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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
- Native wildflowers often offer significantly more nectar for
hummingbirds than the cultivated hybrids that have been derived from
- 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
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
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
- 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
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