When my wife and I go out for a hike, we often like to imagine what things were like hundreds of years ago before our area was developed. In the greater Chicagoland area, there were many trade routes between French settlers and the local Native populations. I often wonder what it would have been like to walk through the Illinois prairies and forests before they were destroyed. To be a French explorer and see a herd of bison for the first time – what a site! Only 1% of the original Illinois prairie is still in existence today. Millions of acres were plowed under for agricultural purposes. That is an ecosystem that is virtually nonexistent. Hundreds, if not thousands, of species dependent on the unique combination of prairie plants in Illinois for survival are restricted to 1% of their original territory. For further reading on this topic, visit “Stewardship in the Home Landscape”.
In the 21st century, most of this farmland is sold off and converted to suburban sprawl. You’ll find construction of subdivisions full of homes, shopping centers, and industrial parks. In most of these areas, the plants used in the landscaping isn’t the plants native to the region 200 years ago. You’ll often find exotic species. In our local Chicagoland suburbs, you’ll often see plants like hostas, daylilies, roses-of-Sharon, burning bushes, and Japanese honeysuckles. Sadly, many of these species are considered invasive plants. This means, they out-compete native plants in their local ecosystems and become a dominant species – destroying the established ecosystem and dramatically reducing the food source for wildlife.
We can look specifically at the effects of habitat loss on three food sources of North American birds. As more and more native plants are replaced with exotic plants, their fruit is naturally also replaced. In Nature’s Best Hope, Douglas Tallamy discusses the vast nutritional differences of berries of exotic plants versus native plants. The berries of many of the common exotic species, which are considered invasive species, have high sugar content and low fat content. Conversely, the berries of native plants have a significantly higher fat content (p. 117). This is crucial, especially in areas up north where birds need fats to survive the winter. What’s fascinating, is the berries of different shrubs ripen at different times of year. Different native shrubs and trees can be strategically planted to provide food for birds throughout the entire year, including the frigid days of winter!
Aside from berries, birds also love seeds. Any bird enthusiast knows that placing a bird feeder and filling it with seed will attract dozens of birds to their yard throughout the day. I myself was intrigued by the many photographs of evening grosbeaks my fellow enthusiasts were posting on social media in the Fall of 2022 – I didn’t see any visit my yard! You may be surprised to learn that, according to a 2016 survey completed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, Americans spend $4 Billion each year on bird seed alone, and much of it isn’t even sourced from native plants. Some Americans even report to spending a couple hundred dollars every month just on bird seed! Imagine if these Americans put their hard-earned dollars into planting native perennials that come back every year rather than spending it on seed that must constantly be replenished. Both homeowners and the local wildlife would be happier! Rather than purchasing bird seed, they could convert their existing lawn space to a garden full of native plants that come back every year. Even better, because native plants are already adapted to the local climate, they can even self-seed and reproduce, making the garden larger, and more productive every season.
The third food group birds benefit from is insects. Sadly, many insect species are on decline. Have you ever noticed your windshield doesn’t get clogged with insects as much as it used to? I remember growing up we would drive out to the San Bernardino or Cleveland National Forest for camping and the windshield and front grill of the car would get covered with dead insects. We even had a special windshield deflector for the hood of the truck! How many years has it been since you were completely enamored with fireflies? Native insects thrive in areas with established native plants. I am glad any time I see plants in my native garden beds have signs of being eaten. It means those plants are doing what I, the steward of my little half acre, want them to be doing – they are providing food for local wildlife. Yes, that does include rabbits!
In Nature’s Best Hope, Tallamy references a study performed on the presence of caterpillars in exotic hedgerows versus native hedgerows. The results were shocking. The populations of caterpillars in exotic hedgerows was 91% smaller than those in native hedgerows. This means animals that rely on caterpillars as part of their diet had 91% fewer food options. Consider another study, parent chickadees (a species of bird) spend 86% of their time foraging for food on native plants (p. 111, 113). Imagine what will happen to chickadees if yards don't include native plants! Tallamy further writes that 96% of North American terrestrial bird species raise their young on insects. For multiple species, this means parents make multiple trips to the nest with caterpillars. They feed their babies hundreds of caterpillars per day, meaning it takes thousands of caterpillars to raise their young to the fledgling development stage. This isn’t including all the food required to continue raising the young until they no longer depend on their parents for food (Nature’s Best Hope, p. 133-137).
For me, the answer is clear. Homeowners desiring to support local wildlife should include native plants in their landscaping.
If we’re going to place emphasis on providing food for wildlife, we should also be concerned with giving them a source of clean drinking water. Sadly, in Illinois 70% of the original wetlands have been destroyed. Adding a water feature is a simple way to help “restore” these lost ecosystems and support wildlife. Water features that are naturally filtered with Living Water are an efficient way to provide clean drinking water. Ponds, for example, can be built to establish a living ecosystem that enable wildlife to thrive. The first Spring for our pond, we had mallard duck visitors. We expect to have ducklings this coming second Spring as we have planted native grasses for them to nest in. For further reading on water features read our post, “Landscaping with Living Water”.
Today, conservationists state habitat loss is the number 1 cause of extinction. When many people who are passionate about wildlife conservation think of habitat loss, they often think of the Amazon rainforest, jungles in Indonesia, or the African tropics. Sadly, habitat loss is something that is happening in our own backyards. Thankfully much of that can be, and is being, restored today. As a landscaping company, we are dedicated to helping restore our lost local ecosystem. I discuss this topic further in "Practical, Backyard Conservation".
We offer landscaping services for lawn to native garden conversions. We would love to help you with your backyard project! Even if you are a DIYer, we offer consulting services, as well as retail of native plants.
Additionally, there are many non-profits dedicated to educating the public about native plants. If you are in Northeast Illinois in Will and DuPage counties, I encourage you to follow the Sag Moraine Native Plant Community.