Native Prairie Plants

Native Prairie Plants

Part of Ep. 801 Landscaping for Birds

Visit with Neil Diboll of Prairie Nursery near Westfield, Wisconsin and learn how prairie plants provide nutrition for birds and beauty for gardeners.

Premiere date: Mar 04, 2000

TRANSCRIPT+
Wisc Gardener Transcript: 

Shelley:
Trying to decide what to plant in your back yard that will attract birds, butterflies and be attractive to yourself? Consider native prairie plants. There's a wide variety of choices. They're hardy. They're versatile. They work in many different landscapes. And they're gorgeous. We're at Prairie Nursery, near Westfield, Wisconsin. And I'm with the owner, Neil Diboll. Neil, what makes prairie plants so attractive to birds?

Neil:
There's really three main reasons why birds like prairie plants. One is that the prairie plants can provide a lot of different forms of food for birds. The second reason is the grasses and the flowers together form cover for nesting sites. And thirdly, a lot of these strong, taller stem plants provide perches so birds can survey their territory.

Shelley:
Okay, let's start with food. I think of prairie plants as providing a lot of seeds, which is a good food source.

Neil:
A lot of prairie plants do provide really nutritious seeds in the fall. But what's more important, especially for birds, is that during the spring and summer, prairie plants are unsurpassed at attracting insects to the different flowers and grasses. And the number one food of young baby hatched birds is insects. So, no bugs, no birds.

Shelley:
Okay, well that's something I wouldn't have thought of. I think of the seeds, not the bugs. You mentioned a plant that attracts bugs-- a certain bug that attracts a bird I wasn't expecting. Tell me about that.

Neil:
Oh, you're thinking of the New Jersey Tea. That's a low-growing shrub, a native prairie shrub. It only grows about two feet tall. It has really beautiful dense, thick green leaves and white flowers.

Shelley:
But they're not a nectar source.

Neil:
Not a nectar source for the bird that you're thinking of. Actually, the New Jersey Tea is pollinated almost exclusively by flies. Not house flies, mind you, I've never seen a house fly. But you get these little, almost microscopic hovering flies, little itsy-bitsy flies, and then ones with green and gold stripes, so obviously they're Packer fans. They just hover. And most of them are really quite small. And what happens is this other comes to eat the flies. Now, what is that other bird? Believe it or not, it's a hummingbird.

Shelley:
And it's not attracted by nectar. See, I didn't even know hummingbirds ate flies.

Neil:
Yeah, they're carnivorous.

Shelley:
Wow, okay.

Neil:
You didn't think they lived off that sugar water stuff?

Shelley:
Well, yeah, I guess I kind of did.

Neil:
It's not nutritious. It's not a balanced meal.

Shelley:
They're getting their protein from these little baby flies.

Neil:
That's the main source of protein for hummingbirds, is eating flies and other insects.

Shelley:
Okay. We know that we've got the bugs. And we know that the nectar is common. What are some of your favorites as far as seeds, too? I mean, these are great sources for food.

Neil:
Later in the season, like in late summer and fall, the Pale Coneflower, the Yellow Coneflower, the regular Purple Coneflower, the Compass Plant, and that whole group of Silphiums, the Compass Plant, the Cupplant, the Prairie Dock. Cupplant is particularly excellent because its leaves hold water. So you don't just get food and cover.

Shelley:
You get water, too.

Neil:
You get water, too, so birds will flock to that, as well.

Shelley:
Goldfinches love my Compass Plant. What other birds might we see on these?

Neil:
In the fall, you'll see all the other finches, typically, if you have the right surroundings, like House Finches and Purple Finches and Juncos on the ground eating the seeds in the fall. And more importantly, during the summer season, like in this cherry tree right here, where we have a woodland edge, where the prairie meets the trees or woods, you'll see a tremendous utilization on that edge because you have birds that utilize the trees for nesting, but they'll come into the prairie for insects. So, we get Indigo Buntings, we get Baltimore Orioles. And if you put up a bluebird house, a nesting box, usually just away from the edge of the woods in your prairie meadow, you can get a lot of utilization by Bluebirds. And if you're not lucky enough to get Bluebirds, you may get a Chipping Sparrow with its beautiful song.

Shelley:
Well, you're actually leading right to my next question. You mentioned cover. We can provide houses for Bluebirds, but you said the prairie itself provides the cover for a lot of birds.

Neil:
Yeah, for grassland nesting birds. The grasses-- and you can see here we have the shorter grasses. This is Sideoats Grama here, mixed with Little Bluestem. These are the short prairie grasses. They get knee high to waist high. And you'll see sparrows and wrens. And in larger areas, you'll get birds like Bobolinks, Meadowlarks. And these birds are getting increasingly rare because of a loss of grassland habitat. So, people who can put back many acres of prairie, really are doing a big favor for these grassland nesting birds by restoring their habitat.

Shelley:
What about perches. Why is that important.

Neil:
Perches are really important for birds because they have territories that they have to survey. They're always looking for predators. Or, maybe, there's another member of the same species that wants to infringe on its territory, so they'll sit on their perches and sing to let the other birds know this is my territory. Or they'll just be looking for predators by surveying the area and making sure that they're not in danger.

Shelley:
What are your favorite plants to suggest for somebody to put that in?

Neil:
There are so many different wonderful prairie plants. Let's look at some of the flowers. You've got the Blazingstars, like the Meadow Blazingstar, which is unsurpassed for bringing in monarch butterflies. And then, in the fall, we have to race to beat the Goldfinches for the seed.

Shelley:
And it's a good, stiff stem, so it probably works as a perch, too.

Neil:
A good perch throughout the fall. You've got the Prairie Blazingstar. You've got, again, the Compass Plant, Prairie Dock, the Coneflowers. You've got Joe Pye Weed for butterflies.

Shelley:
It's a nice, tall plant, too. Beautiful.

Neil:
You'll get a fair amount of bird utilization mostly for insects on that. The list goes on and on. You've got Spiderwort earlier in the season. And you'll also get a lot of utilization by insects on the Spiderwort, too, which birds will utilize early in the season for hatching birds.

Shelley:
It sounds like we almost have everything we need here, then.

Neil:
You got it. So many wonderful plants to choose from in the prairie.

Shelley:
Thanks, Neil.

Neil:
Thank you, Shelley.

Shelley:
Next up, we're going to show you how some of these beautiful plants will look in your own back yard.

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