The Native Link: The Importance of Native Plants to Birds

By Lauren Pharr | August 3, 2020

Native plants play a vital role in the ecosystem when it comes to wildlife species. In fact, the best habitat you can provide is one that is overly abundant in native vegetation. These plants are important to the native species that rely on them. As you may have guessed, birds are some of those species who take in the benefits that native plants provide. Native plants are an important factor when it comes to a bird’s overall lifestyle. They have a major influence on a bird’s diet as well as their feeding habits and even migration patterns! It is important that native plants are, and will continue to be, around for years to come. These plants will continue to contribute to and influence the various functions of ecosystems. Due to things like habitat loss caused by human settlement, it will be important that we continue to incorporate native plants into our own spaces so as to make sure that birds and other wildlife species will still be able to find their reliable food sources.

This post covers everything you need to know about native plants and the vital role they play, not only for avian communities but the role they play in our world as a whole. Topics include an overview of native plants, their importance to birds, their benefits to the environment, and how you can integrate and preserve native plants right in the heart of your own backyard. Native plants are important to keep around, for they provide and promote the biodiversity of our natural world.

Native Plants: An Overview

Exactly what is meant by a native plant? Native plants are particular species of plants that have grown in a certain area naturally and were, therefore, not introduced by humans. Native plants not only provide food sources for wildlife, but they also provide a sustainable and eco-friendly habitat. According to The National Wildlife Federation, native plants thrive in environments that match their growing requirements. In other words, the soils, moisture, and weather in your particular region will be just what your particular native plants need.

Aerial view of habitat fragmentation - landscape.
Aerial view of habitat fragmentation into tiny, distant patches. This makes it difficult for pollinators to find their native plant foods. Photo by USDA Forest Service.

Over the years, the vitality of native plants has been in danger. According to Audubon, the continental U.S. has lost a staggering 150 million acres of habitat and farmland to urban sprawl. This is true in the Willamette Valley as well, where significant portions of land are being developed. Due to factors such as fragmentation caused by urbanization, some plants are at risk of going extinct as a result of the loss of genetic variation. For example, some native plants thrive in patchy habitats such as limestone or vernal pools. As a result of fragmentation and construction, these natural habitats are interrupted by other minerals and habitats such as landscape rock or a wooded habitat designed for housing. According to the United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service, the most common cause of plant habitat loss is due to the construction of cities, roads, and regulated river flow reservoirs. Fragmentation makes it difficult for wildlife to find their native food sources. The dispersal systems of seeds from these plants, which help them to grow and develop in other areas, become interrupted as well. Seeds can be dispersed by water, wind, animals or other mechanical means. If these patches are interrupted due to fragmentation and the distance to the next patch is too far away, then the likelihood that those seeds will be able to germinate and recolonize decreases.

Native Plants and Birds

Native plants are important to birds for a variety of reasons. These plants are important hosts for certain insects such as butterflies and moth caterpillars, making the insects rich in protein for birds to consume. Nesting birds will ultimately feed these sources of protein to their chicks. Birds are also a pathway for seed dispersal, spreading natives throughout their range. Native plants that produce large and colorful fruits will attract birds to consume them.

Small yellow rumped warbler bird on a branch.
Yellow rumped warbler (Dendroica cornoata), a native bird that relies on native plants in the Willamette Valley as it migrates through.

Birds also shape their migration patterns around native plants. Native plants offer a variety of resources including flowers that provide nectar, fleshy fruits, acorns and nuts, seeds, and insects. Native plants that produce fleshy fruits are highly important to birds during the late summer and fall, providing birds with the energy requirements needed for a long migration.

Below is a brief overview of examples from Audubon of native plants that are beneficial and will help attract specific common backyard songbirds, relative to the North America region:

  • Sparrows (including White-throated Sparrows, Dark-eyed Juncos, and Song Sparrows) are attracted to wild grasses as well as blackberries.
  • Cardinals, Grosbeaks, and Tanagers (including Northern Cardinals, Black-headed Grosbeaks, and Scarlet Tanagers) are attracted to sunflowers, elderberries, and serviceberries.
  • Crows and Jays (including American Crows, Scrub Jays, and Steller’s Jays) are attracted to oaks and beech trees.
  • Woodpeckers (including Downy Woodpeckers, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, and Northern Flickers) are attracted to pines, hickories, oaks, and cherries.
  • Chickadees and Titmice (including Carolina Chickadees, Tufted-Titmice, and Juniper Titmice) are attracted to maples, oceanspray, birches and sumac.
  • Finches (including House Finches, Purple Finches, and Pine Siskins) are attracted to coyote bush, spruces, hemlocks, pines, and composite flowers.

I encourage you to visit Benton SWCD’s Gardening for Birds website for information about attracting specific birds with their favorite native plants in Benton County.

Oregon monkey flower, a native yellow flower that attracts native birds.
Oregon monkey flower (Mimulus guttatus) is a native yellow flower that attracts native birds.

