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People, Places & Parks Thought Leadership

Native Plants and Birds: A Natural Connection

Brown Thrasher on Elderberry. Photo by Will Stuart.

By Jared Teutsch, Executive Director

This week marks the last week of Georgia Grows Native for Birds Month as Georgia Audubon wraps up a month-long celebration of the important connection between birds and native plants. Why are native plants so important for birds, you ask? Without native plants and healthy habitats, we would have no birds. In order for Georgia Audubon to fulfill our mission of building places where birds and people thrive, it is critical that we create bird-friendly habitats and encourage others to do so as well.

Birds and native plants go together thanks to millions of years of coevolution. Native plants produce fruits and flowers on which birds feed, and, in return, birds spread the plant’s seeds and pollen far and wide, supporting an entire ecosystem. It’s a win-win. The most effective way to improve landscapes for birds is to remove exotic, invasive species and replace them with native plants.

A recently released study published in the journal Science revealed that nearly three billion birds —or one in four birds— have disappeared from our landscape in the past 50 years. Habitat loss and degradation are two of the leading causes for this decline. Nowhere is this more evident than in metro Atlanta. Not only are we losing habitat and tree canopy at an alarming rate, but the habitat that we still have is being rapidly degraded making it less able to support the full life cycle of many bird species. The decline of even common species, including our state bird, the Brown Thrasher, indicates a general shift in our ecosystems’ ability to support basic bird life. We must do better if we hope to maintain healthy ecosystems and healthy bird populations.

Native plants are also important hosts for protein-rich native insects, like caterpillars, which nesting birds need to feed their growing chicks. More than 96 percent of land birds feed insects and spiders to their chicks. In fact, a single nest of Carolina Chickadee babies will need as many as 9,000 caterpillars in order to fledge. Native tree species are better for birds because they host many more caterpillars. For example, a native oak supports more than 550 kinds of butterflies and moths, whereas a non-native Ginkgo tree supports only five.

Timing is important, too. The fruits and flowers of most native plants ripen at the same time migratory birds are passing through, providing a high-fat, nutritional food source to help birds complete their migratory journeys. In addition to providing food for pollinators and birds, gardens and habitats filled with native plants instead of turf grass help reduce storm water run-off and mitigate the effects of climate change. 

Recognizing the inherent connection between native plants and birds, Georgia Audubon has been restoring bird-friendly habitat across the metro area and beyond, at places like Blue Heron Nature Preserve, Cascade Springs Nature Preserve, Piedmont Park, Historic Washington Park, Jekyll Island, and others. Through partnerships with friends’ groups and other volunteer organizations, we’ve removed acres and acres of privet, English ivy, kudzu, and other invasive plants and replaced them with native plants that provide food and habitat for resident and migratory birds. Through habitat restoration work and bi-annual native plant sales, Georgia Audubon has added more than 30,000 native plants to Georgia landscapes.

On the home front, Georgia Audubon’s Wildlife Sanctuary Program has certified nearly 800 homes and greenspaces. Our goal is to create a web of high-quality habitat for birds and other wildlife across Georgia. Learn more about our work and how you can get involved at www.georgiaaudubon.org.


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