Saving Birds with a Butterfly Garden

Atala butterfly on Firebush

There have been a lot of dire reports and sobering warnings of late about the decline of bird species and the disappearance of birds throughout the world, mainly due to pesticide use, climate change, and loss of habitat. Most of us have empirical or anecdotal knowledge of this. It is a serious problem that everyone should take to heart. But, rather than focusing on the problem, this blog post is about what you can do to be part of the solution. Yes, YOU! What would you say if I told you that you could fill your garden with beauty and, in so doing, provide sanctuary and sustenance for our beloved birds at the same time? Imagine: a garden filled with flowers and berries and butterflies and bees AND birds. Wouldn’t you want to spend all your spare time in it? And aren’t our feathered friends worth it? I thought so. So, adjust your reading glasses, get comfy, and read on.

As Douglas W. Tallamy writes in Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants, “It is increasingly clear…that much of our wildlife will not be able to survive unless food, shelter, and nest sites can be found in suburban habitats.”1 Chances are, you live in a suburban habitat, which may be just a lawn with a tree or two and a few plants from Home Depot, but that’s all going to change. What you need to do is stop using toxic chemical insecticides and herbicides that do more harm than good and plant a diversity of mostly native trees, shrubs and other plants that attract native insects (hint: butterflies and caterpillars are insects), that provide protein for birds. Although many birds love to mix it up with delectable berries, the vast majority rely on insects for their main food source. And since many species we see here in South Florida are migrating long distances, that protein becomes even more important. For most butterfly gardeners, knowing that you are providing sanctuary and sustenance to birds as well makes up for the sadness of losing a certain percentage of caterpillars and butterflies. Especially when you take into account all the caterpillar- and butterfly-eating lizards that the birds are also eating.

Lizard, hoping to snag an insect, before a bird or a bigger lizard snags him.

 

What’s that you ask? How does a butterfly garden filled with native nectar and host plants attract birds? Some, like the Wild lime tree, have seeds that only birds could love. Well, perhaps lizards too.

When the Wild lime tree produces seeds, it attracts birds all day long. Read on to see another reason birds hang out in this tree.

 

This Giant swallowtail is laying an egg on a Wild lime, the same tree that produces those hard little delicacies pictured above. The Wild lime is one of very few citrus native to Florida, and is impervious to diseases like citrus canker and greening. It provides no benefit to humans other than the beautiful butterflies and birds that visit it. Don’t you agree that is enough?  Read more about the Wild lime. 

 

The Giant swallowtail caterpillar looks remarkably like bird or, in this case, lizard poop. This is clearly designed to fool the birds…but birds are no fools (I wonder if lizards are?). All it takes is the slightest movement for them to tell the difference. In case you’re not sure, the caterpillar is the tasty morsel on the left.

 

Over time, the Giant swallowtail caterpillar shape shifts from lizard poop to snake-like creature, trying to fool the hungry birds into looking elsewhere for a meal.

 

Although birds do pick off a percentage of the poopy or scary Giant swallowtail caterpillars, there will always be those that manage to reach adulthood. As you can see from this photo of a newly emerged butterfly from a rescued chrysalis, you will be richly rewarded when they do. And check out the size relative to the relatively large Monarch butterfly.

 

If you plant Passion vine, you will attract three or four different butterfly species if you’re lucky: the Zebra, the Julia, the Gulf fritillary, and the Variegated fritillary. Here we have Zebra eggs, laid in a clutch.  Learn more about the native Maypop passion vine and the Corkystem passion vine.

 

If you didn’t have predators like birds in your garden, you can imagine how quickly your Passion vine would be gobbled up. You did read The Very Hungry Caterpillar, right?

 



Zebra caterpillars are particularly vulnerable when they have just shed their too-tight skins and their spikes are still soft and translucent. Imagine what a tasty treat this little guy would be until exposure to air hardens and blackens the spikes.

 


You can see how much the Zebra caterpillars have grown, and can imagine how much Passion vine they will consume before they pupate.

 

And here the whole cycle is about to be repeated. Remember: for butterflies, it’s all about the mating, baby.

 

What’s that you say? You thought this post was supposed to be about birds, but all you see are photos of caterpillars and butterflies? Oops, here is one to give you, the reader, food for thought.

These White Ibis use their long, curved beaks to hunt for insects in the garden, aerating your lawn and ridding it of pests. If you use chemical insecticides or herbicides, you are having a direct negative impact on these beautiful, helpful creatures by poisoning them and depriving them of food. You don’t want to do that, do you? You can deal with a few weeds in your lawn to give these marvelous creatures a break, right?

