Plants for Birds Program Manager Marlene Pantin plants an Audubon® native tree in New York. Photo credit: Mike Fernandez/Audubon.
How does climate change threaten birds, and how does planting natives help?
Our warming world poses profound challenges to conservation. Audubon’s report “Survival By Degrees: 389 Bird Species on the Brink,” published in October 2019, found that as many as 389 out of 604 bird species in North America could be at risk of extinction due to rising temperatures. Learn more at climate.audubon.org. The report showed that in order to protect birds, we need to reduce the emissions that cause the warming and protect the places on the ground that birds need now and in the future. Planting native grasses, trees, and shrubs does both. First, replacing lawns with native plants lowers the carbon produced and water required to maintain them. And native gardens also help birds be as strong as possible in the face of the climate threat—by providing food, shelter and protection. Native plant patches—no matter how small—can help bird populations be more resilient to the impacts of a warming world.
Why did Audubon partner with Bower & Branch on this program?
National Audubon Society and Bower & Branch are committed to transforming our communities into places where birds flourish—because we know that where birds thrive, people prosper. From urban centers to rural towns, every community can provide important habitat for native birds. Together, we hope to inspire more individuals to help birds by growing native plants. By partnering with Bower & Branch, Audubon seeks to make native plants more accessible to more people in more places. Stay tuned as our reach continues to grow across the country.
What is the difference between a true native plant and a cultivar of a native plant?
Cultivars are plants that are bred by humans to favor one or more specific traits—such as leaf color, the size or growth habitat, disease resistance, bloom color/shape/size/timing, etc.—and are then propagated so that those traits are maintained. Thus the plant is altered by genetically favoring certain characteristics over time. The horticultural industry has created literally thousands, if not tens of thousands, of cultivars of native species.
Some cultivars of natives aren't much different from the true native but some are significantly altered. Through the breeding process the plant can become less recognizable to insects, birds, and other wildlife, specifically if the bloom is altered. Ecologists agree that some cultivars of natives may hold ecological value—at least more than exotics from the other side of the planet—but it is generally believed that the true native is best.
Does a native plant garden help conserve water?
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 30 to 60 percent of fresh water in American cities is used for watering lawns. Though almost all plants require some watering after planting until they become established, native plants have adapted to thrive in their regional landscapes, without the continuous irrigation and/or fertilization that many non-native species require. With climate change models predicting increased episodes of extreme drought such as California is experiencing, it’s a good time to shift to water-wise yards and native plants. If an average American family spent 1 less day watering their garden and lawn, it would save about 320 gallons of water (source: Environmental Protection Agency).
Is a native plant garden better for human health?
When you reduce the size of your lawn and landscape with native plants, you can spend less time cutting the grass and more time watching the birds that flock to your yard. How does that boost human health? During the growing season, some 56 million Americans mow 40 million acres of grass each week. Mowers and weed-whackers burn gasoline to the tune of 800 million gallons per year, contributing to the greenhouse gases produced in our country. The less lawn you mow, the less air and water pollution you create. Less lawn also means less noise pollution, and that’s great for your ears. According to the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse, a typical gas-powered push mower emits 85 to 90 decibels for the operator. That doesn’t just scare away the birds—it can cause hearing loss over time. With the mower tucked away, you can hear bird song in the silence that reigns. Less lawn mowing, fertilizing, and pesticide application also means cleaner air and water for all!
What if I can only have plants on my windowsill, patio, or balcony? Can I still help birds?
Given that pots and planters come in many shapes and sizes, container gardens are easy to fit in tight spaces, from window boxes and hanging baskets to perches on stoops and railings.
Containers do have their limitations; for one, they’re too small to hold the shrubs and trees that birds use for nesting. Still, there are plenty of plants that will fit in a pot and also provide seeds, fruit, or insects for birds to eat. And with a little planning, you can have something ready to go in time for spring migration. Learn more about planting for birds in small spaces here.
Will planting for birds also attract and support insect pollinators like bees and butterflies?
Yes, many of the best native plants for birds are also important plants for insect pollinators—both as sources of nectar and as “host” plants. Over 90% of native insects can only feed on the native plants with which they’ve evolved over millions of years. Native butterflies like the monarch lay their eggs only on particular host plants—in the case of the monarch, milkweed species—and monarch caterpillars need milkweed leaves to eat and eventually mature into the next generation of butterflies. Planting for pollinators will not only support pollinating insects such as butterflies and moths; it will also provide the protein-rich insect food that baby birds need to grow and thrive. You can use Audubon’s native plants database to search for plants that are important both for butterflies and for caterpillars. Another way to get involved and show your support for planting for pollinators is to register for the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge, a project of the National Pollinator Garden Network.
