Lately, I’ve really been focused on identifying all the ways we can attract more wildlife to our gardens. Diversity in our little, individual ecosystems not only helps us to be better gardeners, it strengthens our environment at a national and global level. With that in mind, I invited Dr. John Rowden of the National Audubon Society (NAS) to discuss how to create a bird-friendly yard.
Birds face increasing pressure across our country from urban development and shifting weather patterns. The NAS mantra – Where birds thrive, people prosper – has never been a more important message.
Don’t have a yard? Your bird-friendly balcony might be just what some local bird populations need. Every little corner of our world matters.
About the National Audubon Society
The NAS was founded in 1905 by women who were ahead of their time. They were troubled by the common use of bird’s bodies and feathers as fashionable accessories on the hats so quintessential to that period. This was long before our society began to embrace a conservation mindset, so putting the welfare of birds – or any creature – ahead of human needs was a groundbreaking philosophy.
Since then, the National Audubon Society has played an instrumental role in many important environmental legislative measures – including the nationwide banning of DDT and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. There are 460 chapters of the Society embedded in communities across the U.S., and each one strives to tailor national goals to meet individual and community needs. There are also 40 nature centers around the country to promote the important role birds play in our ecosystem.
The NAS is – at its core – science-based and has collected nearly 120 years of data supporting the impact of climate shift on bird populations. In 2014, the Society issued their Birds and Climate Change Report, sounding the alarm that over 300 North American bird species will be climate threatened or endangered during this century.
In other words, these birds will lose 50% or more of their range (the geographic area where each particular species lives and/or breeds). As those ranges shift or are reduced, the very survival of those species is at risk.
Birds at Work in Our Landscapes
Birds are important to our ecosystem for so many reasons. Yes, they bring us joy as we observe them at work in our gardens – I love watching the birds outside my office window throughout the day. Yet, there is much more at stake than our daily entertainment.
As berry-eating birds fly through our neighborhoods and wild areas, the seeds they have ingested pass through their system to reseed our landscape. Hunting raptors, like eagles, keep fish and small animal populations healthier and in balance. Some species, like hummingbirds, are pollinating our flower and food crops. Birds keep insect pests under control too. They eat billions of airborne insects, like mosquitoes, along with garden pests, like cabbage worms.
In fact, caterpillars are an important food source for migrating and breeding birds. Did you know that a single set of parent birds requires literally thousands of caterpillars to feed just one clutch of their chicks from hatch to fledge? The high fat and protein content of the caterpillar is exactly what birds need to mature and, then, to sustain during long cross-country flights.
The role birds play in environmental balance is so important, but without proper habitat, healthy bird populations are in jeopardy.
Birds at Risk
Our national urban areas are expected to double by the year 2050. That may feel like a long way off, but this reduction in wild habitat is impacting birds right now – every day. Wild, open areas continue to shrink; and mature trees, shrubs and plants are removed to make way for development. Just last week, a group of mature trees I’d come to love in my neighborhood were bulldozed for new construction.
I understand the need for progress, but far too often, I see get-it-done destruction where incorporating conservation could have been possible. The razing of this single group of trees was an aesthetic blow, but more importantly, it created an ecological void. When mature growth is torn out, birds lose shelter and food sources they require for survival. They also lose places in which to raise their young and find safe passage to move through the landscape under cover from predators.
Even if you don’t have a yard, you have the ability to make a difference for these creatures. I’ve said it before, and it’s just as true when it comes to bird conservation: Every little bit each of us does will add up. As you garden, be mindful of your actions and consider how what you do – and don’t – plant or add in containers, can provide relief for birds populations.
Remember the four key elements birds require:
- A place to raise young
- Safe passage
Sure, you can add birdfeeders or birdhouses, but it’s the plants which really make the difference. The “artificial” resources we provide supplement bird needs – they don’t fully meet bird needs. We do more by providing the proper natural resources.
I’ve shared a lot on the benefits of native plants in podcasts, and on episodes of my show Growing a Greener World® during the past few months. I can’t say enough about their multifaceted impact in our gardens. How can native plants help the birds? Well, I’m glad you asked!
Birds eat insects – lots of insects. The insects native to your area have evolved with native plants. So, those insects are looking for your area’s native plants to provide food and shelter for themselves and for their insect young. John compares incorporating native plants in our garden to stocking the cupboards for birds. When you plant mostly aesthetic, non-native plants; you are weakening the insect ecosystem and stripping the cupboards bare of food for birds.
Now, I get it – you, like many gardeners, may think native plants are less attractive or look messy in the landscape. May I ask you to take another look? There are so many beautiful native plants, and plenty of varieties offer the more compact form you might prefer. The truth is, the native plants that fit your aesthetic might be a little more difficult to find – but they are out there.
Oftentimes, nurseries and big box stores don’t carry a diverse collection of natives. Native plants are considered less commercially appealing. Together, we can change that too.
First, do a little research on the plants which are native to your area. I’ve listed a number of native plant resources in the Links & Resources section below – including one provided by the National Audubon Society. Simply enter your zip code, and the NAS site will provide a list of native plants and where to buy them. Your local county extension office can be another great resource for identifying plants native to your region.
Once you find native species of interest, talk to your local nurseries and garden centers. Let them know that you would like to see these varieties on the shelves. They may be able to order these plants for you. If not, you’ve still shared an important message – that you will support their efforts to make native plants available to your community.
A wide array of native species are available online. When you can’t find plants, look for seeds. Seed starting is rewarding and easy once you know the basics. Spot some natives growing in your neighborhood? Ask the gardener if he or she would be willing to share native cuttings, so you can propagate them into plants to add to your own garden.
