Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants by Douglas W. Tallamy is the quintessential guide to how and why we all have the power to conserve habitat, right at home in our backyards.
Tallamy begins with a call to action, that all gardeners need to direct their energy towards planting those plants native to where they live. He explains the connection native plants have to insect populations, and in turn, how this drastically effects bird populations. Alien plants, especially those that are invasive and take over large areas of even “preserved” landscapes, do not support the numbers of insect diversity like natives.
“Up to 90 percent of all phytophagous insects are considered specialists because they have evolved in concert with no more than a few plant lineages (Bernays & Graham 1988).” [pg. 52] This means that specific insects will only use specific plants, so if we eliminate the plants, the insects go too.
Tallamy goes into a wonderful explanation on why biodiversity matters and gives examples of how functioning ecosystems work. Some insects will eat the leaves on your native plants, but other predatory insects will keep those in check. And the plants nurseries sell marketed as “insect free” are the ones likely to be devoured by generalist insects, especially in yards that are not diverse.
Planting natives to attract insects is essentially equivalent to putting up bird feeders all over your yard. “96 percent of North American terrestrial bird species rely on insects to feed their young (Dickinson 1999).” [pg. 24] This seems to be an often overlooked stat in terms of bird feeding. Feeding birds is huge commercially and extremely popular, but the focus is almost exclusively on what feeder type and what bird seed. Even plants commonly marketed as “bird friendly” usually mean in terms of seed production or berries (which are still important).
Now, attracting insect biodiversity is not always an easy sell. Insects are “gross” and “dangerous” and overall have a bad rap, especially in mainstream media. But, of the 4 million insect species known worldwide, roughly 1% interact with humans in negative ways. The rest provide around $57 billion worth of ecosystem services (John Losey and Mace Vaughan). [pg. 109] Of course, this figure means 40,000 insects have “negative” relations with humans, but for the most part insects carry on their lives with zero interest in humans (mosquitoes, ticks, and chiggers are some of the more glaring exceptions).
The point that Tallamy is making is that we need not fear insects in a functioning ecosystem, and we definitely do not need to get out chemicals every time we encounter some insects.
As E. O. Wilson states, insects are “the little things that run the world”. (E.O Wilson 1987) [pg. 24]
Using native plants in your landscaping does not mean your yard will look “messy” or too “wild”. Native plants can easily be used in more formal garden and landscape projects. And while it would be nice to be 100% native, that isn’t even necessarily the push. Tallamy isn’t commanding we rip out all the alien species (except lawns) but instead find areas that could benefit from a few more native plantings.
Bringing Nature Home isn’t about landscape design per se, and the focus is really more on trees as they provide the greatest number of insect diversity. In fact, a large section of the book covers the top 20 tree families that are best for attracting Lepidoptera (butterfly and moth) species. Oaks win handily with 534 species supported, followed by Salix (willows) and Prunus (cherry, plum). This information is enlightening and has altered my entire approach to birdscaping.
The section immediately following “What Should I Plant” is “What Does Bird Food Look Like” and won’t be appreciated by everyone. Here, Tallamy shows closeup photos of various types of insects. Some are “gross” but most are fascinating, and many are colorful and dare I say, beautiful.
You don’t need to love insects, but if you love birds, using native plants is the way to go. And Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants is a must read.
It is my heartfelt belief that birders have the power to transform their landscapes into bird habitats and reverse the trend of habitat destruction by instead focusing on habitat creation. By doing this we will indeed be bringing nature home.
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