Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife With Native Plants Book Review

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After attending a very enjoyable lecture by Dr. Douglas W. Tallamy, a professor of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware, I immediately bought his book, Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife With Native Plants.

I am not sure that I could credit Dr. Tallamy or his book with any genuinely new ideas, but what he has done is provided an extraordinarily readable, thorough, and convincing synthesis of a number of principles that natural and wildlife gardeners have promoted for years. Bringing Nature Home is a must read for anyone serious about attracting backyard wildlife.

Dr. Tallamy writes passionately of the importance of sustaining biodiversity in the United States and around the world. After a rather grim and depressing outline of the many extinct and imperiled plant and animal species we have lost to development and other factors, Dr. Tallamy points out that there is still much room for hope, and it lies primarily in the hands of gardeners.

Dr. Tallamy explains the flaws with the “Yellowstone Park” theory of conservation, which entails setting aside some natural lands (usually far smaller and more ecologically isolated than Yellowstone) as parks and preserves for wildlife and using the remainder largely as we see fit, without regard for the needs of other species. Though isolatedĀ  refuges are better than nothing, they do not allow animals to travel easily between different populations, resulting in lower levels of genetic diversity and often localized extinction. (For more on this phenomenon, check out David Quamman’s The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinction.) Trapping wildlife in islands surrounded by urban, suburban, and rural development is especially dangerous thanks to the effects of climate change, which is shifting the ideal range of many species north. Without safe ways to travel to more suitable climate zones, wildlife species face an even more serious risk of extinction.

Dr. Tallamy proposes an alternative: ecological corridors snaking through the backyards of ordinary folks like him, and me, and you. Such corridors could create a vast and interconnected safe space for wild creatures while providing natural beauty and many other environmental benefits to human residents.

As a gardener, your role in creating these wildlife corridors is to design your plantings to provide food, water, and shelter for local wildlife. The plants should not be just any plants, but instead, plants native to your specific region and area. As an entomologist, Dr. Tallamy puts great emphasis on the importance of insect herbivores, especially caterpillars, in maintaining local biodiversity. You won’t help wildlife if you don’t provide them with food, and caterpillars and other plant-eating insect “pests” are one of the most important food sources in any single ecosystem. Pound for pound, bugs provide more protein than beef, and they are an excellent source of fat and other nutrients as well. Everything from other insects and arthropods up to foxes and black bears eats insects. They are especially critical for gardeners hoping to attract birds. In North America, 96% of terrestrial birds feed their young almost entirely on insects, no matter what dietary preferences they might exhibit as adults.

Healthy populations of insect herbivores are critical to maintaining biodiversity, but if you want to increase the population of insect herbivores in your yard, you need to understand that 90% of insect herbivores are highly specialized. Some feed on only one species of plant in the world. Not surprisingly, most insect herbivores are specialized to the particular plants they evolved with: the plants native to their region. Dr. Tallamy rolls out data from a number of studies showing the remarkable difference between the wildlife populations (both insects and the birds, mammals, and other creatures that feed on them) sustained by alien ornamental plants versus native plants. For one striking example, the common reed, a Eurasian import to America that has become a noxious weed in some regions, supports over 170 species of herbivorous insects in Eurasia. In North America, it supports 5, despite having been imported to North America hundreds of years ago by early colonists. In contrast, the oak genus, which includes both native and alien species, supports well over 500 types of caterpillar alone.

Many types of alien ornamental plants are completely useless to American wildlife because they are simply not recognized as food. Others, which may share a genus with a native American species, can be more helpful, but even this is not guaranteed. In the 80 million years since the Norway maple, a popular non-native shade tree in American gardens, split from sugar maples, red maples, silver maples, and other native American maple species, the two groups diverged enough that most insects who can consume native maples can no longer utilize the European maple.

But, some of you might be saying, isn’t that a GOOD thing? I don’t want my plants to be all munched up! The truth is that in a diverse and sustainable natural ecosystem, foliage loss is generally insignificant despite a greater numbers of munching insect. Why? Because greater plant diversity supports not only a greater variety of herbivores, it also supports a greater variety of predators, who keep their populations in check. In recent years, studies have demonstrated that organic farms, which support biodiversity and encourage beneficial insects and other animals as a significant part of their pest control strategies, can out-produce conventional monoculture-based agriculture, which relies on powerful insecticides that kill beneficial insects as well as pest, and which become less effective every year. In 1948, when pesticide use was in its infancy, farmers used approximately 50 million pounds of pesticides, and suffered crop losses of about 7 percent. In 2000, they used nearly a billion pounds of pesticides, yet suffered crop losses of 13 percent. The same principle holds true for backyard landscapes.

After laying the philosophical and scientific foundations of his argument, Dr. Tallamy provides detailed and helpful information on a number of the plants that support the greatest levels of insect, and therefore arthropod, bird, amphibian, reptile, and mammal diversity. He also includes tables listing host plants for many common butterfly and moth species, suggestions for regionally appropriate plants, and many other practical guidelines and suggestions.

I strongly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in wildlife, ecology, and gardening, and especially to those who wish to “make a difference” in their own backyards. Dr. Tallamy demonstrates convincingly that a landscaping revolution might just save the world… and it begins in our own backyards.

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My rating: (4 / 5)