Creating a Bird-Friendly Yard

Creating a Bird-Friendly Yard

New research shows that small habitats can add up to a big difference.

By Rene Ebersole
Published: July-August 2013

One of Tallamy's studies examined the moth and butterfly larvae that develop on indigenous and exotic plants in the mid-Atlantic region (Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Rhode Island), where you can find roughly 3,000 of the country's total of 11,500 caterpillar species. From his findings he created a ranking system of regional trees and plants by the abundance and diversity of caterpillars they can host. First place on the top 20 list went to the oaks, which supported 534 species of caterpillars. Second place went to cherries and plums, which were home to 456; willows came in third, with 455.

The study confirmed Tallamy's suspicions that gardeners could play a pivotal role in creating safe havens for wildlife. (An estimated 85 percent of invasive woody plants spreading through wild areas originally escaped from home gardens.) Thus he opens his landmark book, Bringing Nature Home,with a call to action: "For the first time in its history, gardening has taken on a role that transcends the needs of the gardener. Like it or not, gardeners have become important players in the management of our nation's wildlife. It is now within the power of individual gardeners to do something that we all dream of doing: to make a difference. In this case, the 'difference' will be to the future of biodiversity, to the native plants and animals of North America and the ecosystems that sustain them."

Many gardeners and botanists regard Tallamy's book as the seminal source, and sales remain strong--the paperback is in its seventh printing. Throughout it, Tallamy avoids the term backyard habitat, because he says "it implies that these are so terrible we have to hide them in the backyard. When in fact the front yard is fair game. We're not talking about creating ugly landscapes. A beautiful oak tree in your front yard is a highly functional plant there."

Homeowners who landscape with native trees and plants such as oaks, goldenrods, asters, cherry trees, and sunflowers are planting bird food factories that ship caterpillars in bulk, and make regular deliveries of fruits and seeds that help fuel bird migrations over thousands of miles and multiple continents. "The plants in our yards are just as effective as the bird feeder you put up in wintertime," Tallamy says, "because the plants are making the food that feeds the birds in the summertime."

 

For a bird searching for a nice place to raise a family, the classic suburban yard--a tidy bed of grass, one or two shade trees, and a row of leafy foundation plantings imported from China--must be like a foreclosed fixer-upper in a bad neighborhood. The accommodations are spare and all the local restaurants are dives.

The nice neighborhoods, on the other hand, where native plants abound, offer all the perks of a Park Avenue suite with a stocked pantry and a view. There is abundant food, places to nest, and a brilliant stage upon which a bird can sing without competing against the din of a lawn mower.

One of Tallamy's undergraduate students, Karin Burghardt, compared two such types of landscapes in southeastern Pennsylvania. One property in each of six pairs had a higher proportion of native plants, and the other was more typically suburban, with an indigenous tree canopy casting shadows on lawns fringed by alien ornamental bushes and ground covers like pachysandra.

Not surprisingly Burghardt found a greater diversity and abundance of birds and caterpillars in the yards filled with naturally occurring plants. But one finding blew the researchers away. Birds of conservation concern in the area where the study was done--wood thrushes, eastern towhees, veeries, and scarlet tanagers--were eight times more abundant and significantly more diverse on those parcels. "There was a big jump in their ability to use these properties," says Tallamy.

During the three months it took Burghardt to gather data, 125 square miles of lawn grew across the country, even in areas where you wouldn't expect to find grass growing. In Phoenix, Arizona, where temperatures can hit 120 degrees Fahrenheit, the popular garden "oasis" is a mix of turf, subtropical palm trees, and a scattering of desert-adapted plants. Susannah Lerman, a researcher from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, traveled there to examine the difference between how birds use the "oasis" compared to grounds brimming with native desert plants (a gardening style known as xeriscaping; see "Hollywood Native.").

The well-watered oasis yards were ruled by grackles, house sparrows, and European starlings--everyday birds that wouldn't normally survive in such a hot and dry place. "You're not going to see those species naturally in the desert because they can't make it without water," she says. "But as soon as you add water--boom."

