Gardening for Birds

Have you ever thought about what happens when a native wooded area is cleared for a building site? It is obvious that the trees and undergrowth has been removed, but what about all the creatures that were living in or would visit this area? The insects that were feeding on plants growing in the woods are gone; the birds no longer have a reason to visit this location to look for food such as caterpillars and other insects because their food plants are gone. When a local habitat is removed local extinction takes place. All the creatures, large and small, are gone from this area. This kind of destruction takes place every day. The plants and the animals who were visiting the habitat have disappeared. 

Through a process called photosynthesis, plants create oxygen. Plants moderate weather patterns and plants deliver almost all the ecosystems services that keep us around.  Without plants, animals that depend on them disappear. Plants make food and provide shelter for animals. The once pristine world has been converted into cities, suburbs and agriculture for human needs. Breeding birds have suffered great losses of populations.

Natural preserves set aside do not provide enough habitats for healthy ecosystems. We need corridors of native plants to keep sustaining all the animals that depend on them. Often, our yards support very little biodiversity. Our challenge is to raise the carrying capacity of our yards and neighborhoods so that they can be healthy, functioning ecosystems. The carrying capacity depends on plants, the basis of the food web.  

All plants do not support wildlife equally. Exotic plants, such as those from China, Asia, etc. do not support local diversity. Non-native plants support fewer insects and thus support fewer birds which feed on the insects. Nearly all birds depend on insects, especially caterpillars, to feed to their young and must nest in an area where such insects are found.

Plants produce distasteful chemicals in their leaves for defense against insects. Some insects have adapted and specialize in order to eat specific plants. This adaptation takes a long evolutionary exposure to develop this ability to ingest poisonous or distasteful leaves without suffering consequences. Most insects can develop and reproduce only on the plant species with which they share an evolutionary history. The downside of this specialization is that they must have specific plants in order to survive and reproduce. An example of this specialization is Monarch butterflies and milkweed. 

So, why should we be concerned about insects? Many mammals depend on insects as a source of food. Nearly all nesting birds feed insects to their babies.  Some take as many as 300 caterpillars a day when feeding their young. Predator birds, such as hawks, feed on the smaller birds. Other mammals such as squirrels, possums, frogs also feed on insects. Plants are at the base of the food web….insects feed on them, mammals feed on the insects. Other mammals feed on the insect feeders. We cannot remove insects in the local food web without the food web collapsing.

We need to think about our properties in a different way. We need to consider, when designing and planting our landscapes, how we can add to the ecosystem services to insure the survival of the food web. Plants should not be viewed as just ‘decorations’. Is the solution to just plant native species? Not necessarily because not all native plants support equal amounts of wildlife. Oaks (Quercus) and Prunus species are two of the top plant genera that support butterflies and moths.  

To share our neighborhoods with wildlife we need to:
Create corridors of appropriate plants connecting natural areas
Reduce the area now in lawn – an essentially worthless ecosystem
Begin the transition from non-native, exotic ornamental plants to native ornamentals.

It is a design challenge of our time, especially in south Florida. Canopy trees, sub-canopy, a shrub layer and ground covers using native plant material will help to have a healthy food web in our yards and neighborhoods. Planting natives is a ‘grass roots’ approach to conservation in our own yards. This is something we can all do. The way we garden, the way we landscape, is going to determine what life looks like in the future. Garden as if life depends on it…..

In South Florida we are blessed with the most numerous species of birds from September through April, when migrating birds are either passing through or spending the winter in our area. Many species of warblers are feeding on small insects which might be attracted to the flowers or fruit of our native plants. Some birds, such as Vireos, Tanagers, Orioles, Black-throated Blue Warblers, Catbirds and Thrushes may be attracted to fruits. Below is a list of plants and the birds they attract.

Mastic (Sideroxylon foetidissimum) – Summer tanagers eat the fruit and several species of warblers are attracted to insects.

Lancewood (Ocotea coriacea) – Redstarts for insects, Thrushes, Vireos and Black-throated blue warblers are attracted to the fruit.

Gumbo limbo (Bursera simaruba) – Vireos and Crested flycatchers are attracted to the fruit.

Strangler fig and Short leaf fig (Ficus aurea & Ficus citrifolia) – Lots of Vireos, Tanagers, Orioles come for the fruit. Many kinds of warblers are attracted to the insects.

Satinleaf  (Chrysophyllum oliviforme) – Many warblers are attracted to insects when the trees are in flower.

Florida Trema (Trema micranthum) – Vireos, Thrushes and Black-throated blue warblers are attracted to the fruit.

Live oak (Quercus virginiana) – Many warblers, gnatcatchers, and hummingbirds are attracted to insects.

Soldierwood (Colubrina elliptica) – Warblers of all kinds, plus Orioles and Tanagers are attracted to insects when this tree is in bloom.

Firebush (Hamelia patens) Catbirds, Black-throated blue warblers and Thrushes are attracted to the fruit. Hummingbirds visit the flowers.

Tournefortia hirsutissima – Black-throated blue warblers and other warblers are attracted to both the fruit and insects visiting this plant.

Wild lime (Zanthoxylum fagara) – Vireos, Catbirds, Black-throated blue warblers are attracted to the fruit.