12 Dec 2016

Planting native species to help birds

Ruby-throated Hummingbird in flight colorful background © Steve Byland
Ruby-throated Hummingbird in flight © Steve Byland
By John Rowden

In the fall of 2016 Audubon (BirdLife US) launched the Plants for Birds programme, which encourages and empowers people in the US to support birds by planting native species.

When you see a hummingbird sipping nectar from a flower, a vireo plucking a caterpillar from a leaf, or an oriole gobbling down a berry, it’s clear that the relationship between bird and plant can be vital to each; those birds receive valuable food resources while helping to rid the plant of insects, or spread pollen and seeds that benefit the plants.

Birds and plants that are native to an area have evolved together and often have these mutually beneficial connections. Non-native plant species do not have these connections to native birds and can create ‘food deserts’ for our birds.

This is a problem in the United States, where many common landscaping plants are not native to the country. In the fall of 2016 Audubon launched our Plants for Birds programme, which encourages and empowers people in the US to support birds by planting native species whenever possible.

The Plants for Birds program promotes habitat improvement across the US through planting native plants for birds, and is designed to engage people across all urban and suburban landscapes, inspiring individuals to take action wherever they live.

At the program’s core lies its native plants database, which provides users with customized lists of native plants and the types of birds they attract, and connects users to native plant resources in their area, as well as Audubon’s local network with on-the-ground expertise.

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The Plants for Birds program is supported by the growing scientific consensus that native plants, which serve as necessary hosts for native insects, are critically important for healthy bird populations, particularly during breeding. Native birds need insects to feed their chicks; without native plants and the insects they provide, native birds cannot survive. Consider these numbers:

  • 96% of land birds feed insects to their chicks
  • Native oak trees host over 530 species of caterpillars; non-native ginkgo trees host just 4
  • To raise one nest of chickadee babies, parents must find between 6,000 and 9,000 caterpillars
  • Suburban yards planted with native species host 8 times more native birds, according to the work of entomologist Doug Tallamy.

Clearly, birds benefit when they have more native plants in their environment. This short video explains this quickly and easily.

The Plants for Birds database currently only provides results for users in the United States; we don’t have the data to provide plant recommendations for other countries at this time. However, the principles are the same across the hemisphere and people should investigate which local nurseries carry native plants and support those that do.

Plants for Birds provides a tangible way for people to help birds anywhere and everywhere, which is particularly important considering all the threats that birds face in the modern world. Climate change threatens more than 300 bird species in North America, and the loss and fragmentation of their natural habitats exacerbate this threat.

Growing native plants is something that anyone can do in their yard or community to help bird populations adapt and thrive, now and in the future.