Does your garden offer birds high-quality nutrition or junk food? What you plant makes a difference in birds’ ability to find food and raise their young. Audubon NC is working with North Carolina plant growers to connect gardeners with sources for native plants. Curtis Smalling, Director of Land Conservation, explains that 80% of the land in the east is privately held so individuals can have a huge impact on the quality of the habitat available for our birds.
Thanks to our sponsor Osmocote for making this episode possible
- Native plants host the native insects which birds need during the nesting season. A typical chickadee feeds its young over 5000 caterpillars before they leave the nest.
- Audubon North Carolina has partnered with nurseries in our state to help identify sources for gardeners to purchase native plants.
- Song birds can live up to 14 years and will return every year to the same location. That Cardinal in your yard may have been there longer than you think.
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Welcome to the Triangle Gardener magazine show. We’re your guide to enjoyable gardening in North Carolina. I’m Lise Jenkins. I wanted to understand why Audubon NC is working with garden centers across our state to connect gardeners with native plants.
We kind of use the analogy that the birds are looking for the Whole Foods when they are in migration but most of them end up eating at the 7-Eleven.
But first a word from our sponsor who helps make this possible.
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Here’s today’s story….
Audubon North Carolina is working to make our communities more bird friendly. Recently, I was up in Boone, North Carolina and talked with Curtis Smalling, Director of Land Conservation, to learn about the role gardeners can play. We sat outside on a pretty day and I learned that conservation doesn’t just happen ‘out there’ in some park. Curtis showed me how I can make changes in my garden, and where I work, that really make a difference.
We want to give birds a chance to thrive in communities. But also to make those communities better places for the people who live there as well. And we know from a lot of recent studies that things like the rate of asthma for instances go down in cities that have a higher percentage of canopy cover, so more trees less asthma. We’ve got a number of things —water quality benefits, stormwater runoff tends to be less in places that have green space and buffers and those things that we are promoting from a bird-friendly perspective. So a lot of those things have either economic benefits to communities or personal health or quality living benefits to communities.
What would a bird friendly community look like? How does it look different from any other space?
It happens at a couple of different scales. One of those is its a landscape dominated by native plants, and we’ll talk about why that’s important for birds, but its also important for people. I think a landscape dominated by native plants takes less water, takes less maintenance, all those things start to play into that landscape dominated by native plants. The simplest way to say that is that native plants host native insects and native birds, song birds, use those insects especially during the nesting season. A typical song bird nest, like a chickadee nest, takes about 5000 soft body caterpillars to raise that one set of babies in that nest. An oak tree, a native oak tree in North Carolina can support up to 600 different kind of insects throughout the course of the year. If you take something like gingko, we like to pick on it, because its been documented to only have three species of insects. Crepe myrtles only have five. So those are nectaring species like butterflies —things that like the blooms. But they’re not supporting any of those bird-food species. They aren’t supporting any of the caterpillars. So when you get a landscape that’s so dominated by non-natives productivity just crashes. So you see a lot of birds. The structure looks good, there’s a place for them to nest in the privet, its a good dense area so the cardinal puts the nest there. But if there’s not some baseline of native plants supporting native insects there’s nothing to feed those babies. Almost all of our bird species require protein when they’re in the nest and so if that insect load is not out there productivity crashes. And that’s what we are seeing. Even common birds that we think of as birds we grew up with in North Carolina, several of those species are declining.
Even bluejays and other species that are in our yards really need that insect load. We are seeing for some species pretty significant declines. Towhees are a good example. A lot of folks know that bird. It used to be called the rufous-sided towhee or local folks sometimes call them a “chewink” because of the noise they make. They used to be super common across North Carolina but they’ve really declined statewide, region wide over the last 40-50 years. A lot of that is the structure is there, there’s just not much to eat. We see that with a lot of our birds. Of course with the migratory species that are just with us in spring and fall as they are coming out of Canada and heading to central America, they need especially a lot of fruit. All the thrushes are looking for dogwood berries and service berries in the summer, beauty berry is a great one that’s on our list for this year. It’s just a really popular native species that birds love for that fall migration time. So all those things in a landscape that’s not dominated by native plants start to become scarier and scarier. The question that always come up is, “well I have autumn olive and its loaded with berries and I see birds in it all the time” and that’s true. A lot of our birds do eat some of the non-native species. But there’s been a few studies that have shown that these migratory species actually prefer the native species, the native fruits first.
We kind of use the analogy that the birds are looking for the Whole Foods when they are in migration but most of them end up eating at the 7-Eleven. The non-native fruits have less protein. Less retained sugars, they are lower quality foods then the plant species that were designed for that habitat. The native plants typically maximize that stuff. So the birds are looking for that, and when they can’t find it they’ll use something else. A lot of people plant Nandina for birds and there’s a lot of stuff in the literature now that finds if that’s the only thing in the landscape —like a big corporate parks having a lot of nandina. They’ve found its actually toxic if they eat too much of it. Cedar waxwings, brown thrashers will actually die from too much nandina. So that kind of variety that the natural habitats provide is really critical.
So the question I have to ask you is, birds are pretty, they sing, but why do I care?
Why do I care. You can go down a couple of different roads on that question. One of them is just a basic bio diversity answer. You want to retain as much as you can retain. Because you never know what the lynchpin is thats holding something else together. If this species is gone than what’s the consequence of that. Is there another one that fills that niche, or is there some other odd thing that the species does that we don’t know about.
