Don's Jersey Birding: Not too Early to Plan your Backyard Wildlife Habitat

Planting Milkweed in your backyard can mean survival for the Monarch Butterfly
Photo by Denise Farrell

By Don Torino

I know it is still January and the winter birding is just starting to heat up but on these long cold winter days; as the seed catalogs begin to fill my mailbox, visions of Orioles feeding on my Trumpet vine, Monarch caterpillars chewing on my milkweed and Hummingbirds visiting my backyard Cardinal Flower begin to dance in my head. As the days begin to get a little longer, I find myself combing through my favorite native plant books and imagining what new plants I can add to my backyard wildlife habitat. This spring I will have more room to add some plants to my yard not because I acquired more property but because Hurricane sandy managed to turn most of my yard into a mud hole and only spared a few shrubs to just remind me that something  may still be alive in my once lush Moonachie backyard.

Sometimes I am not sure which I love more:  our birds or our native plants. After a long day of trying to spot warblers about 80 feet high in a tree, I think for sure it is plants, at least they don’t fly away when I am trying to ID them or take their picture.

Photo courtesy of Don Torino

So, why start a backyard wildlife habitat in the first place? And why use native plants? Unfortunately, as we lose too many natural places here in New Jersey and as the habitat we do have becomes more fragmented, our backyard habitats become more and more important to migrating birds, butterflies, and pollinators. The home environments have become vital stepping stones and rest stops for birds that may be passing through your little backyard stopping for food, water, and resting just long enough to continue their long journey to their breeding or wintering grounds thousands of miles away. Your yard could be the only nesting place for the tiny House Wren for miles around and your backyard habitat may be one of the last places that have milkweed in your neighborhood, the only plant that enables the regal Monarch butterfly to survive.

The foundation of any habitat, whether it is in the rain forest of Brazil or a backyard in Paramus, is the native plant. Our plants and wildlife have evolved for eons together, they recognize them and depend on them. Our natives get their berries when our wildlife most needs them most. They attract the insects that are so important to our nesting birds and native plants make the backyard a healthier place for both you and our wildlife by requiring less water, fertilizers, and  pesticides. The use of non-native plants puts a halt to this ecosystem. The circle of life becomes a dead end but introducing natives will be like turning on a light switch in a dark room, plant them and they will come…and keep coming.

Native plants are critical for migratory birds such as the Ruby throated Hummingbird.
 Photo by Alice Leurck

When folks ask me where can I buy natives plants  my usual response is “you can buy them where you find them”. Native plants can be found at many local nurseries and even home improvement stores but you need to know what you are looking for. Don’t expect to find a sales person that knows which is native and which is an exotic species so you will need to do your homework. However there are nurseries around the Garden State that specialize in native plants.

The great thing about planning your habitat this far in advance is you will have time to begin your research and there is no better place to start than with a great organization The Native Plant Society of New Jersey. They are a boundless resource and can help you on your way to learning about the plants native to New Jersey and where you might find a nursery that carries native plants near you. 

Bergen County Audubon Society has a Native plant list that you can print out to help you on your journey to restore the ecosystem of your backyard

As our winter winds blow, let things like serviceberry, viburnums, and milkweed fill your daydreams and make a resolution to create a positive change in your home landscape that benefits you and our wildlife. John Muir once said “When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.” That could not be truer than when it comes to native plants in our backyards

Don Torino is the President of Bergen County Audubon Society.

Don's Previous Birding Exclusives:


What did you think of this article?

  • No trackbacks exist for this post.

  • 1/15/2013 2:02 PM Patrick B. wrote:
    Hi Don, this post is timely as I just moved into a new home and am planning my backyard habitat. It's exciting to have a blank canvas. Thanks for the helpful links. Sadly, Sandy decimated a lot of the trees in the wooded easement behind my property. The understory is also destroyed from deer. Any suggestions on something I can plant there to help create an understory that the deer won't prefer? Thanks.
    Reply to this
    1. 1/15/2013 5:17 PM Don wrote:
      Hi Pat, thanks for reading . what kind of woodland is it, wet, dry ? very shady or open ? what part of the state ?
      Reply to this
Leave a comment

Submitted comments are subject to moderation before being displayed.


 Email (will not be published)


Your comment is 0 characters limited to 3000 characters.