Should I worry about birds colliding with my windows if I attract them to my yard?
You can protect your feathered visitors by taking some simple steps to create a safer environment for birds. Reduce the risk of collisions by placing feeders within three feet of windows. Densely spaced designs placed on the outer surface of windows, netting, or screens also help to deter birds from colliding with glass. Read more tips here.
What can I do about bugs that are eating my plants?
A bird-friendly garden is one that provides the resources that birds need to thrive—and that includes bugs! Insects are in important element of many birds’ diets, and are particularly critical for baby birds: 96% of land birds feed insects to their chicks. As you get to know the insect life in your garden, you may be amazed at the varied assortment of fascinating creatures you find there. A diversity of native plants will also attract wildlife that will keep your plant-eating bugs in check: Not only birds but also frogs, toads, bats, and insect predators such as dragonflies, praying mantises and lady bugs will help keep your garden in a healthy balance. Pesticide use should be avoided as much as possible, to allow all the life in your garden to flourish. If bugs are persistently devouring a favorite plant, however, some low-impact alternatives are available. Choose organic products that break down quickly in the environment such as insecticidal soap, neem oil*, or pyrethrum, and apply sparingly and according to instructions. If your garden is suffering from a larger-scale pest problem such as a non-native gypsy moth caterpillar infestation, you may want to contact your local or state environmental agency for advice.
* A note on the use of neem oil, which is an insect growth inhibitor and non-toxic to birds. Because neem oil prevents insects from developing further, it can prevent bee larvae from developing if adult bees feed them neem oil-coated pollen they've brought back to the hive. For that reason, you should avoid using neem oil on flowers or remove open flowers from plants you're treating with neem oil.
What do I need to know about neonicotinoids when I’m purchasing plants?
Neonicotinoids are a class of insecticides chemically related to nicotine that target certain kinds of receptors in the nervous system. They were first approved for use in the 1990s and have become popular in pest control due to their water solubility, which allows them to be applied to soil and be taken up by plants. They are an example of a "systemic pesticide": one that is absorbed by the plant and retained in its tissues for some time, as opposed to staying just on the plant's surface. Some plants available in the nursery trade have been treated with neonicotinoids to make them less susceptible to insect damage. A growing number of studies have shown that neonicotinoid pesticides harm birds, in addition to a wide range of insect pollinators—both by leaching into the soil and causing neurological effects, and by killing off insects that some species rely on for food.
In the last few years, growing attention has been brought to bear upon neonicotinoid-treated plants—particularly milkweed—sold expressly to help and attract pollinators. If you'd like to learn more, the Xerces Society has an excellent set of online resources related to the effects of neonicotinoids on bees and other insect pollinators.
What are “invasive” plants—and what should I do about them?
Invasive plants may include aggressive alien, or non-native, plants that have been introduced to North America—as well as plants native to North America that have been spread outside their natural range either accidentally or purposefully by people. Such plants can outcompete native species and reduce the value of a habitat for birds. Invasive alien plants, though they may provide some sustenance to birds via fruit, seeds, or nectar, as a rule do not provide the same quality of nutrition—nor do they generally host the same diversity of native insect species that songbirds need to feed their young during nesting season. Consult your local Audubon or native plant society to learn about the invasive plants of most concern in your area, and the best methods to remove them effectively. Many local Audubon chapters conduct invasive plant removal events as part of local native plant restoration efforts.
Yard choices must be approved by my housing association, and bird-friendly landscaping is uncommon in my community. How can I talk to my neighbors, housing association, and others to reassure them that my native plant garden will be beneficial to them?
Growing native plants has many benefits both for birds and for people. It is becoming increasingly common as people discover the advantages of transitioning to native plants, so you won’t be alone! If people are nervous about what your yard might look like, assure them that when you transition to native plants it can lead to a more beautiful yard that will also be filled with colorful birds. Many native plants produce flowers in the spring and bright foliage in the fall, creating an attractive yard throughout the growing season. And "native plant garden" doesn’t mean "wild thicket"—native plant gardens can be as visually pleasing as gardens that use non-native plants, they are just friendlier to birds and easier to maintain! Also, since native plant gardens use less water and are better for human health (see below), you can tell your neighbors that they will benefit from your use of native plants. Here’s a helpful article, especially if you must coordinate with an HOA. One way to let your neighbors know about the importance of your bird-friendly garden is to place Audubon's Plants for Birds sign in your yard. By donating to receive your sign, you'll also be contributing to our efforts to get 10 million native plants in the ground. Get your sign here.
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