Native Plants and Birds: A Natural Connection
By Jared Teutsch, Executive Director
Spring is in the air and across metro Atlanta the trees and flowers are bursting into bloom. After the cold winter months, it’s a welcome treat to see green trees and flowers emerging from their winter stasis. If you’re in tune with the rhythms of nature, you’ve also noticed the explosion of bird song as nesting season begins. Birds and plants share an intrinsic connection, which is never more important than during nesting season. Here’s a fun fact: Ninety six percent of North American land birds feed insects to their young.
And when it comes to the types of plants that are best for Georgia’s birds, native plants are far better than non-native plants. Because native trees and shrubs evolved with local wildlife, they harbor more insects and yield more nutritious berries and fruits than non-native varieties. The importance of native plants in our landscapes has been reinforced by years of research by people like Doug Tallamy, an entomology and wildlife ecology professor from the University of Delaware who has published numerous popular books about the importance of using native plants in our landscapes. In short, his work and the work of others has proven that native plants host more caterpillars and other insects and that yards that incorporate native plants support the full life cycle of birds. Why is this important? Because native plants are hosts for food that sustains birds and other wildlife.
For example, Tallamy found that a single pair of breeding chickadees must find 6,000 to 9,000 caterpillars to rear a nest of five babies. Furthermore, his research revealed that a native oak tree supports more than 550 kinds of butterflies and moths, whereas a non-native Ginko tree or crepe myrtle supports fewer than five species. That’s a huge difference, and a compelling reason to add native plants to our landscapes.
In recent years, Georgia Audubon has been working to raise awareness about the important connection between native plants and birds. We’ve been walking the walk by creating bird habitat. At places like Deepdene, Panola Mountain State Park, the Island Ford Unit of the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area, Sams Lake Bird Sanctuary, and others, we’ve been removing non-native plants (like kudzu and privet) that choke out native plants and replacing them with native species (like mountain mint, wild bergamot, purple coneflower). It’s a win-win for people and birds, as the restored areas are far more attractive for visitors and provide nutritious food for resident and migratory birds.
Ready to learn more about native plant gardening? We recommend starting with one of Tallamy’s books, Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife or Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation that Starts in Your Yard. There are a variety of online resources as well, including the Georgia Audubon and Georgia Native Plant Society websites. National Audubon offers an online Plants for Birds database that allows you to enter your zip code to generate a list of native plants that will work well in your area. Check it out at https://www.audubon.org/PLANTSFORBIRDS.
Spring is a great time for planting, and you can find a wide array of native plants at one of the many native plant nurseries that are popping up around the state. In addition, many groups host fall and spring native plant sales, like the one Georgia Audubon hosts twice each year in collaboration with Oconee Rivers Audubon, in Athens, and Beech Hollow Wildflower Farms, with locations in the Athens and Atlanta area. The big box retailers may have a few natives sprinkled in, but by visiting a native plant nursery you’ll be sure you’re getting true native varieties that have not been treated with neonicotinoids, a widely used insecticide that can actually kill the bugs and bees you’re trying to host!
If you’d like to take your native plant garden to the next level, consider having it certified as a Georgia Audubon Wildlife Sanctuary. (https://www.georgiaaudubon.org/wildlife-sanctuary-program.html) To date, Georgia Audubon has certified more than 600 properties across Georgia with the goal of creating a network of habitat all across the state. But even a simple step like adding a few native, berry-producing plants to your yard can pay big dividends.
What’s good for birds is good for people, too. Join the growing native plant movement and #PlantNativeforBirds.