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Comments

I have gained some useful

I have gained some useful information from this site. Thanks for sharing this information. Healthy bird communities are inextricably linked to healthy insect populations. Ninety-six percent of terrestrial North American birds raise their young on insects.

I like to mention that many

I like to mention that many native plants edible by birds (directly or indirectly) are edible by people too, and (once the plants get established in your yard) there is typically plenty of fruit for all, human and non-human alike. Take Juneberry (aka Shadbush, Serviceberry, or Amalanchier to botanists) - the fruit (which ripens in June, hence the common name) tastes like a cross between cherries and almonds (they are all related). The typical Juneberry tree gets to be 12 feet tall and fruits prolifically, so people can often pick as much fruit as they like from the lower branches, leaving the fruit on the upper branches for the birds.

Great article. So glad to

Great article. So glad to see another one promoting this issue. Of course, Doug Tallamy. We have had him speak here twice. His words are golden.
We have been promoting folks having a bird-friendly habitat/yard for about 4 years by offering an award to do so. All of our consults and award offerings are free. We are paired with the local native plant society and have now made inways to schools to educate the young folks on the necessity of bird friendly habitats.
Also, North Carolina Audubon has formed a committee addressing all the issues associated with getting a bird friendly habitat. State recommended non native plant lists, invasive plant sales, etc.
Charley Winterbauer, President, Cape Fear Audubon Society

People can Nibble on Natives Too

Hi - This was a great article. I especially enjoyed the version appearing in print, as it included many photos of native plant species and the insects (and, in turn the birds) utilizing them for food.

While it is likely that many Audubon Magazine readers would be sufficiently motivated to plant native plants for their benefits to birds, other folks might need additional convincing. That is one reason why I like to mention that many native plants edible by birds (directly or indirectly) are edible by people too, and (once the plants get established in your yard) there is typically plenty of fruit for all, human and non-human alike. Take Juneberry (aka Shadbush, Serviceberry, or Amalanchier to botanists) - the fruit (which ripens in June, hence the common name) tastes like a cross between cherries and almonds (they are all related). The typical Juneberry tree gets to be 12 feet tall and fruits prolifically, so people can often pick as much fruit as they like from the lower branches, leaving the fruit on the upper branches for the birds.

Here's a link to a blog posting on this subject (edible plants native to New England) - http://nativeplantwildlifegarden.com/grow-your-own-edible-native-plants-...

Here's a link to a spreadsheet I prepared on the Edible Native Plants of New England - http://www.ecolandscaping.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/Edible-Native-P...

My point is that the "you can it it too" factor might help in many cases to induce people to plant natives who aren't sufficiently convinced by the purely ecological argument.

insect food

http://www.sciencefriday.com/segment/05/22/2009/gardening-with-native-pl...

What a great story, and a great project Audubon. I was very happy to see Tallamy's work featured in the magazine, but I think I didn't see this explanation of exactly how natives are better for insects. Not many insects have lived with non-native species of plants to have developed the anti-bodies to the toxins that all plants put out so they won't get eaten. If one doesn't have a whole article to try to persuade gardeners of the importance of (locally) native plants, this explanation seems to demystify the natives-are-good habitat proscription that is missing from so many discussions about the reason we need natives.

http://www.sciencefriday.com/segment/05/22/2009/gardening-with-native-pl...

cultivars

Just want to comment on cultivars. Cultivated varieties are not necessarily hybrids that have been tweaked. Many of them, in the native plant industry particularly, are merely selections of plants from the wild that have desirable ornamental characteristics. There is no reason to shun these plants.

Otherwise, great article, I really enjoyed it!

Except when those "desirable

Except when those "desirable ornamental characteristics" have eliminated one or more critical ecological functions of the plant. Great example in the STL area is Annabelle's Hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens 'annabelle'), a very popular ornamental shrub. The flowers are sterile. The average homeowner doesn't appreciate that.

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