 

This photo of a Prairie Warbler on a native Florida Privet was taken by Kirsten Hines, renowned nature photographer and author, in her own garden in Miami, FL. You can see her other nature photos on her Instagram page kirstennaturetravel. She knows a lot about attracting birds to South Florida gardens; in fact, she even co-authored a book about it. Learn more about the Prairie Warbler.  Make sure you listen to its song.

 

That’s okay. I’ll wait while you order  it.  You won’t regret it. Or, if you live in Miami Shores, you can run over and check it out from Brockway Library.

 

Anyway, that adorable little Prairie Warbler Kirsten photographed in her garden can be found hopping around in shrubby habitats looking for — you guessed it — insects, like caterpillars and beetles, flies and lacewings, spiders and millipedes and other yummy protein snacks. My friend and poet and bird photographer Michael Faisal Green says some Prairie Warblers overwinter here in South Florida; others breed here in the summer, and some are year round residents. The Prairie Warbler’s song is beautiful and unforgettable and, like a number of bird species, you’ll likely hear the song before you see the bird. Wouldn’t you love to see and hear them in your garden? Kind of makes you want to run to the nearest native nursery to start carving up your useless lawn and creating that bushy shrubby habitat that will attract the insects that attract that beautiful creature with its song that ascends up the chromatic scale, doesn’t it?

Speaking of birds you often hear before you see, butterfly gardens also attract hummingbirds. In addition to nectar from plants that also attract butterflies, hummingbirds eat small insects like caterpillars, insect eggs, and spiders and feed them to their babies.

A male Ruby-throated Hummingbird. In some lights, the ruby throat looks black.  Learn more about the Ruby-throated Hummingbird.

 

The long tubular flowers of native Firebush are often visited by hummingbirds and a variety of butterflies.

 

Tropical, or Scarlet, sage is another plant with alluring red tubes. Zebra butterflies and hummingbirds are drawn irresistibly to its nectar. You can also find it in pink and white if red isn’t your thing.

 

Every human visitor to my garden likes my native Coral honeysuckle almost as much as the hummers!

 

The gorgeous non-native Firespike! Even if it didn’t attract hummingbirds and Zebra butterflies with its sweet nectar stored in alluring red tubes, you’d still want it in your garden, right? It also comes in magenta and other shades of pinky purple.

 

This delicate creature is a female Ruby-throated Hummingbird, photographed by Michael Faisal Green.

 

Michael Faisal Green illuminates these beautiful, fragile, delicate creatures: The general rule is that there is only one hummingbird species that breeds in the US east of the Rockies — the Ruby-throated — and that’s most certainly true. However, the same cannot be said for wintering hummers. South Florida is getting increasing numbers of eastward migrants — hummers that breed on the West Coast and the South that migrate west to east, instead of the typical north to south. In addition to these uncommon migrants, South Florida is the winter home to many Ruby-throated hummers who spend their summers in the Northeast U.S. and as far north as Canada. Most of these migrants descend through the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean into Mexico and the West Indies, though living on a uniquely dangerous metabolic knife edge means that crossing the Gulf and flying for a day without rest constitutes one of the most astonishing acts of aerial endurance. They are literally hours away from starving to death during long flights. The semi deciduous habitats of South Florida means that there are always flowering native plants here and the one redeeming aspect of human development — a lonely and outnumbered redeeming factor it is too — is that there are a sufficient number of native gardens and habitats, replete with nectar-laden flowers, to sustain small numbers of these birds throughout winter. Flower nurseries south of Miami also provide extra nectar for them. If we can maintain as much natural habitat as possible — they love red flowers like firespike and firebush — and cultivate gardens and green spaces so that they can safely winter here and spare them a dangerous trans Caribbean flight, then that’s reason enough, particularly given the extreme habitat degradation that they’re experiencing on their migratory routes into their wintering locations. Indeed, it is likely these birds, who’ve been around for hundreds of thousands of years longer than humans, used to always consider this their winter home until we came along. South Florida, keep those gardens native and alive with flowering plants that sustain them!

Firebush has flowers and berries. Kinda makes you want to pop one in your mouth.

 

Here’s another shot which I couldn’t resist adding, to point out the curious similarity between an Atala butterfly’s orange abdomen and some of the Firebush berries.

 

And speaking of berries, there are lots of other Florida natives that offer delectable berries to birds.

The luscious berries of the native Shiny-leaf wild coffee attract a variety of birds.

 

When the wild coffee isn’t offering berries to birds, it provides nectar for pollinators like this Zebra butterfly. And when it is in bloom, it fills the garden with the scent of honey.

