Native Plants: Critical Habitat for our Beneficial Insects and Songbirds
“Insects are the little things that run the world” -E.O Wilson
Each spring we look forward to the arrival of migrating songbirds in Minnesota as they return to find nesting sites to raise their young. White-throated sparrows, Eastern bluebirds, and a variety of warblers signal that spring has sprung! Let’s take a bit of a deep dive into how native plants play into the ecology of the lovely birds that arrive this time of year.
First off, the timing of songbird migration coincides with the emergence of insects, the primary food source for their young. For instance, scientists estimate that certain songbird species use from 6,000 to 9,000 caterpillars to produce a single clutch. Caterpillars make the perfect little meal. They are high in protein and easy to digest, which makes it so beneficial for fast growing baby birds.
So how do we naturally provide a wide range of insect food sources for our birds? Well, we have to think native plants. Every single native plant species hosts its own suite of insect species. Some plants host hundreds of larval insect species. For example, oak trees are one of the most remarkable plants for supporting insect diversity, hosting up to 318 species of larval insects. Cherries, plums, willows, and dogwoods also host several hundred different kinds of larvae. These insects are essential food for baby birds.
Restoring natural habitats is crucial in sustaining healthy ecosystem function, as native plants are really at the center of our food webs. Planting a diverse mix of native plants will support many insects, both specialists and generalists. Approximately 90% of plant-eating insects are specialists, meaning they will only eat a few types of plants. A well-known example of a specialist insect is the monarch butterfly. Milkweed plants serve as host plants for monarch caterpillars. Adult monarch butterflies will not lay eggs on anything but milkweed, and monarch caterpillars will not eat anything but milkweed plant tissue.
Wait, we are not done making the case on how important native plant communities are for our bird species! Plants also provide direct food sources to birds. When summer nears its end and the supply of insects dwindles, most native plants set seed. The dried seed heads of, for instance, sunflowers, coneflowers, and bergamot provide a bounty of seed throughout the fall and winter. Finches and sparrows are commonly seen perched atop these plants. In addition, plantings with a variety of perennials, shrubs, and trees create many opportunities for nesting sites and can provide enough food to attract birds without even using a bird feeder.
We often get the question: “Do my garden cultivar plants provide good habitat for insects and birds?” Well, the insects of North America did not evolve with the non-native ornamental plants that people have introduced since the mid-1800s from other continents. This poses a major problem for our ecosystems, as our native insect larvae cannot eat these nonnative plants. Some would say that’s a good thing – surely, no one wants their plants decimated by hungry caterpillars. However, there are all kinds of checks and balances in nature to keep insect populations from overwhelming plants – birds, spiders, and predatory insects such as wasps.
Especially in tight urban settings, there are other features you can add to a native garden or restoration to attract songbirds. Nesting boxes may bring in nesting bluebirds, swallows, or chickadees. The boxes should be hung on a metal pole at a height of 6 feet and away from trees, fences, and buildings. Old nesting materials need to be removed at minimum once each fall or after each clutch has fledged. Bubblers and bird baths will attract many birds throughout the year, providing hydration and a place to clean their feathers. In the winter, supplementing with suet or seed can help when other food sources may be exhausted.
If you are interested in adding native plants to your landscape to support wild birds, visit us at our retail nursery in Independence, MN or check out our online ordering website at naturalshorenatives.com.