Time to celebrate wild Flora! Winds are stripping maples of magenta flower dots from their branches; in the not-yet-shade areas, bloodroot is my first blooming wildflower. Alas, it’s been the non-native bulbs that are getting my hopes up about spring.

On closer inspection, however, my mini-prairie gardens are sprouting leaves of spiderwort, violets, and some of the other 70+ native plant species I added last year. Time will tell how well my planning and planting will turn out.

Basically, I want my yard to be a bird-diner. Is it bad to invite pollinators and other insects to be diner and dinner? By adding shrubs for berries and plants that hold seeds there will be more winter offerings for other bird species as well. Making notes of nearby natural sources/areas show me what else is available as well as what is missing or in thin supply.

As the last winter birds head north, how well will my menu support in-coming summer breeders?

We are in the middle of bird migration. Plants can adjust a bit to changing local weather, i.e., leaf-out earlier/later but plant timing could be off for the birds who head north, not by “plant reviews” on Twitter, but by their photo-receptors triggered by daylight hours. It’s bad enough that weather conditions can easily impact what they find en route and at their destinations, but long-term shifts are another story we don’t know.

When the southern birds get back here, they won’t be at my feeders but checking out plants for their foods of choice (bug protein). Territories are staked out for food as well as nesting sites. Competition will be great since so many of the wild areas with the greatest mix of native plants are too often far apart or not large enough to accommodate different birds (i.e., 110+ species have nested at Glacial Park’s 3,400 acres). But every yard in between could be, at the very least, a potential dining spot if there are native plants.

We can’t change the weather, and we’re slow to reign in a changing climate – but we can still help birds find what they need by the choice of plants we plant. Douglas Tallamy (entomologist and author of Bringing Nature Home) has been researching the big question: do differences between native vs non-native plants impact birds? It boils down to this: native plants provide food for the wide variety of native insects that birds include in their diets (and feed their young). Many birds will include fruit/berries and seeds later in fall, but it’s bugs they’re after to raise their kids.

Each plant has evolved its own chemical protection to defend against specific insect munchers; but when faced with unknown, non-native plants, native insects just avoid. Hence, “pest free” plants aren’t providing for the other lives in the community (one could say they are just mooching the ecosystem’s water, sun and nutrients).

Birds know what they can eat and where to find it, but if it’s not the right kind of caterpillar they will avoid that chemical signature. It takes a certain kind of bird to take that first bite and live. Some species like the spunky chickadee are more daring.

chickadee-feeding-Douglas TallamyConsider the dreaded imported gypsy moth: it loves many of our native trees as they have no chemical defense against it. But birds aren’t big fans of its fuzzy caterpillars. Yet chickadees, cuckoos, blue jays and towhees are munching eggs if not the caterpillars or the moths themselves. It’s hard to say if it’s like eating nutritious food or Cheetos, and since most birds’ life span is only a few years we don’t know the overall impact to that species’ survival.

Insects are the staple in the food pyramid for most songbirds (except doves and goldfinches who stick to seeds). And climate change is impacting insect life cycles heavily (summer heat, winter temps, moisture changes hit them and their plants). When was the last time you had to scrape bug goo off windshields? Their decline deals a heavy blow to birds.

Tallamy’s top 5 contenders for best bug-plants include: oaks, willows, cherry/plum, birch, cottonwood. Each species hosts a mini-universe of insects. And while we might only notice when an insect population “booms” such booms become buffets for a wide variety of birds. Bugs need trees, and trees need birds to keep those bug populations in check. Fortunately, birds need trees for food. Everything is inter-connected.

But what to do if bugs bug your plants? Take a moment to practice what I call APT: AWARENESS (what is it and what is it doing). PATIENCE (wait and see if it’s a real threat). TOLERANCE (leaf damage is a signal to chickadees that there’s food, who knew!). In the big picture, cabbage white caterpillars love to feast on broccoli and its cousins; neither are native, but chickadees and wrens do eat the caterpillars.

Imagine you’re a chickadee trying to feed 5 hungry kids every 10 minutes, would you hunt for one caterpillar? Birds will come to a buffet just like us. In fact, if you have chickadees that means they are taking care of pest control. To raise one clutch of 6-8 eggs the parents need to find 270 caterpillars/ bugs for each kid! Each day! For 4 weeks plus (after fledging the parents show the kids where to find bugs. And that adds up to about 7,500 caterpillars for the season!). We’re talking about a bird that weighs 10 oz (2 nickels + a penny) with a brain the size of a pea. And that’s just one set of parents, of one species of bird, raising their kids. Some birds have 2-3 broods.

Every yard matters. Plant native plants and sit back and enjoy the diners. If we’ve learned anything over the years, insects will win as they evolve resistance to whatever chemical arsenal we employ. But birds can be the best free pest control if we provide some native plant areas for them to raise their young.

For more information about what plants to plant: https://www.audubon.org/native-plants

Are you, or someone you know a farmer? The Wild Farm Alliance offers an on-line series on the role of birds for pest control in agriculture. It’s been an enlightening look at how some basic changes can benefit all parties considered. https://www.wildfarmalliance.org/

To track spring migration and sees “live bird migration maps: www.birdcast.org


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