This is the bright red fruit of the Rouge plant, a native that typically has blooms and berries at the same time. It also makes a fine perch for an Atala butterfly.

 

Another native plant that does double duty, offering flowers for pollinators and berries for birds is the Little Strongback.  I watched a tiny female Black-throated Blue Warbler happily gobbling down one of these berries.

 

This is the male version of the Black-throated Blue Warbler, photographed by my friend, Michael Faisal Green.  You can see his beautiful photos and musings on his Instagram page: my_fy_green and you can read more about these Black-throated Blue Warblers..  You will be very happy if you spot these beautiful little creatures in your garden.

 

You can see how the native American beautyberry shrub got its name.  Most plants have just the purple berries, but this one decided to be different.  I sat and watched that same female Black-throated Blue Warbler eat her fill of the purple ones the other day.  I wonder if she is eating for more than one…?

 

This is the flower of the American beautyberry, which is another win/win plant for birds, bees and you!

 

Another important element for both butterflies and birds is dead trees and palm fronds. As Kirsten Hines notes in Attracting Birds to South Florida Gardens, “Birds need dead trunks. Woodpeckers and other trunk-foraging birds search out insects lurking under dead trunk bark. Cavity-nesting birds use dead trunks for their nesting.”2

Leaving this dead palm up for birds like this Barn Owl to nest in is worth it, no?  Learn more about how you can attract Barn Owls to your garden.

This tree is full of tasty treats for this Red-bellied Woodpecker to find.  Read more about this magnificent creature.

 

Imagine the looks on your friends’ faces if you could brag that you have Zebras roosting on dead palm fronds in your garden. Untidy gardens can bring great beauty, wouldn’t you agree?

 

Another gorgeous shot by Michael Faisal Green. This Painted Bunting is guaranteed to knock your socks off, figuratively speaking.

 

Michael Faisal Green writes: Painted Buntings are quite shy birds. They do not have the natural inquisitiveness of Mockingbirds or Cardinals and will avoid open spaces and humans as much as possible. The outrageously-coloured males, perhaps aware of their colourful conspicuity, seem to be particularly reserved and are much less likely to be seen in the open than the females. For this reason, it is essential that any garden that wishes to attract them has plenty of shrubs and cover from which they can appear and disappear rapidly. Exclusively herbivorous, the best way to lure them into the open is with caged bird feeders stuffed with white millet. They seem to prefer approaching food from multiple perches, so regular, single perched feeders are not as attractive to them. Another important point worth noting is that birds are inured into a flock mentality and will always feel safer when there are more of them around. Attracting other birds to your garden — jays, woodpeckers and finches — will likely reassure birds that your habitat is safe. I have noticed that female buntings tend to shadow their larger cousins, female cardinals, and are more likely to be seen with them in gardens.

Here’s another view of the glorious male Painted Bunting, taken by Michael Faisal Green. This creature is surely worth saving by providing the seeds it needs. In addition to the feeder with white millet mentioned above, lots of native grasses provide seeds, in case you have a craving to see this bird in your garden. You can read up about these breathtaking birds.

 

There are many other bird species that visit South Florida gardens besides the ones mentioned in this post. The more insects, berries, and seed-bearing grasses you have, the more of them you’ll see. And now that you’re armed with all this information, and inspired to transform your garden into a paradise for you and wildlife, here are some native nurseries we recommend to get you started on your exciting new adventure!

Silent Native Nursery

Plant Creations Nursery

Richard Lyons Nursery

Veber’s Jungle Garden

Last but not least, you can check out Bound by Beauty’s page on how to bring butterflies to your garden.

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1Douglas W. Tallamy, Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants (Timber Press, Portland, London), 25.

2 James A. Kushlan and Kirsten Hines, Attracting Birds to South Florida Gardens (University Press of Florida), 29.


2 thoughts on “Saving Birds with a Butterfly Garden

  1. Dan Stevens Reply

    I really enjoyed this article about birds in a butterfly garden. We have a butterfly garden and we have all the birds and creatures that were mentioned (except the Owl) visiting our garden. We also have all the plants mentioned (except Little strongback zone 10). We’re in zone 9b so we don’t have Atala. And believe it or not we live in an HOA community. During our communities annual yard sales I offer Florida zone 9b pollinator plants.

    1. Mary Benton Reply

      I love that you have a butterfly garden in an HOA community, and that you offer pollinator plants that are suited to your zone. This is wonderful, and I’m sorry that I’m just seeing this as I get so much spam I forget to check for comments from real live human beings doing wonderful things! Thank you!

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