Nature provides it all with NATIVE SHRUBS IN YOUR GARDEN

by Kathy Ross

Cedar Waxwing with berries – Photo Credit: Debra Reeves

Tanagers, grosbeak, solitaires, chickadees, vireos, woodpeckers, robins. In a small dense patch of native serviceberry, chokecherry, dogwood, mountain maple, and juniper I have watched with delight on a late summer afternoon, song birds feeding on the berries and the insects of these native shrubs.

The ideal garden for birds has many layers and elements. It calls for tall canopy trees, understory shrubs, forbs, grasses and ground covers, living soil, water. Each layer is vitally important for the needs of different species.

And native shrubs in particular have a bird-world of advantages. We think of them mostly as the mid understory layer. Whether you have a large or a small space to work with, native shrubs can be pruned to be shrubby and dense. Many such as serviceberry or mountain maple can be encouraged to grow as the taller canopy layer. Shrubs such as Oregon grape and kinnikinnick make great ground cover in their appropriate growing conditions.

Planting native shrubs benefits our birds in all seasons

Year-round dense cover provides protection from predators and insects to browse in every season, yes even in winter! Leave the leaves of shrubs for mulch. They hold moisture and create habitat for the wintering insects. Juncos and redpolls always appreciate leaf litter while duff-digging for insects in the winter.

Oregon Grape blossoms – Photo Credit: Kathy Ross

In spring, native shrubs offer perfect nesting environments. And their beautiful blooms have evolved to bud out and attract pollinators and insects just when our migrators and local birds are breeding and need to feed hungry chicks those juicy nutrient-rich caterpillars. The hatch of native caterpillars has evolved to take advantage of the new leaves of native chokecherry, ninebark, willows and a host of others. Celebrate the munched leaves. Nature has orchestrated the timing perfectly for native insects to be available to feed hungry chicks. Did you know more than 90% of terrestrial birds need insects to raise their chicks, especially the protein and nutrients of caterpillars? Adult birds need those same nutrients to keep up with an insatiable nest of young.

In summer and fall the berries, seeds and new generation of insects on native shrubs, keep the food supply coming, timed just perfectly to fuel fall migration of tanagers, towhees, warblers, and flycatchers and many other long-distance migrators.

Globally and nationally, bird conservation organizations are advocating the use of native plants in our landscapes, keeping the native where possible and “rewilding the wild” where it has been lost. National Audubon Is now one of the leading “native plant for birds” advocacy organizations: On their website at National Audubon has put together a database of native plants for all parts of the country. Enter your zip code for a wealth of information, including dozens of native shrubs for our area and some of the birds they will attract to your landscape. There are other perennials, trees and annuals listed also but be careful, not all are completely suitable to our local landscapes. The Center for Native Plants, in Whitefish, carries many of the native shrubs listed on the Audubon database. They also provide recycling for plastic nursery pots; drop the pots off and they will reuse them. 

Ocean Spray – Photo Credit: Kathy Ross

We all should encourage other local nurseries to carry native plants as well. The exotics, hybrids or cultivars of our native species often have morphological qualities (purple leaves rather than green, multi-petaled flowers instead of single petaled, different bloom times) that can make them poor food sources for our native insects and birds.

The Montana Native Plant Society website is anothergoodsource of information on the how and why to plant natives and provides useful lists of native plants and sources.

Benjamin Vogt, a Midwest landscaper and native plant enthusiast, also has a wealth of information on his website: He says ”rethink pretty.” Think first about how your landscape will benefit the entire community of living organisms of which we are just one small part. The aesthetic beauty will follow.

See more articles on how you can help birds, including my “Creating Bird Song …. One Garden at a Time” about using native plants to landscape for birds.

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