Western Great Lakes Bird & Bat Observatory

Headquarters at Forest Beach Migratory Preserve

Southeastern Wisconsin Conservation Summit

Seduced by Aliens

By Jill Kunsmann

As a committed backyard birder and avid gardener, I have gloried in the multitude of feathered visitors to my home. My annual landscaping projects are always dominated by one question: “What would the birds like?” Berry producing trees and shrubs, plenty of evergreens, and tangles of bushes for protection and nesting opportunities were obvious choices, but I could have done more. The fact is—aliens seduced me!

Although there were numerous native plants to choose from, I couldn’t resist the allure of the Ginkgo biloba, the Katsura japonica or the Parrotia persica. I have now vowed to make an earnest attempt to answer Douglas Tallamy’s “call to action.”[i] I am looking for every opportunity to restore natives to my property.

As defined by Tallamy, native species are distinguished as plants, which have co-evolved over thousands of years alongside a select group of insects, and on up the food chain. These natives have been edged out over time as we became increasingly enamored of the exotic nursery stock, which promised bigger and better blooms and disease and insect resistance. Believe it or not, many of the alien plants in our gardens will not attract our native insects, or worse...may actually be toxic to them. In addition, along with the alien plant species, we have introduced a growing population of dangerous alien insects, which have no natural predators, and are wrecking havoc in our forests and prairies.

Although we may be jubilant at the promise of perfect blooms with “no bugs,” we must pause for a moment and think it through to the next step. No native plants = no native bugs = no food for our native insectivore bird species! This is part of the story behind the decline of the insectivore bird population.

When we hear about a species in decline due to “loss of habitat” many of us assume this refers to the ravages of the logging industry on our virgin forests, or the expansion of industry and residential construction gobbling up the rural land. Walk through just about any residential area, and we can witness the pervasive “food deserts” our gardening habits have created.

Tallamy suggests some logical, non-radical steps we can take as conscientious stewards of our resources. We begin by creating islands of habitat planted with native species in our own yards, and yes, they can co-mingle with those showy aliens. As the islands increase in number and proximity, they provide the steppingstones of habitat that provide migratory birds with the food and nesting sites they require to survive and thrive. Visit the Forest Beach Migratory Preserve and you will see the beginning restoration of the kind of trees, shrubs and native plants that is so important for the health of our eco-system.

[1] Tallamy, Douglas W. Bringing Nature Home. Portland: Timber Press, 2013. Print.