Native Plants and Their Importance to Birds
Understanding the connection between native plants and birds will help people be better stewards of the environment. Native plants are particular species of plants that have grown in a certain area naturally and were not introduced by humans. Ensuring that more native plants are planted and available for insects and birds to visit for food and shelter is key to combating habitat loss, which takes a heavy toll on bird population levels. While we may concentrate on North America, the same assertion applies to South America, where so many migratory birds spend the winter months. Native plants attract the insects that lay eggs and feed on them (called host plants), which attract the insects that partner with them as well as insect predators. Birds also feed on the seeds of native plants, providing birds with energy during winter months. These insects serve as an abundant food supply for birds that build nests and rear their young. Some examples of native plants that are the most beneficial for birds are:
- Oak trees (Quercus spp.) – oak trees are considered keystone species because of their overwhelming importance to wildlife. Most oak trees are hosts to a huge number of insect species (almost 400), whose caterpillars feed adult birds and their young.
- Sunflowers (Helianthus spp.) -- more than 50 pollen-specialist bee species and 66 caterpillar species rely on plants in the genus Helianthus to survive.
- Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) – these low-maintenance plants provide food for 20 species of pollen specialist bees.
- Joe-Pye Weed (Eutrochium maculatum) -- Joe-Pye Weed is a hardy perennial that can grow to be over 6 feet tall with mostly purple flowers in large clusters atop the stems. Joe-Pye Weed has a sweet vanilla scent that is attractive to butterflies and other pollinators, especially Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterflies, Giant Swallowtail butterflies, Monarch butterflies, sphynx and clearwing moths, and many bee species.
- Swamp Rose (Rosa palustris) -- This keystone native plant is a perennial shrub that is host to 102 species of caterpillar. It thrives in moist or wet soil or near swamps, marshes, ditches and stream banks.
- Milkweed (Asclepias spp.) – larval host plant to the endangered Monarch butterfly, milkweed is especially important. Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) provides food for over 400 insects. Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) grows well in clay soil, and Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) produces bright orange flowers on short stalks. All three of these milkweed species are native to the Capital Region of New York State.
For more information on native plants and how to start a native plant/pollinator garden, visit the websites listed below:
Getting Started With Native Plants: https://ny.audubon.org/conservation/getting-started-native-plants
Audubon Native Plant Database: