By Elizabeth Wilkinson, NTMN Class of 2018
In a year when everything changed, the behavior of North Texas winter birds stayed the same. At a backyard bird feeder, tiny Carolina chickadees and tufted titmice flitted from feeder to branch with a single safflower seed. Raucous blue jays jostled for peanuts, their screams mimicking those of a hawk, to clear other birds from the feeder. The exquisite downy and red-bellied woodpeckers grasped the metal suet feeder with feet designed for tree bark, their tails cupped for balance.
Some 630 species of birds have been documented in Texas. One in every three birds migrating through the U.S. will fly through Texas on the Central Flyway. However, America’s bird populations are declining rapidly. Birds are challenged by climate change, feral cats, light pollution, herbicides, and habitat loss.
What can we, as gardeners, do to ensure that birds are here for future generations? Entomologist Doug Tallamy has the answer. His message of urgency and hope is riveting: By planting native species, you can ensure the insect populations necessary to feed birds. Your patch of native plants can join other gardens, making a quilt of restored habitat, a place for birds to feed, rest, and nest.
Here’s Why Native Plants are So Important to Bird Populations
Conventional Dallas landscaping relies heavily on imported exotic plants. However, many insects cannot use exotic plants as food sources. Insects tend to be specialists, feeding on and pollinating a small range of plants. Monarch butterfly caterpillars only feed on milkweed, for example.
As exotics become more common in our yards and landscapes, there are fewer insects which are a critical food source for birds. A yard of only exotic plants is like a food desert for a bird. No insects? No birds.
About 96 percent of all bird species in North America feed insects to their young. Dr. Tallamy notes that the best food for baby birds is caterpillars. Beetles are surrounded by an indigestible rigid shell. But caterpillars, to a bird, are delectable, mushy sausages, perfect for little baby-bird meals. And it takes a lot of caterpillars. In the 16 days between hatching and fledgling, a clutch of Carolina chickadee chicks can down more than 9,000 of the morsels.
To provide a balanced healthy ecosystem, five primary food groups from native and well-adapted plants should be included in your garden: larval hosts and plants that provide nectar, berries, nuts, and seeds.
For a larval host, consider bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa), which is a host plant for at least 100 butterfly species and more than 100 moth species. The tree attracts more than 20 bird species. Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) is a magnet for at least 19 species of butterflies and moths and at least 24 types of birds.
For tiny hummingbirds, you might plant a nectar source like coral honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens) in sun to part-sun. The long red tubular flowers attract hummingbirds, bees, and butterflies. House finches and American goldfinches feed on the berries. This honeysuckle is host to two butterfly species and is of value to bumblebees, an insect whose population is declining. Scarlet sage (Salvia coccinea) attracts ruby-throated and black-chinned hummingbirds.
For berries, look to possumhaw holly (Ilex decidua), a deciduous holly covered with red winter berries. American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) helps feed the winter migrant birds with its lovely purple berries. Coralberry (Symphoricarpos orbiculatus) provides berries for birds and is a host plant for clearwing moths. Plants that provide berries are particularly alluring to mockingbirds, bluebirds, and cardinals in the summer and cedar waxwings and robins in the winter.
For seeds, plant purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) and black-eyed susan (Rudbeckia hirta) to attract butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds. Leave the seed heads for finches and juncos. Inland sea oats (Chasmanthium latifolium), one of the few native grasses for the shade, provides seeds for Northern cardinals and juncos, and the stems and leaves provide nesting materials.
For nuts, look no further than the pecan (Carya illinoinensis), the Texas state tree, which is used by at least 10 bird species and more than 15 kinds of butterflies and moths. The pods of Texas redbud (Cercis canadensis var. Texensis) are eaten by a variety of birds. Bees and butterflies use it as a nectar source, and the leaves provide nesting materials for native bees.
Large old trees with cavities and snags, or standing dead trees, should be left in your yard. Woodpeckers make their nests in the softwood. In turn, smaller birds like chickadees, titmice, some flycatchers, and bluebirds use old woodpecker holes to raise their young.
When choosing plants for birds, it’s important to think of habitat layers. Different species nest and feed at various heights. Most yards include large mature trees and shrubs less than 3 feet tall. Mid-story plants and evergreens need to be included in your plans. Choose a variety of plants that bloom or fruit throughout the year. A water source is essential—and irresistible–to birds.
For a more complete list of native plants, visit Audubon.org/nativeplants. You can search by your zip code for suggestions, or if you want to attract a particular bird, you can look for plants specific to a species.
Texas Wildscapes, Gardening for Wildlife by Kelly Conrad Bender, The Texas A&M Nature Guides Edition, Texas A&M University Press, 2009
Nature’s Best Hope, A New Approach to Conservation That Starts in Your Yard by Douglas W. Tallamy, Timber Press, 2020.
The Joy of Bird Feeding by Jim Carpenter, published by Scott & Nix, 2017
For North Texas birding sites, visit:
Dogwood Canyon Audubon Center https://dogwood.audubon.org
Trinity River Audubon Center https://trinityriver.audubon.org
Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge https://www.fws.gov/refuge/hagerman/