April 1, 2012

Maine Gardener: Native birds do better with native plants

By Tom Atwell tatwell@mainetoday.com
Staff Writer

Native plants will attract more birds to your property, because those native plants will provide more food for the native birds.

That piece of information, from a joint Maine Audubon Society/Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens program called "Attracting Birds to Your Native Habitat," did not surprise me. But the type of food did. It's the insects more than the berries and seeds that are going to support the avian population.

"There are 530 species of lepidoptera that feed on native oaks," said Bill Cullina, executive director of the gardens.

Lepidoptera include moths and butterflies, which go through a development state as caterpillars. And those caterpillars are a major food source for many birds. 

And it isn't just oaks. Insects as well as birds will feed on the seeds, leaves, nectar and pollen of native perennials and shrubs as well as the big trees.

"The native plants and birds developed together over a long period of time," Cullina said, crediting the 2007 book "Bringing Nature Home" by Douglas Tallamy for best explaining the interrelationships. "I'm talking thousands of years, and the longer the time together, the more connections they have to each other."

Mike Windsor, a naturalist with Maine Audubon, said feeders alone will not attract birds to a yard.

"Feeders will provide only 20 to 25 percent of a bird's caloric needs," Windsor said. "The feeders help, but they still have to go out foraging."

If you are going to feed birds, Windsor said, black sunflower seed is what most birds prefer. He suggested getting just the hearts and not whole seeds because it's neater, and the price is about the same. Some birds like thistle seed, and woodpeckers like suet. And clear sugar water works just fine for hummingbirds.

Another tip is that bird feeders have to be cleaned at least twice a year, or the seed could actually cause some of the birds to get sick.

While Cullina said native plants are best for birds and other wildlife, he did not suggest that people grow only native plants. Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens has a lot of showy non-native plants, after all.

"More and more, we are planting natives in the edge areas of the garden," he said.

That way, the garden provides a natural Maine landscape and habitat, and it doesn't matter that the central area does not provide as much food for the wildlife.

Cultivars of native plants -- which Cullina described as "the ones with quotes around their names" -- will work just as well as the original wild species in feeding the birds.

He added that people have a responsibility to provide native plants to feed wildlife in part to make up for the native habitat that the actions of people have destroyed.

"We are changing the landscape with the introduction of invasive species," Cullina said. 

Phragmites, a grass also called the common reed, is an Asian plant that is taking over a lot of marshland throughout the United States and threatening birds and other creatures that live in marshes.

"There are 160 species of insects that thrive in a native marsh," Cullina said. "Phragmites will support 26 insects, and only five or six of them are native." 

Cullina's list of native plants that help attract birds was long, and I am going to mention only a few of them -- because parts of what he said were new to me.

I knew that Amelanchier was called "shadbush" because it blossoms when the shad migrate upstream. But it also is called "serviceberry," because it blossoms when the ground is thawed enough to bury people who died over the winter and funeral services can be held.

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