Native Plants: For the Insects, for the Birds

A Magnolia Warbler hunts for insects in the spring catkins of a Box Elder tree, a native species in New York City. Photo: Dennis Derby/Audubon Photography Awards


This article appears in the Winter 2020-2021 issue of The Urban Audubon.

Interview with Tod Winston, by Ned Boyajian

NYC Audubon Birding Guide and Communications Content Manager Tod Winston is also a former program manager of National Audubon’s Plants for Birds program. Longtime volunteer and past NYC Audubon Board Member Ned Boyajian asked Tod a few questions about our area’s native plants and their benefits for insects and birds.

Native plants support their native ecosystems, providing food, shelter, for birds, mammals, insects. How should one go about thinking of which native plants to grow?

When considering which plants to choose, particularly for a smaller garden or terrace, think about what most songbirds eat. Native plants have coevolved with our birds to provide the kind of nutrition they need, in the form of fruit, seeds, and nectar. And native plants have evolved with native insects, many of which cannot survive without the native host plants that their larvae (caterpillars, for example) eat. As it happens, 96 percent of land birds—from Scarlet Tanagers to Northern Cardinals to Ruby-throated Hummingbirds to American Kestrels—feed insects to their chicks.

And they feed them a lot of insects. A typical clutch of Carolina Chickadee nestlings downs as many as 9,000 caterpillars in the 16 days between hatching and fledging, according to the research of entomologist Douglas Tallamy. This explains why non-native plants are “bad” for birds; most native bugs cannot digest those plants, and so a non-native landscape does not provide all the protein-rich bugs that baby birds (and many young animals) need to grow.

Is it true that native plants tend to require less insecticide?

I’d say we should examine the question! Since a major benefit of growing native plants is the insects the plants support, we must change our mindset about insects. When we start paying attention to all the creatures in a garden, we realize what a fascinating variety of bugs exist, right under our noses. Many are important pollinators. For harmful, out-of-control insect problems on a favorite plant, organic alternatives that are not toxic to birds, such as neem oil or insecticidal soap, can be used in moderation.

A parent Wood Thrush delivers a meal of juicy caterpillar. Photo: © Bill Duyk

There is growing pressure to plant trees, lots of them, to push back against climate change. Why is it important to plant native trees?

To state the obvious, native trees are very large native plants! And many native species provide huge amounts of food for birds in the form of insects, as well as fruit, nuts, or nectar. Experienced birders know that on a big spring migration day, native oak trees are abuzz with warblers, tanagers, vireos, and other songbirds. This is because the oaks are also abuzz with countless tiny insects. Just one native tree can provide a huge amount of food for birds and other wildlife.

If you have a yard, can growing native plants save you money?
You may discover you already have many bird-friendly plants already growing in your yard, so there’s no need to buy them. Many plants traditionally considered “weeds” are actually excellent resources for birds: The purple berries of Pokeweed are sustenance for fall-migrating birds, and the orange flowers of Jewelweed provide nectar for Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, while the plant’s seeds are eaten by Rose-breasted Grosbeaks. “Weedy” Black Cherry or Hackberry trees provide loads of fruit for birds.

Will native plants help draw more birds to one’s yard?

Absolutely. In a study of suburban properties in southeast Pennsylvania, eight times more Wood Thrushes, Eastern Towhees, Veeries, and Scarlet Tanagers were found in yards with native plantings, compared with yards landscaped with typical non-native ornamentals.

A Ruby-throated Hummingbird feeds at the flowers of native Jewelweed. Photo: David Speiser

What are a few species that are helpful to plant in New York City? 

Assuming that most folks will be looking for compact plants, I'd suggest: 

  1. Goldenrod (important for butterflies including Monarchs; provides seeds for birds over the winter)
  2. Common Milkweed or Butterfly Weed (host plant for Monarchs; nectar source; soft fibers provide nesting material for American Goldfinches, Warbling Vireos, and orioles)
  3. Dwarf Inkberry Holly (its fruit lasts through the winter) 
  4. Dwarf Chinkapin Oak (acorns for Blue Jays and other birds; caterpillars for songbirds) 

How can I learn more?

Explore Audubon's Plants for Birds site and native plant database: enter your zip code to see species native to your area. Also check out the excellent and comprehensive NYC Parks Native Species Planting Guide for New York City. NYC Audubon's new website, coming in early 2021, will include a new native plants page with more local resources, including plant suggestions from Board Member Chris Cooper.