Black-capped Chickadee by jburney
Black-capped Chickadee by jburney

GreenWatch: birds and bees

by / Mar. 10, 2018 10pm EST

Doug Tallamy, naturalst, educator, and author of Bringing Nature Home: How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in our Gardens (Timber Press, 2007), is returning to this area with a new lecture courtesy of the Western New York Land Conservancy. The book is the seminal and extremely influential work about why and how to use native plants as gardening and conservation tools.

The event will be held on Friday March 16, 7-8pm at the Niagara Power Vista, 5777 Lewiston Road, Lewiston, N.Y. It is a free event, but seating is limited, so register now by CLICKING HERE.

Tallamy is a professor and current chair of the department of entomology and wildlife ecology and the University of Delaware in Newark, Delaware.

His  work has focused on the evoloution of biodiversity and how that effects life on earth. He tells us about how habitats, ecosystems, and bioregions interact and how relationsips betwen native flora and fauna have coevolved, coexist, and work to support the ecological fundamentsals of a healthy and sustainble biospehere.

As an entomologist and a teacher he studies and explains how and why species and communities of flora and fauna intersect. He teaches that there are very specific relationships between many individual species of plants and insects. he helps to reveal exactly how and how these relationships work and he helps us to learn what we can do to conserve, protect, and promote these relationships. He explains that these ingredients, through evolution, have come to sustain life on earth. Including human life. 

Like many of us, he is also a gardener. For me, his message of learning to garden with nature, with native plants, finding ways to support and protect native pollinators, and learning to nurture the natural communities is a profound gateway to all conservation strategies.

Importantly, he teaches that we all can make a difference. For instance, if you have a yard, you can contribute. He says that “You don’t have to save biodiversity for a living, but you can save it where you live. And you should.”


The Essential Need for Biodiversity

As plants and animals have co-evolved, they have formed biodiverse communities. Native plants are an anchor of healthy and biodiverse ecological communities. Biodiversity is important because it both provides and regulates the ecosystem function. These functions include services that all life and quality of life, including yours and mine, depend. These services include clean water, clean air, and a stable atmosphere. Losing those services because of bad actions by humans is catastrophic for our collective human futures.

Tallamy shows that non native Invasive species come with a high cost- Most have no natural predators. This lets them out-compete native plants, displace native communities, and contribute fundamentally to massive habitat loss.  We are currently in an extinction episode (the Sixth Extinction) that is causing an ecological collapse unlike but a few that have occurred on the 4 billion years plus of evolution on this planet. It can be called the extinction of biodiversity. Invasive species are a primary player. Human life, and human quality of life is one of the victims of this collapse of biodiversity. Tallamy says that you and I can make a difference by learning and applying the lessons of Gardening with Nature.

Read more about the Sixth Extinction by CLICKING HERE.


The Lesson of the Chickadee

Tallamy gives a famous lesson that is easy to understand. Most of us are very familiar with the friendly chickadee.  A chickadee family of four (mother and father and two young) have very specific eating requirements for the young. Young chickadees need easily digestible protein. This comes from juicy and succulent caterpillars. Nuts and berries will not feed these babies (and many other baby birds). Tallamy has observed mama and papa bringing caterpillars to the young from dawn to dusk from the hatching until after they have fledged (usually about 18 days). His study reveals that the parents deliver the young, on average, one caterpillar every 3 minutes. This adds up to between 350-570 caterpillars every day. Over 18 days that is an astounding 6,000 — 9,000 caterpillars. Thats a lot of insects for one family of birds.

Where do these caterpillars come from? They come from native plants and native plant communities. Tallamy observed that a local native white oak on one afternoon provided 233 caterpillars from 15 species of insects for the chickadees. A native black cherry provided 53 caterpillars from 10 insect speices.


Native v. Non-native Plants.

Tallamy shows that native oak, cherry, ash, and virtually every native tree, grass, shrub, or other wildflower and plant play very specific roles in supporting a wider biodiverse community of plants and animals that provide the ecosystem services that we depend upon.

Places count. A native plant is more or less defined as a plant that has evolved over a long period of time in a certain place. There is a genetic blueprint.  We know that many plants animals have specialized relationships that are due to evoloution. 


