Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Feed the Birds

Goldfinches at feeder
You think that you love birds. Every week you pick up your binoculars and go birdwatching with others who share your interest. You have one or two birdhouses in your properties and, of course, bird feeders that you can see from your window while you drink your morning coffee. Yes, you are very much a bird lover.

But what would you think if I told you that you are probably dooming some birds to death and starvation through your gardening practices? Let us say that you decide to buy a new tree for your yard, you love the color and shape of Japanese maples and that is what you choose. Later on, you take a look at azaleas and rhododendrons and find out that there are some Chinese cultivars which you find extremely attractive. You bypass the native varieties and choose one of those.

These innocent actions have deplorable consequences for the birds that visit your yard. Birds have no use for those foreign plants. Well, you say, “I have seen them use those branches for nests, what could be wrong with such plants?”

Until just a year ago I would have thought exactly the same. I didn’t know the bad consequences of using non-native plants as long as they weren’t invasive. But reading a book by Doug Tallamy (Bringing Nature Home) opened my eyes to a whole new perspective and a new appreciation of how food chains work, not just in nature preserves and remote parks but in our own backyards.

A nutritious caterpillar feeding on native wild ginger
Numerous insects are adapted to native plants and find your Japanese maple and alien azalea totally inedible. So what? Who needs insects, anyway? You say. –Birds need insects; that is who! Ask yourself: what do birds eat? Particularly, baby birds with their voracious appetites and fast growing bodies? They need lots of proteins; that is why their parents spend several hours a day hunting for insects, because insects are little packages of protein. If your plants are non-native there isn’t much insect protein to be found on them and the birds have to search somewhere else.

So to put it in a nutshell, each time that you plant an exotic tree or shrub you are dooming some baby bird to hunger and death. Or, if it makes you feel better, each time that you plant native plants you are helping the birds you love, perhaps even more than you do with your bird feeders.

A handsome looking native shrub, mountain laurel
Nature centers and wildflower preserves as well as some arboretums sell native plants and can provide information on them. You can also find these regional native plant lists useful: Pollinator Friendly Planting Guide. They are intended for pollinator gardens but they can apply to all wildlife.

For the area I am familiar with, the Atlantic seaboard:
Delaware Native Plants for Native Bees

And of course, the book mentioned above: Tallamy, Doug: Bringing Nature Home and the website: Bringing Nature Home