It is important to keep up the abundance of these native plant species because birds, as well as other wildlife, rely on native plants as food sources. If these plant populations continue to decline due to human produced factors such as fragmentation, then some wildlife may not be able to find or reach the native plant species that they need.

There is also the topic of non-native plant species, which can interrupt native species. Non-native plants are ones that are found outside their natural range. Some examples of non-native invasive plants in Oregon include Himalayan blackberry, English ivy, and spurge laurel.  Some non-native plant species can become invasive and outcompete native plants and cause ecological or economic harm or harm to human health. Non-native and invasive plant species are not great for wildlife. Specifically with invasive plant species, these are non-native plants that cause ecological or economic harm or harm to human health, ultimately providing less natural food and therefore, supporting fewer invertebrates, birds, and other wildlife.

Other Benefits of Native Plants

Aside from wildlife, there are numerous benefits for people to having native vegetation. As a whole, native plants are just great for the environment and promote diversity. They help one use less fertilizers and pesticides. Fertilizers are made up of phosphorus and nitrogen, and when applied to lawns, can mix with water runoff and enter into lakes and streams, causing serious effects on aquatic organisms. Native plants don’t need these fertilizers, for they have everything that they need in the soil. Same goes with pesticides, which can be dangerous to both people and pets that come in contactwith them. Native plants have the ability to store water for a long time thanks to their strong roots. This means that less water needs to be used on lawns.

According to one study done by the Applied Ecological Services in Brodhead, Wisconsin, native plants have been shown to save money. For example, over a 20-year period, the cumulative cost of maintaining a native prairie or wetland totals $3,000 per acre versus $20,000 per acre for non-native turf grasses.

My Research: Mist Netting and Native Plants

I, myself, obtain a Federal Sub-Permit to mist net and band songbirds, specifically Northern Cardinals. Bird banding is an effective research method used by ornithologists in order to track and monitor important aspects of bird populations and behaviors. In order to band birds, they must be captured. There are many methods to catch live birds, but mist netting is the most common. Mist nets are made of fine, black nylon or polyester mesh netting and are usually 12 feet long and about 8-10 feet high when opened and stretched between 2 poles. An important aspect to mist netting is location. Not only is it more effective for a mist net to be up against vegetation so that the birds cannot see it, but the kind of vegetation, or habitat, that is around is important, for this can influence the species of birds that you might catch.

Young woman getting a bird out of a mist net for scientific studies
Lauren Pharr extracting a female ruby-crowned kinglet (Regulus calendula) from a mistnet at Powdermill Nature Reserve in Rector, Pennsylvania. Photo by Murry Burgess.

Riparian habitats, flooded habitats, open fields, forested, or even very heavy wooded areas, are all examples of habitats where you would find different species of birds. These habitats will also be filled with the native vegetation that accompanies them. Knowing the kind of habitat and native vegetation that birds like, especially if you are mist netting a target species, will make the task a bit easier.

Female brown bird with orange beak
A female Northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) that was caught along a forested edge full of native pine tress and thickets. Photo by Lauren Pharr.

How You Can Promote Native Vegetation

Landscaping choices are an effective way to help make sure that native vegetation is implemented. Homeowners, landscapers, and local policy makers can make the smart and easy choice of selecting native vegetation.

You can decide to promote native vegetation anytime! Starting in your own backyard is a great way to go. Making a native habitat for wildlife will provide them with a reliable place where they know they can come and receive the necessary food sources that they need throughout the year. Along with these native plants, you might also choose to add water sources and nest boxes. You will be seeing so many beautiful songbirds, colorful butterflies, and other small wildlife in no time!

Small yellow bird called the Wilson's warbler on a tree branch.
Wilson’s warbler (Wilsonia pusilla), a native to the Willamette Valley.

To get started, visit Benton SWCD’s Gardening for Birds webpage to help you gather everything you need to make sure your “Garden for Wildlife” is beyond successful. There you will find videos, handouts, and all the bird-gardening basics. Once you have an idea which plants to select, head over to Benton SWCD’s Native Plant Sale and place your order! Each year, the pre-order period is from early June to early July. Then in August the online sale re-opens with a slightly shorter list of native plant species. Visit the online catalog for up-to-date native plant sale details.

Native vegetation is beautiful, and even better, it is helping to promote our natural world and biodiversity.

Additional Resources:

North Carolina State Universities’ “Going Native: Urban Landscaping for Wildlife and Native Plants”.

The National Wildlife Federation’s “Garden for Wildlife” Checklist.

The National Wildlife Federation’s “Native Plant Finder”.

Audubon’s “Native Plant Database”.

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About the Author

Lauren Pharr

Lauren D. Pharr is a current Graduate Research Assistant at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, North Carolina. Lauren is also an Ornithologist and Science Communicator, having written and contributed to pieces for The Cincinnati Zoo, WIRED Magazine, and Discover Magazine. To learn more about Lauren and follow her research, visit her Instagram, Twitter, and website:

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