This post was inspired by my own recent desire to have a butterfly garden, as well as a recent inquiry that was submitted to Grassroots Garden Group.
Let's talk about birds and butterflies.
Firstly, they're beautiful, and the world needs beauty. They are everywhere, yet their ubiquity does nothing to diminish their splendor or dampen the enthusiasm of the observer. They have inspired artists to create paintings, sculptures, songs, and poems. They have inspired engineers and architects to take to the skies and to mimic their form and function in design. They have delighted children, naturalists, and nature enthusiasts for thousands of years. They brighten our gardens and our lives, and a place without them is a place I would not care to see. But aside from their beauty, they are indispensable to the earth. They play a vital role in our ecosystem, and all life on earth is inextricably linked to them.
According to the Illinois Environmental Council (IEC), Illinois is home to approximately 400 species of migrant and resident birds. These birds do a variety of things that support a balanced ecosystem. They disperse seeds. They pollinate. They control the insect population. They are a food source for other animals. Despite their physical size, the little birds that you see throughout town every day are contributing to the natural order of things in a major way. In Berry Yeoman's article, "What do Birds do for Us?", he provides a brief but impressive list of just some of the ways that birds impact the environment.
"Birds keep farmers in business. They protect our drinking water by preventing erosion. They slow the spread of disease. They keep the furniture industry supplied with timber. They provide critical environmental data. The list continues ad infinitum. The collective term for the many ways birds... support and improve human life is “ecosystem services.” Understanding these services... has been a growing priority for scientists worried about the unprecedented loss of biodiversity we’re now seeing—by one popular estimate, some 27,000 plant and animal species each year, many of them driven extinct by human activity."
You can read the full article on the Audubon Society's website.
According to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (DNR), Illinois contains approximately 2,000 species of butterflies and moths. Some of the butterflies that you may see around Westchester include:
The Butterfly Conservation group of Britain does a fantastic job listing many of the ways that butterflies offer value, beginning with the intrinsic: they are worthy of conservation in their own right because they are living things. The list goes on to include their aesthetic, educational, scientific, economic, health, and environmental values.
"Butterflies and moths are indicators of a healthy environment and healthy ecosystems. They indicate a wide range of other invertebrates, which comprise over two-thirds of all species. Areas rich in butterflies and moths are rich in other invertebrates. These collectively provide a wide range of environmental benefits, including pollination and natural pest control."
You can read the full article on the Butterfly Conservation group's website.
Butterfly and Bird Gardens
So what should you plant to attract butterflies and birds? The answer is that it depends on where you are and what you want to attract.
A good place to start looking for bird-friendly plants is the Audubon Society's website. They have a wealth of information on this topic, and even have a native plant database that is searchable by zip code. You'll be presented with a long list of plants that are native to your area, and a list of birds that each plant may attract to your yard (see image below for example).
Maybe you don't want to plant anything, but still want to attract birds. That's where things like bird houses, bird baths, and bird feeders come in.
Hummingbird feeders are special. Adding food to it is a simple process, but the feeder must be cleaned frequently. Very frequently. They should be cleaned approximately every three days to prevent mold from growing, which can make delicate hummingbirds ill or even kill them. If you aren't able to adhere to such a frequent cleaning schedule, you may want to consider hummingbird-friendly flowers. Petunia baskets are a cheap, easy way to bring hummingbirds to your yard.
Some birds are perfectly content with a standard feeder filled with seeds. Keep in mind that squirrels may eat more than the birds if you don't implement a deterrent.
Some birds, like Baltimore orioles, cardinals, and blue jays, feed on fruit. While planting fruit trees or berry bushes may not be possible for you, placing individual pieces of fruit outside will still bring birds. My mother has been leaving oranges outside for orioles for over 20 years, and they keep coming back. Methods for presenting fruit to birds can be as simple as placing fruit on a plate, but you can get more imaginative. Hanging fruits is a popular approach and is less likely to bring swarms of ants to your yard.
You can attract certain butterflies this way, too. Many species of butterfly feed primarily on nectar, but some prefer to feed on rotting/fermenting fruit, tree sap, or bird droppings. Planting flowers may attract certain species, but having trees, bird feeders, or fruit bowls will attract even more species. Wikihow has a great article on using fruit to attract butterflies. It might not be pretty, but it will feed a lot of happy butterflies.
For butterfly-friendly plants, consult the list of butterflies included further up in this post. Simply click on the butterfly name to open up that species' page on the Butterflies and Moths of North America (BAMONA) project website. The BAMONA website is a great resource which lists food sources for each species. You can also view this list from The Butterfly Site.
If you don't have the time, energy, resources, or inclination to research and tailor your garden to specific bird and butterfly species, there are plenty of go-to plants that are sure to bring at least a few species.
Before we go any further, I want to remind everyone that Westchester's official village flower, coneflower, is a butterfly and bird magnet. Pollinators are drawn to them in the spring and summer, while songbirds flock to them in the fall to feast on their seed-filled cones. I planted 3 different types of coneflowers this summer and had butterflies on them before I had put away my shovel. But I digress.
Other go-to plants for butterflies include phlox, bee balm, butterfly bush, and milkweed. GardenDesign.com has a wonderful list of plants for birds and butterflies, as do some of the larger on-line plant sellers (White Flower Farm has lists of plants for birds and pollinators).
Some websites, such as the Better Homes & Gardens website, offer free garden plans for butterfly and bird gardens. Some of the larger on-line plant sellers have free designs, also. But don't feel obligated to buy from them; local nurseries and greenhouses may have what you're looking for, plus they have expertise with gardening in the local area. They can give you advice if you need to be steered in the right direction when it comes to plant selection and placement.
If you are a Pinterest user, there are a million ideas to be found in others' pins. And home and garden websites are full of articles on the topic of bird and butterfly gardens.
Just because you can't devote a large portion of your property to birds and butterflies doesn't mean that you should admit defeat. Buy a few annuals each spring and plant them in pots. It's simple, cheap, easy, and you will still make some butterflies (and yourself) happy. And if you've thought about growing your own herbs in pots, do it. Butterflies love flowering herbs.
Natural is Beautiful
A final word on your bird/butterfly garden endeavor--- it's okay if you want it to look pretty, neat, and orderly, but don't be afraid to let it go a bit natural. That's kind of the point. Make it more inviting for the creatures that you share your garden with. And, if you can overcome your aversion to them, don't be afraid of a few weeds! Weeds are free, and pollinators love them.
In years past, I never would have planted things like milkweed, clover, or thistles. And I certainly would not have abided dandelions. Why? Because I didn't like the way they looked. They weren't what I thought of when I imagined a garden. I wanted roses and hydrangeas and peonies in my yard, not weeds (or what I considered to be weeds). I hope you'll take a moment to view a few images of the aforementioned "weeds" and come to the same realization that I did--- native plants are absolutely beautiful, and if they're good enough for butterflies and bees, they're certainly good enough for my garden. Or at least part of my garden. I may like weeds, but I'm pretty sure my neighbors wouldn't appreciate them in my front yard.
So next year, I'm planting a bird and butterfly garden. If you already have one, Grassroots Garden Group would love to see it! You can send pictures to firstname.lastname@example.org.