Once native plants have established and are providing a more bird-friendly environment in your yard, you will appreciate how low maintenance they are too. Native plants which evolved in your climate and growing conditions will require less watering, less pruning, and fewer (if any) fertilizers or other chemical treatments. You will have more time to enjoy the garden and all the diversity of wildlife it supports.
Neither John nor I are suggesting that you tear up all of your garden beds and replace everything with natives. If you choose to do that, kudos to you – share your story in Comments below! Fair warning, though: It’s easy to bite off more than you can chew.
Many years ago when I moved to a new property in North Carolina, I took out most of the established, non-native plants from around my landscape. I had great intentions to immediately replace those plants and shrubs with native species. Unfortunately, life got in the way. A busy travel schedule meant that I didn’t have an opportunity to get native plants into the ground for months. So rather than improving the ecosystem, I had stripped it of the little shelter and food those non-native plants had been providing. Lesson learned.
Don’t make the same mistake I did. If you can only do a little bit at a time, that’s still a great step forward. Identify one area of your yard that you can tackle start to finish. Add some natives to that one area or replace some of the existing plants with native species. Keep up those efforts each year. Every little piece of the puzzle is important.
If all you have is a balcony, the same principle applies. Add a few native plants in containers, and encourage your neighbors to do the same. Plant by plant, your positive impact will add up.
Five Simple Steps
The National Audubon Society believes that everyone – regardless of their skill level or the size of their garden – really can make a positive difference. The Society has developed a list of the steps they encourage everyone to consider for their patch of the world.
These are five easy ways to create a more bird-friendly environment:
1. Take the healthy yard pledge.: Make a decision to remove invasive and exotic plants from your garden beds. Avoid pesticides and overuse of other chemicals, like fertilizer, which have negative consequences. According to Steven Kress of the NAS, at least 7 million birds are killed each year by eating insects treated with pesticides. So by reducing your pesticide use, you are protecting area birds. Watering efficiently improves the health of your plants and the environment for birds and other wildlife.
2. Begin small and have a plan.: When you do replace landscape plants with native species, don’t bite off more than you can chew. John moved in to a new home in California and made the decision to rip out all the aesthetic plants, like rose bushes, to replace them with native sage and other species native to the area. He made sure he was able to devote the time necessary to complete the project quickly. If in doubt, just focus on a small portion of your yard at a time. Be ready with the native plants you plan to install, so they can be available to benefit area birds shortly after the existing plantings have been removed.
3. Convert sales people at your local nursery.: If you don’t find what you are looking for at your local garden center or nursery, ask. Be specific. Small business owners want to provide what customers are looking for. We are a society of convenience and impulse buying, but taking a little more time to get the right plants will pay off for you and your local wildlife.
4. Try to avoid cultivars of native plants when you purchase.: You might be tempted by a cultivar of one of your native varieties, rather than the true native plant. While that cultivar is better than an exotic or strictly aesthetic choice, just remember that it’s best to focus on the true natives whenever possible. Some important aspects of native plants can be bred out of cultivars.
5. Enlist your neighbors.: Even as we each make small changes in our landscapes, we can all create a greater impact together. There is power in numbers. A few container plants here, a landscape bed there – collectively, we create corridors for wildlife to feed, shelter and raise young. A great way to spread the word among your neighborhood is with a Plants for Birds sign. With a small donation to support the National Audubon Society, you will receive the sign which can spur conversation among your neighbors and encourage others to follow your example.
The NAS set a goal to encourage gardeners to add one million bird-friendly, native plants during the coming year. That’s a lot of plants, but we are a lot of gardeners! Let’s all commit to planting at least a few to do our part for birds. As a society, we are doing a better job at being mindful of our actions and the consequences those actions can have. Let’s continue that momentum and protect our birds for future gardeners.
You can listen in to my conversation with John by scrolling to the top of this page and clicking the Play icon in the green bar just under the page title. You’ll hear more on the Migratory Bird Act and a few more stories on ways to create bird-friendly spaces, including a creative project John’s sister and one of her neighbors undertook to make better use of an often neglected spot.
Links & Resources
Episode 011: Plant Propagation Basics – With Brie Arthur
Episode 012: Beneficial Garden Insects – Bringing Nature Home with Doug Tallamy
Episode 020: Gardening for the Birds with Margaret Roach
Episode 037: Starting Seeds Indoors: The Non-Negotiables for Success, Pt. 1
Episode 063: Garden Fertilizer Basics: What to Know Before You Grow
Episode 071: Gardening for Wildlife: How-to Create an Inviting Habitat, with NWF’s David Mizijewski
joegardener Blog: How to Water Your Garden and Landscape: Pro Tips – Part 1 of 5
GGW Episode 620: Bringing Nature Home
GGW Podcast 004: Winter Composting, Caring for Birds in Winter, Poinsettia Facts, How to Kill a Houseplant
The Audubon Society Guide to Attracting Birds: Creating Natural Habitats for Properties Large and Small, by Dr. Stephen Kress
National Audubon Society’s Birds and Climate Change Report
National Audubon Society Native Plants Database
American Horticultural Society: Native Plant Societies
Lady Bird Johnson Wildlife Center
North American Native Plant Society
Smithsonian’s National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute: New Smithsonian Study Links Declines in Suburban Backyard Birds to Presence of Nonnative Plants
Susansinthegarden.com – Attracting Birds
Milorganite® – Our podcast episode sponsor and Brand Partner of joegardener.com