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Winston-Salem Journal: Adding bird-friendly native plants helps everyone

This article originally appeared in the Winston-Salem Journal

By Amy Dixon Special Correspondent

Gardeners are busy cleaning and preparing the garden for winter rest. Mulching, pruning and raking leaves are just a few of the many November chores.

Consider, though, how busy the wildlife has also become. The deer are restless, squirrels are furiously burying walnuts and the birds are working tirelessly from dawn to dusk foraging for food.

Birds are perhaps the hardest working creatures I can think of. No matter the season, birds are working for their own survival around the clock. Whether building nests, providing insects for their young, foraging winter meals or migrating thousands of miles south, birds are tiny workhorses that don’t get enough credit for their efforts.

So whether you’re a bird aficionado or not, it’s important to help these feathered creatures provide for themselves. Perhaps the easiest way is to utilize bird-friendly, native plants in the landscape.

Native plants provide many benefits to the overall sustainability of our ecosystem. Certain non-native plants can become invasive, choking out those natives that wildlife require. Birds rely heavily on native plants for seeds, berries, shelter and insects.

According to the Audubon North Carolina, “insects cannot adapt to eating non-native plants. Less native plants means less insects, which in turn means fewer bird babies growing to adulthood.”

Kim Brand, bird-friendly communities project coordinator with Audubon North Carolina, points out an interesting example of how birds rely on insects.

“A pair of chickadees need 9,000 caterpillars to raise a nest full of babies,” Brand said.

Winter is hard time for birds since insects are in short supply. So their diet turns to berries and seeds. Providing the right kind of plants and elements in your landscape allows birds the three basic winter essentials: food, water and shelter.

Evergreen trees and shrubs provide shelter. The establishment of these staples in the landscape ensures that birds have somewhere to safely nest, as opposed to deciduous trees. Many evergreens also serve a dual purpose; they also produce berries for food.

Deciduous holly (ilex verticillata) is an excellent example of a native, bird-friendly shrub. Also known as winterberry, deciduous hollies drop their leaves in late fall, leaving behind attractive, berry-covered stems. As the winter sets in, the ripening berries intensify in color, providing a feast for the birds and striking winter interest in the garden.

The native callicarpa americana, or beautyberry, provides beautiful purple berries for both birds and gardeners to enjoy.

There are many cultivars of both winterberry and beautyberry. Regardless if you choose the straight species or a cultivar, you are still introducing a native, bird-friendly plant. Many of these choices provide red, purple white and orange berries.

Most of us already have native plants in our landscape. They are all around us in the forest: red oaks, overcup oaks, American holly and eastern red cedar. These are just a few examples of the large trees that provide food and shelter for birds.

Making sure that we are supplementing natives into our beds and landscape planting is easier than you may think. Purple coneflower, black-eyed Susan, coreopsis and aster are common perennials, all of which are native and bird-friendly.

“People’s gardening habits are probably pretty bird-friendly because we want to see flowers blooming all the time in our garden,” Brand said. “I always encourage people to think about the same thing for birds. Make sure that your garden has a lot of late-blooming flowers — and do not deadhead them so the birds can munch on the seeds.”

Brand’s position with Audubon North Carolina hinges on connecting plant growers with gardeners, educating and encouraging bird-friendly, native plantings, and ultimately ensuring that growers and nurseries are providing native plants to the public.

A program started earlier this year, Audubon North Carolina’s Bird Friendly Native Plants of the Year program is “working to create more availability of native plants that specifically benefit birds, but also our environment and our local economy.”

“Birds have brought a new story to the native-plant movement,” Brand said. “Our bird-friendly communities program is aimed at helping people help birds in their yards. Access to native plants has been limited and mostly at specialty nurseries. Our goal is for it to be easy for everyone in North Carolina to buy native plants.”

Most gardeners know the struggle of locating a certain native plant from a local nursery. It can be difficult to track down specific plants for a variety of reasons. From a grower’s standpoint, certain native plants can be difficult to propagate and nurserymen can only grow so much. This trickles down to retail garden outlets, which obtain their supply from the growers.

There does seem to be a fair amount of native plants available at local nurseries, but encouraging a more diverse selection is what the bird-friendly communities project is aimed at.

It highlights a few native plants a year, hoping that by promoting a smaller list, growers and home gardeners can strike a balance between availability and plant establishment.

So, as you’re winding down in your garden this year, consider our feathered friends. The addition of bird-friendly natives to your yard is a benefit for everyone.

The Audubon North Carolina website is a wonderful resource for finding more information about native plants. They have a list of over 400 native plants, as well as local retailers and nurseries where you can find them. Find them online at

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