Creating a Bird-Friendly Yard

Creating a Bird-Friendly Yard

New research shows that small habitats can add up to a big difference.

By Rene Ebersole
Published: July-August 2013

On the properties most closely resembling the arid desert surroundings, she found Gila woodpeckers nesting in saguaro cactuses, Anna's hummingbirds sipping nectar from mesquite, and curve-billed thrashers nesting in cholla cactuses. She also discovered that the birds frequenting those xeriscaped properties were staying longer and eating until they were full. "They didn't have to keep moving around, which takes a lot of energy," she says. "They could stay in one patch and do all of their activities. If you're a bird that doesn't have to fly from yard to yard desperately trying to find food, you can go off and do other important things, like attracting a mate or feeding your young."

Lerman worries about one potential hazard of creating a bird retreat in a desert of grass and pavement. In the right set of circumstances it could become a Bates Motel. "We have to be really careful that when we do create these habitats we don't create ecological traps." (This refers to the inadvertent bait and switch that can happen when wildlife is drawn to an area that ultimately jeopardizes its safety.) "If you create a wildlife habitat, and then you have a cat outside, it's completely unproductive. You're attracting all these birds to your yard with beautiful plants, and your cat is waiting to kill them."

It doesn't have to be your cat either. It could be a neighbor's or a feral one. In fact, a recent study by scientists at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute reported that between 1.4 billion and 3.7 billion birds are killed each year by cats roaming outdoors. "This is a huge and complicated issue," Lerman says, "because you can't control other people's behavior."

 


While cutting-edge research is expanding scientists' understanding of how people can support birds and other wildlife--one garden, schoolyard, and urban park at a time--there is still a lot to learn. "Prior to this research, it was largely suspected that backyard habitats could be helpful in providing sanctuary to birds during nesting and migration," says Steve Kress, Audubon's vice president for bird conservation and author of The Audubon Society Guide to Attracting Birds. "Their research gives us solid information that shows how important the native plants are."

But he emphasizes that selecting plants that host the insects birds eat is only part of the equation. Fruiting plants and seeds fuel birds during migration, and are thus equally essential in any habitat. "Of course, plants should also be selected for other features than food, such as shelter during extreme weather and usefulness for nesting structure. Just as some plants sustain diverse caterpillar populations, others provide good options for nesting structure and safety from predators."

Nest boxes hung on posts or standing trees are another key feature, he says, because people tend to remove downed trees and other structures with cavities that birds would use naturally. In addition, birds need sitting perches where they can keep an eye out for predators; a place to get out of the sun on a hot day or to weather a winter storm; water for drinking and bathing; and even some thorny shrubs like hawthorns that can provide a fortress against prowling animals, including cats.

At the same time scientists are taking a hard look at nonnative invasive species that provide birds with food but also harm the ecosystem. Porcelainberry is firmly on the National Park Service's "least wanted list" for its habit of forcefully twining through woodlands and smothering native plants. But apparently the birds aren't too picky. "[They] eat porcelainberries up the wazoo," says Michelle Frankel, a conservation biologist who is leading Audubon's Bird-Friendly Communities initiative in the Atlantic Flyway. Some people think: Why make such a fuss. Just leave it. But Frankel says you have to also consider the plants that porcelainberry displaces. What's more, not all plants are created equal. A recent study revealed that the highest fat content and energy densities in fruits that migrant birds ate at two field sites in Rochester, New York, came from native shrubs--not the aliens. The birds were choosing the higher-octane fuel and eating it more voraciously.

More and more, citizen science projects continue to deepen our understanding. Two such programs were launched this spring. "These initiatives are designed to look more closely at bird and plant associations and answer some of the questions, particularly having to do with backyard habitats," says Frankel.

YardMap is a Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology project that encourages people to gather data about the habitats that they are most familiar with--their yard, their favorite birding spot, a schoolyard, even a cemetery--to provide insights about how they can aid wildlife. The program is like Google Earth, allowing users to zoom in on their place and mark the types of plants that exist there. "It's connected to eBird [a real-time online checklist program that collects and broadcasts bird data], so they can also keep track of the birds they see," says Frankel. "It's a very cool tool."

