Native Plants Benefit Wildlife
In 2007 the Audubon Society released an alarming report that charted the fates of 20 common bird species over the past 40 years. The average decline for those birds was a hefty 68%. The problems they face are numerous, from fragmented landscapes to speeding cars to increased predation from introduced species such as Norway rats and everyone’s pet cat. Luckily, what is arguably the biggest hurdle these birds face — loss of habitat — is also one we can help manage.
Here in the Sacramento Valley of California an estimated 90% of historical riparian forests (forests that grow along rivers and creeks) have been destroyed, and this is the very habitat that supports the widest range of bird species. What has replaced those forests — agricultural operations, urban sprawl, reservoirs - are good for the financial viability of our region, but to birds they are a desert compared to the old forests. Here at River Partners we work with a wide array of partners to help restore and rebuild wildlife habitat, a process which not only benefits birds and other imperiled wildlife, but also provides people with numerous new places to enjoy the outdoors.
Integral to this restoration process is the use of plants native to this region. Countless studies have given praise to the wildlife benefits of native plants over introduced ones such as eucalyptus, almond, or yellow-star thistle. Here is a sample of native plants, and examples of how they help our state’s native wildlife.
Arroyo Willow (Salix lasiolepsis)
Historically a small bird called the least-Bell’s vireo was abundant during the breeding season in California’s Central Valley, but they suffered a precipitous decline and disappeared from the Valley in the 1940s. 60 years later River Partners did a restoration at the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge which included the dense patches of willows that these birds once favored. Willows are a fast growing, small tree species that rapidly colonize areas disturbed by the types of floods that once realigned floodplains before the advent of Sacramento river dams. This dense, shrubby habitat is perfect for the least-Bell’s vireo as they spend most of the summer obscured in clusters of arroyo willows and similar vegetation where they build their nests, find insects for food, and escape the watchful eyes of predators. The results of that restoration: in 2005 the first nest for this species in the Central Valley in over six decades was documented in a cluster of arroyo willows.
Coyote Brush (Baccharis pilularis)
Early pioneers called this shrub the “fuzzy wuzzy” because of its numerous silky-haired seeds that appear in early fall, seeds which catch the wind much like dandelions. This plant can reach 12 feet in height, and one in full bloom provides abundant food for bees, butterflies, hummingbirds, and other wildlife that feed on nectar. The dense structure also provides important cover for quail and other birds.
California Wild Grape (Vitis californica)
A common site along the Sacramento River is large oak trees covered by this fast growing vine. Much like its cultivated cousin which draws hordes of tourists to the Napa region, wild grape produces large clumps of fruit irresistible to wildlife. This fruit is critical for the survival of birds in fall and winter, especially after freezes reduce the availability of insects. The fruit is abundant, easy to exploit, and comes nestled in heavy cover which protects small songbirds from larger predatory hawks.
Blue Elderberry (Sambucus mexicana)
In 1980 a little known insect (valley elderberry longhorn beetle — or VELB for short) was listed by the U.S. government as a Federally Threatened Species. If you’ve guessed that a beetle with the word “elderberry” in its name would find this plant important then youve guessed correctly. VELB larvae (the early stage of an insect, caterpillars before they become butterflies for example) spend their entire larval stage — which may last 2 years — burrowing around inside of elderberry branches, only to emerge for a much shorter life as an adult beetle where they are almost always found on elderberry plants. Since they were listed over 1500 acres of habitat in the Central Valley has been restored, and the results are promising enough that the Fish and Wildlife Service has recommended that they be de-listed.
California Wild Rose (Rosa californica)
This stand-forming rose species provides excellent cover for birds, a nesting place for small birds such as lesser goldfinches and lazuli buntings, and its nutritious fruit (rose hips) are eaten by a wide variety of wildlife.
California Blackberry (Rubus ursinus)
While the majority of blackberry growing along the Sacramento river is the invasive Himalayan variety, there is a native species of blackberry as well. Native blackberry has much smaller thorns, smaller fruit which comes earlier than the non-native varieties, and grows cooperatively with native trees and shrubs — that is, it rarely forms the huge stands so common with Himalayan blackberry. Many bird species build their nests on the interior of blackberry clumps, including the rare and elusive yellow-breasted chat which nests nearly exclusively in blackberry. The abundant berries provide cheap and easy food for recently fledged birds (young birds that have just left the nest) that sustains them while they develop the skills necessary to find more elusive food such as insects and small seeds.
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