Take a look outside. Besides people and pets, what living things do you see? Chances are that plants—trees, bushes, flowers, grass—are what you’ll notice first. As you look longer, maybe you’ll begin to notice birds flying overhead or perching in trees or bushes. And if you go outside and take an even closer look at the plants, you’ll probably see some insects and other small organisms.
Plant life is the foundation of life on Earth. Almost every creature—largest to smallest, living on land or in the water—depends on plants as a source of the energy it needs to grow and thrive. That’s because plants use energy from the sun, along with carbon dioxide and water from the air, to make food through the process of photosynthesis. Animals can’t do that. The sun’s energy is passed on when animals eat plants and when animals eat other animals that have eaten plants.
Native plants hold a healthy ecosystem together. “Native” plants are the ones that have evolved over time to survive in a particular place. They have the characteristics needed to survive there naturally and to share their habitat with the native animals of all kinds—from the smallest insects to the largest mammals—that have evolved along with them. In any habitat, plants are the initial source of food and energy for everything else.Now let’s focus on the relationship between native plants and native birds. Where do birds build their nests? Although some birds nest on the ground, most birds nest in trees or bushes. Where do birds roost at night and hide from predators? They roost and hide in trees and bushes. What do birds eat? They eat seeds, fruits, and nuts, and drink nectar, which come from plants. They also eat insects, spiders, lizards, frogs, snakes, small mammals, and fish, which either eat plants or eat animals that have eaten plants.
Birds help plants, too! Hummingbirds help pollinate flowers so that they can produce seeds that are needed to grow more plants. Blue Jays and some other birds actually plant seeds. They collect and hide the seeds to eat later but don’t return for them all, so the seeds sprout and grow into new plants. Birds also spread seeds when they eat fruit. The seeds in the fruit don’t get digested and come out in the birds’ droppings. The droppings can fall on the ground, often far from the original plant, and a new plant will sprout and grow there. Birds also eat many of the small critters—caterpillars, grasshoppers, beetles, and more—that eat the leaves of plants, and so birds help keep the number of leaf-eating bugs down.
When you understand the powerful connections between birds and plants, you can see why it’s important to do everything we can to keep native plants in our yards, parks, and wild places. Besides providing what birds need, plants support other native animals that share their habitat. Native plants have benefits for people, too. They don’t spread so quickly or so thickly that they crowd out other plants or clog up streams or wetlands. They’re suited to the climate and soil, so they require less water and fertilizer and less general care than nonnative plants. In other words, native plants usually grow well without any help!
Get ready to discover more about the native plant-native bird connection. The best place to start is the Plants Are for the Birds! student magazine. You’ll find it in the column to the right. Inside you’ll discover that identifying a “weed” or a “pest” isn’t so easy, and you’ll learn how you can be a friend to plants and birds. You’ll have the chance to head outside and search for all the items on a native plant/native bird checklist. Besides the magazine, be sure to check out all the other fun parts of this website, too.
Photo: Sean Graesser. Illustration: iStock.