If a human and a bird each spied the blooms featured in Andrew Garn’s book Wildflowers of New York City, their takeaways would be staggeringly different. Humans value flowers for their beauty; birds see them as vital resources—especially native plants, which co-evolved with birds to provide food and shelter.
Garn’s photos provide a sense of just how perfectly plants and birds evolved to meet each other’s needs. Hummingbirds, for instance, have long, needlelike beaks that are specially adapted to reach the nectar from the dramatic, curving blooms of plants like those shown below: eastern red columbine, dotted horsemint, jewelweed, and scarlet beebalm.
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Garn says he hopes his book will help others take notice of just how many such oases New York provides to birds. He traversed many of the city’s 26 distinct habitat types—including swamps, forests, and urban parks—to find photogenic examples of the more than 2,000 wildflowers in the five boroughs. “I went down this path of photographing wildflowers after hearing how many are actually around me every day,” he says.
Unlike the plants above, the below staghorn sumac and Virginia creeper have adapted to the needs of comparatively short-beaked birds such as American Robins, Cedar Waxwings, and bluebirds: Fruit grows on their exteriors, offering an easy feast.
When insects hatch, humans may consider them unwelcome foragers. Insectivorous birds like wrens and warblers beg to differ. They rely on plants like butterfly weed and tulip tree to attract their food in the spring and summer.
Other times, the plant itself is the meal: The bulbous fruits of pokeweed and jack-in-the-pulpit (below) draw mockingbirds and thrushes in the fall months.
Regardless of the relationship, bird species rely on native plants across their widespread ranges. “Finding ways to support these plants in our cities and communities is incredibly important,” says John Rowden, senior director for bird-friendly communities at Audubon. “Even small changes we all make can add up and birds will benefit.”
Nature's beauty persists everywhere, these photos remind us, even in the cracks of a sidewalk—and with a little care and luck, these plants can blossom into a haven for birds, too.
Wildflowers of New York City, by Andrew Garn, Cornell University Press, 208 pages. Available now here.
This piece originally ran in the Spring 2021 issue as “Beneficial Blossoms.” To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.