We can do more than this.
If you are troubled about dwindling bird populations and you’d like to help our feathery friends, you need to know a few things like this: It takes more than a bit of bird seed in the winter months. Take chickadees, for example. They don’t eat seeds in the springtime when they are making and raising babies, they eat only caterpillars. So where have all the caterpillars gone?
SUBURBAN LANDSCAPING STARVES THE BIRDS
Unfortunately, our own behavior is causing the loss of habitat for caterpillars, leading to a loss of chickadees, which eat more caterpillars than you might imagine. Think thousands of caterpillars for a single clutch of baby chickadees. But native caterpillars need native species for their own food. And thanks to our habit of landscaping with non-native ornamental plants the caterpillars are in shorter supply and so too become the chickadees.
If you want to attract and support bird populations all year round, start planting native species in your yard. Chickadees won’t be the only beneficiaries. North American bird populations have nose-dived for a variety of reasons. A big one, experts tell us, is habitat loss. Suburbia has created a huge negative impact by landscaping around our homes with lovely but unproductive non-native ornamentals such as azalea, privet, crepe myrtle, Japanese maple, boxwood, barberry, forsythia, heavenly bamboo, English ivy, pachysandra… plants that are native to other countries, not ours. People don’t realize that most insects cannot feed on these commonly used alien exotics because they do not have an evolutionary tie to the plants. If the insects can’t feed on your plants then the birds can’t feed on the insects. And it’s these insects that provide the food for our indigenous birds. Continue reading
Common daylily growing in a neighbor’s yard.
It is ubiquitous. The plant with striking orange flowers thriving in dense drifts. In the shade, in the sun. In moist and dry locations. On roadsides, in suburban yards. Hemerocallis fulva. Introduced to the ornamental trade from Asia in the late 19th century, the common daylily has since been cultivated endlessly due to its hardiness and its beauty.
But beauty is only skin deep. Considered an invasive perennial in the Mid-Atlantic region by the US Fish & Wildlife Service and the National Park Service, the common daylily naturalizes in the wild and displaces our native plants. Deer turn up their snouts at them (as Bambi does with most alien invasive plants) and on close inspection not many other living things are attracted to them either. There are neither bees, nor butterflies nor any other beneficial insects drawing nectar or pollen from the trumpet shaped blooms. Wikipedia claims the orange daylily is sterile, multiplying wildly not by seed but through their fibrous roots and rhizomes. Originally brought to America with the settlers, the orange daylily is actually the cultivar ‘Europa’. And with now over 60,000 registered cultivars, there is the possibility of other daylilies becoming invasive over time, too.
Butterflyweed just beginning to bloom. Outstanding!
So if you love the color orange, and it seems as though many people do, why not dig out the ‘ditch lily’ in your garden and replace it with an overwhelmingly friendlier orange flowering perennial? A native species. A pollinator attractor. A plant that is the larval host to our Monarch, Grey Hairstreak and Queen butterflies: Asclepias tuberosa. Commonly named butterflyweed or butterfly milkweed, this native grows 1-3 feet in height and can handle sun, part sun, dry or moist conditions, preferring well drained soils.
Tuberosa blooms cheerfully in June and July, concurrently with the common daylily. Butterflies and myriads of other pollinators can be found caressing the clusters of tiny neon flowers. The orange-reddish and black insects that congregate on the plants are milkweed bugs. They draw their nourishment from the seeds in the milkweed pod but do not harm the plant itself. They are fascinating to watch — resist the urge to disturb them and just let them do their thing.
Butterfly weed is indisputably low maintenance like most native plants are. And it’s well-behaved and will not attempt to overtake your garden. Deep rooted and therefore drought tolerant, tuberosa is also very long lived. Plant en masse for a display of beneficially brilliant orange.
Dr. Doug Tallamy: American entomologist and visionary native plant promoter. Our hero. His call to action singlehandedly knocked our gardening socks off and inspired us to get out there and plant natives in our own gardens. In his lecture to a Green Spring Gardens audience in Alexandria, VA in 2012, Tallamy humorously and enthusiastically made the case for planting native species in our yards, no matter how large or small. In his 2007 book Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants, Tallamy describes the consequences of ‘uncontrolled expansion’: the loss and fragmentation of wildlife habitat across America, and how ceaseless land development drives biodiversity loss. He explains the equally damaging role of the 50,000 non-native plants from all around the globe that now burden our landscape and our environment. Because most of our native insects cannot eat these ubiquitous ornamental invaders, and so many animals rely directly or indirectly on insect protein for food, these alien plants cannot sustain any life but their own. It is time for suburban homeowners and gardeners to rise up and transform their impoverished land by planting for the mammals, birds, bees, butterflies and all the other critters we may not find as appealing but which play equally essential roles in continuing human survival.
A newly emerged monarch butterfly.
In the warmth of the growing season, my garden is humming with life. A dizzying array of honey bees and native bees, swallowtail butterflies, skippers and fritillaries, click beetles and praying mantises, buzz and flutter and float and swoop and hop and creep, along with a host of insects I can’t begin to identify. For the first time, there are monarch caterpillars. Planting butterflyweed brought these endangered beauties to me. Someone wise said, “If you plant them, they will come.” And they do. American goldfinches are common visitors to the seed heads of hollow Joe-pye weed. Ruby throated hummingbirds sip nectar from the cardinal flowers that I plant just for them. Our North American sparrows feast on the ripe seeds of Indiangrass, New England aster and orange coneflower. I have invited nature into my garden by simply adding plants that originally evolved here: native plants. It’s like there’s a party going on.