Why Native Plants Are Better for Birds and People

Bird-friendly landscaping provides food, saves water, and fights climate change.

Your garden is your outdoor sanctuary. With some careful plant choices, it can be a haven for native birds as well. Landscaped with native species, your yard, patio, or balcony becomes a vital recharge station for birds passing through and a sanctuary for nesting and overwintering birds.

Each patch of restored native habitat is just that—a patch in the frayed fabric of the ecosystem in which it lies. By landscaping with native plants, we can turn a patchwork of green spaces into a quilt of restored habitat.

Better for Birds

More native plants mean more choices of food and shelter for native birds and other wildlife.

To survive, native birds need native plants and the insects that have co-evolved with them. Most landscaping plants available in nurseries are exotic species from other countries. Many are prized for qualities that make them poor food sources for native birds—like having leaves that are unpalatable to native insects and caterpillars. With 96 percent of all terrestrial bird species in North America feeding insects to their young, planting insect-proof exotic plants is like serving up plastic food. No insects? No birds.

For example, research by entomologist Doug Tallamy has shown that native oaks support more than 550 different species of butterflies and moths alone. The non-native ginkgo tree supports just 5. Caterpillars are the go-to food source for migrant and resident birds alike. In the 16 days between hatching and fledging, a clutch of Carolina Chickadee chicks can down more than 9,000 of them.

Tallamy's work points to native landscaping as a key tool in increasing bird diversity and abundance. In a study of suburban properties in southeast Pennsylvania, for example, eight times more Wood Thrushes, Eastern Towhees, Veeries, and Scarlet Tanagers (all species of conservation concern) were found in yards with native plantings as compared with yards landscaped with typical alien ornamentals.

Video clip: Doug Tallamy

What’s more, the habitat provided by native plants can help birds adapt and survive amid a changing climate. More than half of North American bird species are threatened by climate change, and native plants can help increase their resilience by giving them food and places to rest and nest.

Better for People

When you landscape with native species, you can spend more time with the birds and less time with the mower. How does that boost human health? During the growing season, some 56 million Americans mow 40 million acres of grass each week—an area eight times the size of New Jersey! Mowers and weed-whackers burn gasoline to the tune of 800 million gallons per year, contributing to the greenhouse gases that drive global warming.

If you’ve ever filled a lawn mower or weed whacker with gas, you know that spills happen. The EPA estimates that Americans spill more than 17 million gallons of fuel each year while refueling lawn equipment, polluting the air and groundwater. Older, less efficient two-cycle engines release significant amounts of their oil and gas unburned. The less lawn you mow, the less air and water pollution you create.

Less lawn also means less noise pollution. According to the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse, a typical gas-powered push mower emits 85 to 90 decibels for the operator (90-95 for riding lawnmowers). That doesn’t just scare away the birds—it can cause hearing loss over time.

By planting native species, you will also: 

Save water

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 30 to 60 percent of fresh water in American cities is used for watering lawns. Native plants have adapted to thrive in their regional landscape, without added water or nutrients. 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.

Control flooding

Cultivating vertical structure in your yard by planting many different species of herbaceous flowering plants, shrubs, and trees creates layers of vegetation that deflect pounding rains, increasing the chance for water to be absorbed by your soil before running off into storm drains and streams.

Use fewer chemicals

Less lawn mowing, fertilizing, and pesticide application means cleaner air and water.

Homeowners apply nearly 80 million pounds of pesticides to lawns in the United States each year. What’s more, they use up to 10 times more pesticides per acre on their lawns than farmers use on crops. During storms, lawn chemicals can be carried by runoff and wind, contaminating streams and wetlands many miles away.

Native plants are often hardier than non-native ornamentals and thrive without pesticides or fertilizers. Moreover, as you work to create a bird-friendly sanctuary in your yard, insects that may have seemed like pests before become allies. Since caterpillars are premium bird food, the holes they make in your oak’s leaves are badges of success and the caterpillars themselves cause for celebration.

Reduce maintenance

Less lawn means less time mowing, weed-whacking, and edging. Landscaping with native plants isn’t maintenance free—invasive weed species are an ongoing issue in any garden. But with careful landscape planning and plant selection, you can create a garden space that minimizes the ongoing input of time and money. That’s a mighty nice change from constant lawn care. And when the mower’s tucked away, you can hear bird song in the silence that reigns.

Create beauty

What does a beautiful outdoor space look like? What does it mean to have a “well-kept” yard? For decades, our standard of green beauty and orderliness has centered on a carpet-like lawn and manicured foundation plantings, an aesthetic that largely excludes birds and other wildlife, and has a hefty carbon footprint. By putting in native plants, you can create a colorful, visually appealing landscape that helps give birds a fighting chance in a changing world.

So get digging for birds—then sit back, relax, and enjoy watching them as they flock to your yard, deck, or balcony. Here's how to get started with your bird-friendly yard! Or, start searching now for native plants for birds in your area with Audubon's native plant database.