Bringing Nature Home
How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants
by Douglas Tallamy
The bad news about birds just keeps on coming. Climate change. Habitat loss. You name it. We could lose more than 300 species of birds just to climate change alone. And not just in the U.S. Sir David Attenborough recently said “ ” to avoid catastrophic die-off of key species.
What are we to do? I refuse to sit around and do nothing or give in to despair, because friends: there *is* something we can all do. Will it stop climate change or restore our pristine environment? No. But we can help bridge the gap between where we are now and where we need to be in the future, with one simple step.
CHOOSE NATIVE PLANTS FOR YOUR LANDSCAPE.
I just finished this excellent little book, and honestly Tallamy was preaching to the choir with me because I was nodding my head emphatically at every paragraph.
Tallamy’s angle on saving birds is that by planting native plants, we support native insects, which in turn support birds. Honestly, I used to think about supporting wild birds mostly in terms of plants that produced berries for them to eat. But a huge percentage of a bird’s diet comes from the insect world (bats and rodents, too), especially when they are raising their young.
But how bad are things, really? Here in Minnesota, in particular, we value our outside spaces so much that we seem surrounded by “nature” all the time. But the problem is our nature is not exactly all natural: we plant non-native species that offer no value to wildlife, or worse, turf grass that requires constant pollution to maintain and *still* offers no value to wildlife.
A handful of the staggering statistics cited by Tallamy:
– The United States’ songbird population has declined 50% in the last 50 years.
– Only 3-5% (depending on whom you ask) of the land in the lower 48 United States is still undisturbed.
– 50,000 alien species of plants and animals have colonized North America.
There is a simple relationship between species survival and habitat area. If you destroy half of a natural area, half of the species within that area will die. Tallamy extrapolates that we could lose 97% of our native North American species of plants, insects, and animals. Think about that. Pretty sobering.
So why do people buy non-native ornamental plants for their landscapes? At this point, it’s hard to see why you would. After reading this book, I definitely won’t. But unfortunately the nursery industry is going to cater to what its customers are asking for and not enough of them are asking for natives.
Tallamy gives many examples of the woes brought upon our continent by foreign ornamentals; it’s not just that they displace native plants, but they also often bring new foreign pests and diseases along with them, that thrive in an area where no natural predator has developed to keep them in check. Hello, Emerald Ash Borer.
So what native plants should we prioritize in our landscapes? Here’s where this book starts to take a helpful turn for the positive. Tallamy gives detailed descriptions of several native species that support not just one but many species of insects that in turn support the rest of the ecosystem.
Tallamy uses lepidoptera (butterflies) as his test and ranks woody plants by how many different lepidoptera species they support. He chose lepidoptera mainly because large bodies of research exist about them. Using lepidoptera as an indicator of value is not perfect, but it is very interesting. For example, our native North American Oak trees (genus Quercus) support 534 different butterfly species! Wow. Coming in close second are our native Willows (genus Salix), Cherry & plum (genus Prunus), and Birch (Betula). For shrubs, he lists blueberries & cranberries (Vaccinium) & hazelnut (Corylus).
He then describes—in detail—the insect world that depends on several of these key species, showing how the support goes up the food chain. For example, downy woodpeckers like to forage for insects in the soft wood of large willow trees.
One of my favorite chapters was “What does bird food look like?” with detailed descriptions of several bugs, where they live, what plants they need, etc. I never thought of milkweed beetles as bird food, for example.
After reading this book, I am looking at scenes like this with a different attitude. Multiple levels of the food chain in action right here on this dying compass plant. Aphids, ants, you name it. I’ve also been seeing goldfinches and other birds I had never previously seen around here, all over my yard this year. It’s so rewarding.
So. If you are *at all* concerned by the mounting body of evidence that we are at the doorstep of a massive extinction event, give this book a shot. I *highly* recommend it. Then start deciding what native plants you’d like to add to your landscape—shrubs and small trees can still be planted here in the northland for another two weeks at least, as long as you keep them well-watered until the ground freezes hard. OK? OK.
Maybe the sea change has already begun: the Washington Post just published a piece on this very topic! Positive change that I can be a part of? SIGN ME UP.