by Kathy Ross

Spring is here and we are spending more time at home. Let’s take these challenging times and turn them into a unique and productive opportunity to make a healthier world in our own landscapes for our birds, pollinators, wildlife and the environment.

Three very bird friendly and valuable things you can do in your own landscapes to help our birds and our environment, as well as save on personal resources:

  • Plant native plants.
  • Minimize use of herbicides, pesticides and chemical fertilizers.
  • Think less lawn. If you do have a lawn, mow less often or not at all.

PLANT NATIVE PLANTS

“From window boxes to the most spacious of landscapes, the plants you grow around you can make a difference for birds. Mounting evidence shows that, native plants support more insect food than non-native plants. And by using native instead of non-native fruiting shrubs, you can give birds natural food without having them spread invasive species across the landscape. (Most noxious weeds started in some one’s yard or garden. Locally buckthorn, hawkweed and knapweed come to mind.) Overall, we encourage people to reduce the amount of grass and nonnative species planted in a yard.” Cornell Lab of Ornithology

In NW Montana, we have the privilege of intact, healthy, native forests and park areas around us.  We have the unique opportunity to improve our own landscapes make them more connected, native habitat corridors that our birds and wildlife need. Together, we can link our landscapes to a healthy, diverse protected ecosystem like Glacier National Park and we can really make a difference. Something to sing about, especially for the thrushes, chickadees, finches – and all our feathered friends that call our area home.

Once established, natives take less care, less water, and less or no chemicals. Remember the plants are there not just for decoration or a perfect unblemished look but as food for the insects that will feed the birds! Celebrate the bites out of leaves! If you prefer more manicured plants, most native plants can be pruned just like any ornamental plant in a garden. Start by adding a few natives into existing gardens or design an entire landscape with the subtle colors, textures and toughness of native plants. If you have property with established natives, collect seed from your wild areas of native plants and make your own wildflower mix!

Below is a short list of local Flathead Valley plants useful for home gardens and available at our local native plant nursery, Center for Native Plants, in Whitefish.

  • Chokecherry (Prunus virginiana)
  • Serviceberry 
  • Thimbleberry (Rubus parviflorus)
  • Blanket Flower (Gaillardia aristate)
  • Bee Balm (Monarda fistulosa)
  • Sulphur Buckwheat (Eriogonum umbellatum)
  • Engelmann’s Aster (Eucephalus engelmannii)

A list of some helpful native gardening resources is at the bottom of this page.

Nurseries and garden centers most often sell cultivars of a native species (nativars), which can be very different from the native species. Some can be fair substitutes for their native parent genotypes. But native species support genetic diversity while native cultivars do not. Recent research is showing that if planting for wildlife and pollinators, cultivars that differ significantly in color and morphology from native species should be used cautiously and suggests that hybrids should be avoided.  Examples of significant morphology changes are green leaves cultured to be purple or flowers changed from single petaled to multi petaled. It can make a difference to the insect that has co-evolved with the native species. If you can’t find native species that meet your needs, ask your garden center to carry more plants that are native to your area. It helps if you can be specific.

If you want to grow wildflowers, be sure to ask businesses whether their “wildflower seed packets” contain only seed for plants native to our area. Often the answer is No! Along with a few natives, they usually contain weedy species from other areas. Check the labels too!

MINIMIZE USE OF PESTICIDE 

Over 90% of our terrestrial birds need the nutrients and protein of insects to raise healthy chicks to maturity. It can take almost 5,000 caterpillars to feed one clutch of young chickadees. Recent research shows huge declines in insect populations-bees and butterflies are some of the most affected. In the US alone, it is estimated that in a year, over a billion pounds of agricultural chemicals are applied not only to crops but also to flower gardens, lawns (especially), fields and roadsides. Many of these pesticides, herbicides, chemical fertilizers, and their inert ingredients, persist in the environment where they have harmful effects on our birds and the insects they depend on to feed their chicks. Millions of pounds of pesticides used each year target insects, aka bird food. They make no distinction between “bad” or beneficial, butterflies or mosquitos. Especially destructive to most of our pollinators, as well as birds, is the use of neonicotinoids, systemic pesticides, often used to grow the flowering plants and shrubs sold in nurseries. These pesticides affect the health and populations of pollinators especially, but also affect the birds who eat the insects that have eaten treated plants. If you are planting for birds and pollinators in your garden ask your garden centers if systemic pesticides have been used to grow the plants you want to purchase. It can make a difference. Toxic pesticides are not usually used in native plant nurseries.

THINK LESS LAWN

“For a bird searching for a nice place to raise a family, the classic suburban yard—a tidy bed of grass, one or two shade trees, and a row of leafy foundation plantings imported from China—must be like a foreclosed fixer-upper in a bad neighborhood. The accommodations are spare and all the local restaurants are dives.” Audubon 

Lawns seem to be a part of our American way of life. And as our local communities expand into our own style of suburban sprawl we are seeing more and more of them. They serve a useful purpose for humans and pets but for birds and wildlife they are sorely lacking in food sources and shelter for raising young or for escaping predators. In addition, even a small lawn can take up to 10,000 gallons of water a year. And then there are the chemicals to keep it green and weed-free.

A few things you can do for birds and the environment are:

Make lawns smaller– less care for you, less water used, and fewer lawn chemicals needed

Learn to appreciate a few “weeds”. Dandelions are a great source of early nectar for pollinators. Remember the grass in your lawn is not a native plant, and does not provide ecosystem services for birds or pollinators.

Let grass grow longer between mows. Saves time and resources for you, and for the birds it can create a food source (seeds) and somewhat safer habitat for foraging.

“Each patch of restored native habitat is just that—a patch in the frayed fabric of the ecosystem in which it lies. By landscaping with native plants, we can turn a patchwork of green spaces into a quilt of restored habitat. More native plants mean more choices of food and shelter for native birds and other wildlife. To survive, native birds need native plants and the insects that have co-evolved with them“.  Audubon.

Some Resources for Native Plant Landscaping – for the birds

  • Montana Native Plant Society website www.mtnativeplants.org under the tab “Landscaping”:
  • “Flathead Chapter” provides great information – but the nursery info is not updated.
  • “Missoula & West-Central Montana Native Plant Landscaping” offers the valuable brochure
  • “Landscaping with native Plants of West-Central Montana”
  • Center for Native Plants, Whitefish, MT 406-862-4226.
  • Cenex has native grass seed. Because native grass seed is in short supply, cultivars of native grass species can be used; they are more beneficial than grass seed not suitable for our climate.
  • National Audubon, www.Audubon.org/native-plants has great information — but the plant database is incomplete for our area.
  • Bringing Nature Home and Nature’s Best Hope by Doug Tallamy have a wealth of information about birds and the environment.
  • Reach out to local organic farmers, landscapers and gardeners who are knowledgeable about native plants.