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Comments

I have gained some useful

I have gained some useful information from this site. Thanks for sharing this information. Healthy bird communities are inextricably linked to healthy insect populations. Ninety-six percent of terrestrial North American birds raise their young on insects.

I like to mention that many

I like to mention that many native plants edible by birds (directly or indirectly) are edible by people too, and (once the plants get established in your yard) there is typically plenty of fruit for all, human and non-human alike. Take Juneberry (aka Shadbush, Serviceberry, or Amalanchier to botanists) - the fruit (which ripens in June, hence the common name) tastes like a cross between cherries and almonds (they are all related). The typical Juneberry tree gets to be 12 feet tall and fruits prolifically, so people can often pick as much fruit as they like from the lower branches, leaving the fruit on the upper branches for the birds.

Great article. So glad to

Great article. So glad to see another one promoting this issue. Of course, Doug Tallamy. We have had him speak here twice. His words are golden.
We have been promoting folks having a bird-friendly habitat/yard for about 4 years by offering an award to do so. All of our consults and award offerings are free. We are paired with the local native plant society and have now made inways to schools to educate the young folks on the necessity of bird friendly habitats.
Also, North Carolina Audubon has formed a committee addressing all the issues associated with getting a bird friendly habitat. State recommended non native plant lists, invasive plant sales, etc.
Charley Winterbauer, President, Cape Fear Audubon Society

People can Nibble on Natives Too

Hi - This was a great article. I especially enjoyed the version appearing in print, as it included many photos of native plant species and the insects (and, in turn the birds) utilizing them for food.

While it is likely that many Audubon Magazine readers would be sufficiently motivated to plant native plants for their benefits to birds, other folks might need additional convincing. That is one reason why I like to mention that many native plants edible by birds (directly or indirectly) are edible by people too, and (once the plants get established in your yard) there is typically plenty of fruit for all, human and non-human alike. Take Juneberry (aka Shadbush, Serviceberry, or Amalanchier to botanists) - the fruit (which ripens in June, hence the common name) tastes like a cross between cherries and almonds (they are all related). The typical Juneberry tree gets to be 12 feet tall and fruits prolifically, so people can often pick as much fruit as they like from the lower branches, leaving the fruit on the upper branches for the birds.

Here's a link to a blog posting on this subject (edible plants native to New England) - http://nativeplantwildlifegarden.com/grow-your-own-edible-native-plants-...

Here's a link to a spreadsheet I prepared on the Edible Native Plants of New England - http://www.ecolandscaping.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/Edible-Native-P...

My point is that the "you can it it too" factor might help in many cases to induce people to plant natives who aren't sufficiently convinced by the purely ecological argument.

insect food

http://www.sciencefriday.com/segment/05/22/2009/gardening-with-native-pl...

What a great story, and a great project Audubon. I was very happy to see Tallamy's work featured in the magazine, but I think I didn't see this explanation of exactly how natives are better for insects. Not many insects have lived with non-native species of plants to have developed the anti-bodies to the toxins that all plants put out so they won't get eaten. If one doesn't have a whole article to try to persuade gardeners of the importance of (locally) native plants, this explanation seems to demystify the natives-are-good habitat proscription that is missing from so many discussions about the reason we need natives.

http://www.sciencefriday.com/segment/05/22/2009/gardening-with-native-pl...

cultivars

Just want to comment on cultivars. Cultivated varieties are not necessarily hybrids that have been tweaked. Many of them, in the native plant industry particularly, are merely selections of plants from the wild that have desirable ornamental characteristics. There is no reason to shun these plants.

Otherwise, great article, I really enjoyed it!

Except when those "desirable

Except when those "desirable ornamental characteristics" have eliminated one or more critical ecological functions of the plant. Great example in the STL area is Annabelle's Hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens 'annabelle'), a very popular ornamental shrub. The flowers are sterile. The average homeowner doesn't appreciate that.

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