The Lesson of the Monarch Butterfly

You may know that butterflies and many other species of insects have certain “host plants” that they need to subsist on.  These are specialized relationships. There are also species that have more generalized relationships. Sometimes these occur during different life phases such as nectar sipping adult insects, but without the specialization we would not have biodiversity. For many species of lepidoptera (butterflies and moths), host plant/animal species relationships are very targeted especially in the early stages of life.  Monarch Butterflies, for instance, need native milkweeds for their caterpillars to survive.  Monarch’s are being evaluated for the Endangered Species List because there numbers are in significant decline. This has to do with habitat loss, including the loss of native milkweeds. This is just the tip of the iceberg.

It is important to note that not all milkweed species work for our local and regional Monarch populations.  Of the approximate 140 known species of milkweed, only three species are safe for Monarchs here in WNY and Southern Ontario. They are Butterfly Weed (asclepias tuberosa); Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca); and Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata).


Invasive Plants

Many plants that we have in our yards, streets, forests, parks, and meadows now are non-native.  More than a few are considered “invasive”.

These invasive species such as Norway Maple, Japanese Knotweed, and Phragmites have been introduced into local ecosystems. There are literally thousands of other introduced species. They have not evolved in local ecosystems, do not have any particular specialized relationships, and because they lack natural predators are able to outcompete and destroy native plant communities. This destroys the dependent plant/wildlife communities and the biodiversity that has evolved over a long period of time.  

Tallemy observes that not many Chickadee baby feeding caterpillars come from non-native species. A non native cluster of Callery pear, which is one of the predominant ornamental tree species in many neighborhoods, provided 1 caterpillar.  Tallamy calls this particular species a biolgical pollouter. Because they spread rapidly and uncontestd across fencelines and property boundaries as the many seeds find the breeze.  They are an unleashed menance to native biodiversity.

Non-native plants provide next to no ecosystem services. Exotic plants, cultivars, and many horticultural products plants are are not viable host plants for native insects. These “garden” and ‘street” trees, marketed by the horiticultural industry may come from some interesting place, they may look pretty, but they are harmful. Buckthorn, Norway Maple, and so many other non native species spread their pollution destroying our essential natural ecosystems.  

Plants like the Callery pear have been used to displace native ecosystems in the name of commerce, aesthetics, and misapplied strategies to manage the natural world. They are every bit as destructive as any other kind of pollution.  It’s time we recognized this.

Other common examples of invasives include the vast tracts of non-native phragmites that we see spreading along our highways and infecting our wetlands.  This reed out competes native wetland plants such as cattails. Rich biodiverse ecosystems that once held thousands of native plants supporting significant multipliers of biodiversity are transformed into near monocultures that support little native wildlife. It is the death of birds, butterflies, native bees, and sustainable natural ecosystems. Just to touch the tip of the iceberg.


Gardening with Nature

Tallamy’s book, his talk, and his life time of work helps us to understand what we can do to change this.  He articulates easily achievable conservation strategies that each and every one of us can be involved with. “Think about native plants”, “Don’t use lawn and garden chemicals”, and “Think of your plants as bird feeders not just as decorative items” are profound lessons. “Create a pollinator garden”. “Help your communities to transform places into a natural plant ecosystems”.


Our Carolinian Zone

Much of our local/regional ecosystem, generally speaking, is part of the Carolinian Zone or Ecoregion.  It is a good place to think about what kind of biodiversity strategies we should support here. This is a life zone that shares certain plants, soils, minerals, waters, sunlight, and in general, the climate. Fauna and flora have evolved together here for for a lot longer than post industrial humans have been here. And so certain communities of plants and wildlife have evolved co-dependently.  

We can learn about the kinds of plant/animal relationships that have evolved here.  Tallamy and the good people at the Western New York Land Conservancy are leaders in this area. Knowing what to plant, where to plant it, and what to expect is a step toward a forceful taking back of a future once thought stolen. You can help. You can learn more by coming to this event.


More GreenWatch and Monarchs

GreenWatch: Insectageddon 

The Public December 3, 2017 

GreenWatch Saving the Monarch ButterflyThe Buffalo Link (Monarch in Buffalo): 

The Public March 6, 2015

GreenWatch: Western New York Butterfly Parade (video)

The Public August 30, 2015



GreenWatch Sunday TV

Watch a Doug Tallamy Talk CLICK HERE

Title: Doug Tallamy, Rebuilding Natures Relationships at Home

May 10, 2016

Western New York Land Conservancy Speaker Series

UB Center for the Arts  Lumiflux Media