that love them: Some birds, like the American Goldfinch, use the fiber from the milkweed to spin nests for its chicks. Goldfinches, and other birds, also use the downy part of the seed to line their nests.
Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis)
The cardinal flower’s bright red petals resemble the flowing robes worn by Roman Catholic cardinals, after which it was named.
Birds that love them: While few insects can navigate the long tubular flowers, hummingbirds feast on the cardinal flower’s nectar with their elongated beaks.
Where they’re native: This moisture-loving plant is native across large portions of the country, including the East, Midwest, and Southwest.
By incorporating native plants into your landscape, you’re creating a sanctuary that benefits wildlife.