Doreen Fogle: Save the birds, plant natives |

Doreen Fogle: Save the birds, plant natives

Have you been hearing the birds lately? If you’re older than a millennial, you may have noticed that the birdsong’s just not what it used to be.

You’d be right.

A few years ago on a long drive home I searched the radio for something interesting to listen to. I came across something very interesting indeed. It was an interview with someone about bird populations. Coming from distant Santa Cruz, the radio faded out way too soon.

But what I did hear was compelling. Clearly confirming what I thought I’d noticed.

The interviewee was talking about the decline of bird populations. He described a monitoring station that had been recording birdsong in the spring, on the same date each year, at the same location over 20 years.

He played a recording from 20 years ago, 10 years ago and the current year. The difference was staggering! The early years were robust with birdsong. The current year was markedly devoid of song.

Birds are in decline, and so is their food.

Over the past 50 years there has been a 29% decline of birds across North America, as reported in the Oct. 4, 2019 issue of “Science.” That’s 2.9 billion fewer birds. This includes both threatened and populous birds.

There are several reasons for this: habitat loss, suburban sprawl, pet and feral cats, agricultural practices, collisions with windows, buildings, cars, and communications towers, and most importantly…insect loss.

Yes, insects are in decline, too.

And this, my reader, is where we can all take some action and help turn this trend around. More on that in a minute.

I grew up on the east coast in a small town surrounded by woods. I remember waking up every morning to the most amazing assortment of birdsong from spring through fall. It gave me my feeling of wonder for nature, an awareness that I’m on a beautiful planet, abundant with life.

Now I wonder, how much birdsong have our children heard? At the rate this trend is going, will our grandchildren hear any of these sounds of nature?

When children grow up with already diminished birdsong, the decline over their lives is not so noticeable. They don’t know what has been before.

Sure, we all love to hear the songs of birds, especially in the spring when they are most active nesting and feeding their young. But it’s not just the delightful sound of birds that we get from them. These little creatures deliver to the world an essential service.

Birds eat bugs to feed their little nestlings. Lots of bugs. Especially in the spring.

Birds snatch up bugs to feed their babies in the spring. (Many keep eating bugs throughout the year, along with seeds and fruits.) They’ll end up eating up to 70% of the bugs. They need roughly 5,000-9,000 insects to rear a brood.

If there aren’t enough bugs the birds don’t survive. If there aren’t enough birds an insect population could explode, and not always the nicest insects to deal with. This is an ecological service birds provide to keep things in check and make the Earth inhabitable.

We need the insects.

Why are insects on the decline? Mostly habitat loss and agricultural practices.

What do the insects eat? They eat plants, mostly their leaves.

Some insects are busy in the soil chomping on fallen leaves, creating new soil and recycling nutrients. But many spend their youth munching on leaves, especially the new, succulent leaves of spring.

But not just any leaves. Throughout millennia, insects and plants evolved together. That means the insects evolved with the ability to eat only the plants they evolved with. Foliage with a specific leaf chemistry.

If you bring a bunch of exotic plants into an area, the insects can’t eat them. Which reduces the insect population. Which then reduces the bird population.

“…Insects are the little things that run the world.”

So said ecologist E. O. Wilson. Insects turn foliage into protein and thus feed the birds, lizards, toads, frogs, fish, raccoons, foxes… even bears! (I recently got to watch a bear tear through a downed log searching for insects, her two cubs frolicking nearby.)

The native insects breaking down the fallen leaves can only work on native foliage — crucial to recycling the nutrients in the soil.

This makes insects the big players at the bottom of the food chain.

How can we help keep the birds?

There’s a success story about the recovery of populations of North American ducks and geese. Their numbers had dwindled as severely as songbirds now are.

It was hunters who raised the alarm and between Canada, the U.S., and Mexico laws were enacted to protect the wetlands the ducks and geese needed. Private donations also helped purchase wetlands to save. Since 1970 their populations have grown by 56%.

So here’s what each of us can do to help the plight of the birds and the insects. Every one of us can help the song birds by choosing to plant native plants in our home landscapes. And we can advocate for the planting of natives in commercial landscapes, too. We need to give the insects their food to support them and the birds who live off them.

How many natives are around you?

If you think we’re surrounded by native plants because we live at the edge of the forest, take a closer look. There are native trees all around us. But the understory of the wild spaces, important for the insects and birds, is often filled with annual exotic grasses and weeds, scotch broom and exotic blackberries. None of these are native. No fodder for our essential insects.

And our home landscapes are filled with exotic plants that are inedible to native insects. Take a look at the landscapes around you. Are they filled with plants from other lands? Japanese maples, liquidambers, crape myrtles, rhododendrons, camellias, butterfly bush, barberries? And is the ground covered with vinca, St. John’s wort or lawn? Nothing for the native insects, there.

Try for 70% natives.

A Smithsonian Institute study showed that for home landscapes and in neighborhoods, where at least 70% of the plants are native, there’s enough fodder for insects to support a normal population of chickadees. Less than 70% and broods do not survive.

So it’s become the rule of thumb to aim for your landscape plantings to be 70% native plants. This certainly leaves room for vegetable gardens, herbs and our favorite flowers!

Does this all mean that your native plants would be filled with holes? Plants can be nearly 15% chewed up before being noticeable to us. But, I consider holes in leaves to be a badge of ecosystem service.

We’re not used to planting natives.

Searching for native plants isn’t always easy. I’ll devote several articles to help get you started. And with tips on how to care for them.

Without healthy populations of birds and insects we could lose the soil nutrient cycling of insects, lose the pollination services of our food plants by both birds and insects, and see populations of the peskier insects getting out of whack. That’s the ecosystem service birds provide to the world.

What will our children know of birds and nature?

Robust birdsong is a sign of a healthy ecosystem. Do our children know the rich and chaotic bounty of birdsong? What will their children hear? What birds will they see? Shall we leave this world in a diminished state or take action to turn things around?

I feel very strongly that we must leave our world in a better place than what it is now for our children and grandchildren. We have made a heavy impact on this Earth, that cannot be denied.

And yet we have all the knowhow we need to make great repairs to preserve the natural systems that make this planet so beautiful and inhabitable. We can all start with the simple task of selecting plants that help our ecosystem rather than diminish it. Choose to landscape with natives. It takes 70%.

Your grandchildren will thank you. I promise!

Doreen Fogle is a landscape designer and writer in Nevada County. More of her articles can be found on her website and she can be reached at

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