Bird-Friendly Gardening: Why Your Yard Matters

Western Tanager on a Douglas Fir.
Western Tanager on a Douglas Fir.

Issues like climate change are as likely to leave Americans feeling helpless as they are to inspire them to act.

As president of the million-member, bipartisan National Audubon Society, the most frequent question I hear is, “How can one person make a difference? What can I do?”

Here’s something almost everyone can do that’s enormously satisfying and tangible: create a sanctuary by adding native plants to your yard, your balcony, or a pot on your front steps. It’s as easy as plugging your ZIP code into a web page. And it is an incredibly effective way to offer birds, bees and butterflies food and safe havens—no political strings attached.

Native plants are better for the entire web of life. Here’s one example: Native oak trees support a staggering 557 varieties of butterflies and moths. Compare that to the 5 butterfly and moth species supported by non-native ginkgo trees.

Bird-friendly plants will attract and protect the birds you love and make your outdoor spaces beautiful. And it’s better for the environment: Native plants stand up to drought far better than non-native plants and require fewer pesticides.

That is why Audubon has launched a nationwide Plants For Birds campaign urging Americans to plant bird-friendly native plants. We have just finished building an easy, one-of-a-kind, native plant database for the entire country.

Just plug in your ZIP code and you’ll find hundreds of native perennials, vines, grasses and trees that grow in your area. And we’ll tell you where you can get them locally and online. Nearby Audubon support centers, nurseries and retailers are listed for help in finding the correct plants as the spring gardening season heads toward its peak in the coming weeks.

The health of birds is linked directly to the quality of their food and shelter. Over the years, U.S. plant nurseries have leaned heavily on exotic species from other countries for residential and commercial landscaping. Many are billed as “insect resistant.” They are insect-proof because their leaves are unpalatable to native caterpillars and insects. As far as birds are concerned, this is the equivalent of growing Styrofoam trees. No insects, no birds.

Consider these numbers: 96 percent of all land birds rely on insects to feed their chicks and 1,200 different agricultural crops depend on pollinators to grow.

Birds are nature’s messengers, and they're broadcasting loud and clear: They are already experiencing the devastating impacts of climate change, and this danger will only grow over time. Audubon’s Birds and Climate Change Report, published in September 2014, found that 314 North American bird species could lose more than half of their current ranges by 2080 due to rising temperatures.

That is why it is so critical we help birds survive. This is not a red state or a blue state issue. This is simply a bird issue. And it is as simple as choosing locally native plants, which are rich in nutritious insects, berries, nectar, and seeds to give birds vital food and refuge.

Here are just a few examples of plants and their benefits to birds:

  • Native trees such as oaks, willows, birches, and maples, and native herbaceous plants such as goldenrod, milkweed, and asters host numerous caterpillar species that are a vital source of protein for birds, especially during the breeding season.
  • Red tubular flowers such as native columbine, penstemon, and honeysuckle serve up nectar for hummingbirds.
  • Native sunflowers, asters, and coneflowers produce seeds for songbirds.
  • Berries ripen at different times, so include seasonal variety: serviceberry and cherry for birds during the breeding season and summer; dogwood and spicebush for songbirds flying south; cedar and holly trees to sustain birds through cold winter days and nights.

Native plants offer another big benefit to the gardener. They cut down on your spring chores. Once established, native plants grow and thrive with minimal maintenance.

If you can’t find locally native plants at your local nursery or big box hardware or grocery story, urge them stock local native plants.

We hope in the near future that consumer demand for native plants for gardens will be as commonplace as the demand for organic produce on the dinner table.

David Yarnold is President and CEO of the National Audubon Society.

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