The other side of that is the specific, the phrase we all use now is ecological services. What do birds do? Well obviously they eat a lot of insects, so if you keep them on the landscape in good numbers they are doing a lot of pest control for us. That’s a whole other interesting story with the native plant work. That’s one of the reasons native plants have declined is that we did a really good job of discouraging people from using pesticides so they want to have things that weren’t getting eaten by bugs. To a certain degree, conservationists are a little responsible for that drive as well. But they do do a lot of that ecological service for stuff. The crows and the vultures take care of all the dead animals on the sides of the roads. The insect-eaters do that. The grain- eaters pick up tons and tons of weed seeds, as we call them. A lot of the native plants. And consume those. A lot of our birds of prey take care of a lot of mice, and rodents, and rats where we live. Some of the species have done really well in the last 20-30 years are things like red tailed hawks and red shouldered hawks which are now much more common in urban areas. They love the rats and the mice that we attract. So they do a really good job of that for us as well. There’s a number of agriculture benefits of having a good bird diverse community in agricultural lands. A lot of pest control, insect control, weed control happens through birds. Some folks have quantified that and it’s a big number. Birds do provide a lot of those ecological services. From my perspective being out here on a warm spring day and hearing stuff sing, that’s the best reason to keep them here.
Curtis explained that 80% of the land in the east is privately held so improving habitat on private land can make a huge impact. So the NC Audubon is focusing on four urban centers in North Carolina —the Triad, the Triangle, greater Charlotte, and Wilmington. Ignoring these urban areas, saying that they are ‘too developed’, doesn’t make sense. That’s where most of us live and where small changes we make can add up to more livable communities for us and the birds.
So if we really want to turn the conservation dial it almost has to happen on private land. It has to happen there. We can set aside big reserves and that might be our kind of fail safe. We can protect the species from going extinct because we have the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. But if we really want to move the needle and make species quit their decline and improve its going to have to happen on private land. What we always try to tell folks is you may live in a townhouse in an urban center and you may have a postage stamp yard.
I like what you’re saying about a postage stamp because I live on a postage stamp lot.
A lot of people do. A lot of folks don’t have a 100-acre wood behind their house to play with and to make it as bird friendly as they can. There are a number of common species that do really well in these kind of suburban or urban settings.
But the time that you can really make a difference is during migration. Most of our birds leave us. So here in the mountains about 75% of the birds that breed in the mountains leave in the winter and go to Central and South America. Its about 60-65% of the birds that breed in the piedmont region, they leave. The same is true for birds farther north. A lot of those birds from Canada that nest in the boreal forest are coming through, twice a year spring and fall, and most of our song birds migrate at night. A lot of folks don’t realize that. But they take off about sunset, fly most of the night, and wherever they happen to be at 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning they just settle in. Rest a little bit. As soon as daylight starts to happen then they look for appropriate places to feed and forage for the day. Most of them are only going to spend the day there and then they’ll fly again the next night. So for a lot of our small yards, having one good fruit producing shrub for instance. Like a spice bush which is one of the plants we are promoting last year. A wood thrush that lands in the neighborhood, finds a spice bush, is going to spend the whole day in that bush eating those berries refueling. Getting ready to fly another 150 miles the next night, that’s critical. You just gave that bird one more day. Now the next day he might find something else, some high quality habitat. But if he’s got a native shrub with a lot of fruit you’ve just given him one more day. Most of these birds are going to go about 2,000 miles one way to get to Columbia or wherever they’re going and they need to be in good condition for that. So that refueling is really critically important. When a bird lands by just happenstance in an area that’s not good habitat, they either stay there and try to scrounge around for the day and wait for the next night or they have to fly even further the next day. Which again, reduces their fitness, reduces the chance they’ll survive to come back the next year.
That brings up one of the coolest things for me working with bird conservation. Most of our land birds have what’s called high site fidelity. Most of them want to come back to the same place. So a phoebe that nests on your porch or a cardinal that’s nesting in your backyard some of these birds, we tend to not think of them as individuals. But a lot of these species can live to be 8, 10, 12, 15 years old in the wild. Most succumb earlier than that. The post fledging period, the first year of their life is really dangerous. So with birds if you make improvements to your yard, or to your neighborhood or to your corporate park, or whatever, the birds that have been there are probably going to come back there and their going to do better because you’ve made those improvements. And their young next year if they make the cycle and come back are going to settle close to where they were born. You get this little bit of dispersal. But to me it makes a whole different approach to conservation if you think the bluejay that’s in your yard could be up to 17 or 18 years old. So I have bluejays nest in my yard and I always joke that they helped me raise my kids. They were there the whole time I had children at home. So the same bird is coming back year after year to use your postage-stamp yard or your 100-acre woods. To me that makes me more responsible. Its not random that I have a bird in my yard. It’s very well likely the same bird I had last year.
Curtis was right. I hadn’t thought of the bluebirds in my yard as individuals who’ve been coming to this location for years. Maybe that very bird was living here before we moved in. Maybe we are more like neighbors and it’s my responsibility to be a good neighbor and make improvements to my garden that we both can enjoy. Audubon North Carolina has developed lists of native plants that provide nectar, seed, and protein for birds. They’ve taken the next step and worked with local nurseries to provide information about where you can find native plants to purchase in your area. Check out their website, nc.audubon.org. There you will find information about native plants and how to become a bird-friendly gardener. I’m Lise Jenkins. This is the Triangle Gardener. We’re your guide to enjoyable gardening in North Carolina. You can find this and past episodes of our podcasts at the Triangle Gardener website, trianglegardener.com. You can also find us now on iTunes. If you like what we are doing give us a review. Thanks for listening.