Birds and Plants – An Ancient Collaboration
Over thousands of years, birds and plants have developed a mutually beneficial relationship. Birds help to pollinate plants, disperse their seeds, and eat the insects that can ravage them. To entice birds to do this work for them, plants have evolved colorful, nectar-filled flowers and luscious, nutrient-packed fruits and seeds to nourish them. In addition, their limbs and leaves offer nesting sites and cover.
Why landscape for birds?
“Small ‘islands’ of habitat can provide food resources to birds, particularly during migration.”, Victoria D. Piaskowski, International Coordinator, Birds Without Borders – Aves Sin Fronteras, Zoological Society of Milwaukee.
- Habitat loss is the single most important cause of the decline of species. Your yard, whatever its size, can offer habitat for birds.
- Many birds seldom or never use feeders, preferring natural foods.
- Feeder birds get only a relatively small portion of their nutrition from feeder food
Why plant natives?
“Native plants, which have co-evolved with native wild birds, are more likely to provide a mix of foods – just the right size, and with just the right kind of nutrition – and just when the birds need them.” Stephen Kress, National Audubon Society
Researchers have found that native plants are better for birds and for the insects they need for survival.
Some of their findings include the following:
- There are more bird species and greater numbers of birds in areas with native species than in areas with exotic, or non-native, species.
- Birds nesting in non-native shrubs, like buckthorn and honeysuckle, are more likely to fall victim to predators such as cats and raccoons than birds nesting in native shrubs. This is due to the branching and other characteristics of the non-native shrubs.
- Cedar Waxwings that eat the berries of one species of non-native honeysuckle develop orange, rather than yellow tail bands. This color change could be harmful to the birds, since they use color in mate selection and territorial disputes.
- Most insects, so important for bird nutrition, prefer their native host plants and, in fact, often lack the enzymes needed to digest non-native plants.
- Native wildflowers often offer significantly more nectar for hummingbirds than the cultivated hybrids that have been derived from them.
- The great variety of native species, which provide food for birds throughout the year, is being replaced by a very limited number of invasive non-native species. These invasives offer food of reduced variety, quality, and seasonal availability.
What are native plants?
Native plants are those which existed in an area prior to European settlement. These plants are well adapted to the climate, precipitation, soils, insects, and other local conditions and are consequently easier to grow than non-natives. For information on the plants native to your area, check with your local nature centers, colleges, universities, Wild Ones Natural Landscapers (www.wildones.org), and your state department of natural resources or similar agency.
Where to get native plants?
Native plants and source lists for native plants are often available at local nature centers, native plant nurseries, chapters of Wild Ones Natural Landscapers or native plant societies. Some states, like Wisconsin, maintain lists of native plant nurseries, seed suppliers and consultants.
Plants should be purchased from reputable suppliers not dug from the wild. It is, in fact, illegal to remove plants from public lands. In the case of private lands, be sure to get the landowner’s permission.
For “Guidelines on the Selection of Native Plants,” see the Wild Ones Natural Landscapers website.
- Take an inventory.
- For full yard restorations, you may want to let neighbors know what you are doing and check with officials regarding local regulations.
- Test your soil, a service which may be offered through your county university extension service.
Planning Your Yard
- Keep the native plants in your yard; remove the invasive exotics.
- Mimic the multiple layers of growth found in many natural settings: trees, shrubs, vines and herbaceous plants.
- Select plants that will provide berries, seeds, and nuts during different seasons.
- Provide evergreens for winter shelter.
- Keep dead trees, standing or fallen, to provide insect food, cavities, and perching sites for birds. The branches of dead trees can be removed if they are dangerous.
- Create a brush pile to provide shelter.
- Leave at least some leaf litter for ground-feeding birds, who will scrape through the litter for insects.
- Stop using herbicides and pesticides, which can be ingested by birds as they feed on insects and plants. Also, don’t use rodenticides which will harm birds of prey when they feed on animals that have ingested the poison in bait.
- Limit or eliminate your lawn for less mowing, fertilizing, watering, and pollution and to make more room for natives
“Some habitats are of particular interest to backyard birdwatchers because small examples can be replicated in backyards, including freshwater marshes, ponds, brooks, wooded swamps, bogs, woodlots, pine barrens, streamside forests, thickets, prairies, deserts, and alpine meadows.” Donald S. Heintzelman, The Complete Backyard Birdwatcher’s Home Companion.
- Restore or recreate the habitat(s) once native to your area – woodland, wetland, prairie, or savannah, etc. – which will attract birds native to those habitats.
- Create habitats for particular birds: a hummingbird garden, a migratory bird stopover, a bluebird haven, a woodland bird retreat, a finch garden (prairie), a winter bird area, or a wetland bird habitat.
Regardless of the size of your yard, you can help reverse the loss of bird habitat. By planting the native plants upon which our birds depend, you’ll be rewarded with a bounty of birds and natural beauty just beyond your doorstep.
Protect Your Birds
Keep your pet cats indoors and urge your neighbors to do so. Cats kill millions of birds in Wisconsin each year and it has been documented that bells and declawing are mostly ineffective in preventing this predation. For more information, see American Bird Conservancy’s brochure: Cats Indoors!.
Mariette Nowak, 2011