Keystone Plants Are Essential To Bird-Rich Habitats
by Michael Brower
Dr. Greg Tallamy in his New York Times best-selling book Nature’s Best Hope, (2019) wrote about “keystone plants” and how just 5% of local plants host 70% to 75% percent of the local caterpillars and butterflies and moth species.
Other research points to Tallamy’s point that keystone plants disproportionately effect an eco-system’s amount of other species. Research indicates in the absence of keystone species, a food-web almost disappears.
Used to be, experts thought, “just plant natives trees and plants” and the Gulf Coastal Lowlands insects and seeds for birds food-web was ensured.
Not so fast; dear native gardener! A keystone-less habitat, even when packed with native trees and plants, will support 75% less caterpillars and without caterpillars you’ll see your birds and butterflies disappear.
At the same time Dr. Tallamy was publishing Nature’s Best Hope, our birding world was rocked by two frightening reports describing the threat to our and all the world’s birds.
Audubon’s report, “Survival by Degrees: 399 BirdSpecies on the Brink” echoed the Cornell Ornithology Lab’s earthshaking 2019 research published in “Science” scientifically detailing the loss of 2.9 billion or 30% of breeding birds since 1970.
Dr. Ken Rosenberg from the Cornell Lab ominously said, “…this is a strong signal that our human-altered landscapes are losing their ability to support birdlife.”
Everyone agrees : the single largest threat to birds is loss of keystone plant-rich habitat.
In Escambia and Santa Rosa County every resident is painfully aware of the fields, woods and wetlands lost; bird and wildlife habitats that have become “…human-altered landscapes…” unable to support our native and migratory birds.
Not all birds eat insects like caterpillars; some like to eat fruit and seeds, which is why you should always plant Red Mulberry (Morus rubra) trees in your habitat.
Red mulberry is native to the Gulf Coastal Lowlands and keystone tree offering food and shelter to both birds and butterflies.
Red Mulberry is a big, beautiful tree producing small berries which somewhat resemble blackberries, very dark red or purple in color when they are ripe.
They are sweet and juicy and good for eating straight from the tree, but can also be used in jams, jellies and preserves.
They are very attractive to birds and wildlife, so you might have a competition to harvest them!
Red Mulberry is resistant to air pollution and drought; and is generally quite low maintenance.
Red Mulberry can grow in a wide range of soil types, but for ideally like all trees Red Mulberry prefers deep, rich soil.
Finally, if your habitat borders fresh-water, has a high fresh-water table, or you are willing to water it; you might strongly consider planting two or more Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum) trees.
These are stately conifers and native and keystone trees to our Gulf Coastal Lowlands.
The bald cypress grows in full sunlight to partial shade.
This species grows best in wet or well-drained soil but can tolerate dry soil. It is moderately able to grow in sprays of salt water.
Bald cypress does well in acid, neutral and alkaline soils across the full range of light (sandy), medium (loamy), and heavy (clay) soils.
It can also grow in saline soils. It can tolerate atmospheric pollution.
Unlike most cone-bearing trees, bald-cypress loses its needles each winter and grows a new set in spring.
The russet-red fall color of its lacy needles is one of its outstanding characteristics.
Hardy and tough, this tree will adapt to a wide range of soil types, whether wet, dry, or even swampy.
Bald cypress cones and seeds are consumed by birds, insects and wildlife.