Are non-native plants “ecological traps” for birds?

One of the reasons why native plant advocates want the managers of our public lands to destroy non-native plants and replace them with native plants is that they believe native plants provide superior habitat for birds.  However, empirical studies do not support this belief, as we have explained in earlier posts.  Today we will examine an article recently published in an advocacy magazine, making the claim that non-native plants are “ecological traps” for birds:  “Nonnative Plants: Ecological Traps Offering alluring habitat for songbirds, exotic plants may actually decrease the animals’ long-term survival and fitness” (1)

Japanese honeysuckle.  Attribution William Rafti
Japanese honeysuckle. Attribution William Rafti

The article begins auspiciously with the good news that populations of some bird species have increased significantly in recent decades because of the spread of non-native plant species which are valuable sources of food:  “…a 2011 paper, published in the journal Diversity and Distributions, concluding that the number of fruit-eating birds such as cardinals, robins and catbirds tripled during the past three decades in parts of central Pennsylvania due to the spread of nonnative honeysuckles.”  (1)  And then the article attempts to contradict this good news by turning to the usual nativist caveats.

Generalists vs. Specialists

Nativists claim that the animal kingdom is divided into generalists and specialists.  The generalists are theoretically omnivores—they have a varied diet—and so depriving them of native plants will not prevent their survival.  Specialists, on the other hand, are dependent upon a narrow range of plant or animal species for survival.  We are expected to believe that specialists far outnumber generalists and that we doom them to extinction when one particular species of native plant or animal is unavailable to them.

Monarch butterfly caterpillar - Creative Commons - Share Alike
Monarch butterfly caterpillar – Creative Commons – Share Alike

Doug Tallamy is the purveyor of the generalist vs. specialist overstatement.  We have critiqued his assumptions in an earlier post.  In a nutshell, there are few mutually exclusive relationships in nature because they are a risky evolutionary strategy.  The plant or animal that is dependent upon one other species is significantly less likely to survive in the long term than an animal with more dietary options.  The perception that there are immutable relationships between insects and plants also underestimates the speed of adaptation and evolution, particularly of insects with large populations and short lifespans.

For example, a bird that eats insects usually eats all manner of insects as well as spiders.  They are not dependent solely upon caterpillars as Mr. Tallamy seems to believe:  “…warblers and chickadees rely on caterpillars for 90 percent of their diet during the breeding season, eating hundreds per day. ‘That’s a lot of insects,’ Tallamy says. ‘If you don’t have those insects, you don’t have the birds.’” (1)

According to Cornell Ornithology Lab–America’s most prestigious research institution for birds–warblers and chickadees have a much more varied diet than Mr. Tallamy believes.  (We chose specific species with ranges and abundant populations in Delaware where Mr. Tallamy lives.  However, the diet of all species of chickadees and warblers are similar.)

  • Black-capped Chickadee:  “In winter Black-capped Chickadees eat about half seeds, berries, and other plant matter, and half animal food (insects, spiders, suet, and sometimes fat and bits of meat from frozen carcasses). In spring, summer, and fall, insects, spiders, and other animal food make up 80-90 percent of their diet. At feeders they take mostly sunflower seeds, peanuts, suet, peanut butter, and mealworms.” (2)
  • Orange-crowned Warbler:  “insects and spiders.” (2) Most insects are not caterpillars and many are not herbivores.
Black-capped Chickadee - Creative Commons - Share Alike
Black-capped Chickadee – Creative Commons – Share Alike

No evidence that insects require native plants

Mr. Tallamy is focused on caterpillars because they are herbivores, that is, they eat plants.  Just as he believes that the birds need native plants, he also believes that plant-eating insects need native plants.  However, Mr. Tallamy disproved his own theory about an immutable relationship between native plants and insects when he supervised a graduate student whose thesis concluded: 

Erin [Reed] compared the amount of damage sucking and chewing insects made on the ornamental plants at six suburban properties landscaped primarily with species native to the area and six properties landscaped traditionally.  After two years of measurements Erin found that only a tiny percentage of leaves were damaged on either set of properties at the end of the season….Erin’s most important result, however, was that there was no statistical difference in the amount of damage on either landscape type.” (3)

This empirical study, supervised by Mr. Tallamy, was unable to find evidence that there are more plant-eating insects in a native garden than in a landscaped garden of non-native cultivars.  Yet, Mr. Tallamy continues to claim that insects require native plants and birds require those insects for their survival:  “Tallamy’s research shows that birds also may be harmed indirectly because nonnative plants affect insects. He has found that the number and diversity of plant-eating insects, especially caterpillars, drops dramatically when exotic plants invade…[Tallamy said,] ‘My prediction is that birds that specialize on insect herbivores will take a bigger hit than those that eat other insects,’” (1)

The study by Mr. Tallamy’s student about the relationship between native plants and insects is not the only empirical evidence that his assumption is incorrect.  We have published several articles about local studies that have found no such relationship:

Native plant advocates have also offered “evidence” of insect populations in the local eucalyptus forest.  UCSF produced a video to promote their original plan to destroy most of the eucalypts on Mount Sutro (now on hold indefinitely).  An arborist shows us eucalyptus leaves that have been chewed by insects.  He claims that a drastically thinned forest will be healthier because it will have fewer insect predators.  So, there are insects in the eucalyptus forest when it suits native plant advocates’ purposes and there are no insects in the eucalyptus forest when it does not.  They want more insects when they are advocating on behalf of birds and they want fewer insects when they are demanding that trees be destroyed.  It’s rather confusing.

Insects ARE important to birds

We agree with Mr. Tallamy that insects are very important to birds because they are a major source of food, especially during the nesting season when their high-protein content is vital to nestlings.  Therefore, we believe that Mr. Tallamy should join us in making climate change our highest environmental priority.  Because insects are cold-blooded, they are particularly vulnerable to the extreme weather conditions associated with climate change.  They cannot adjust their body temperature as warm-blooded animals can in response to such fluctuations in temperature.  A recent study predicts devastating consequences for insect populations in coming decades:  “Our predictions are that some species [of insects] would disappear entirely in the next few decades, even when they have a fairly wide distribution that currently covers hundreds of kilometers.” (4)

We believe that a single-minded focus on native plants is misguided because in a rapidly changing climate the entire concept of “native” becomes meaningless.  Just as insects are unlikely to survive radical changes in temperature, the ranges of native plants must change if species are to survive.

Stay tuned for Part II

In our next post, we will continue our critique of the article that theorizes that non-native plants are “ecological traps.”  We will tell our readers about the published research that contradicts statements in the article about predation of cardinal nests in non-native honeysuckle.  The author of one of the studies is quoted in this article, saying something completely different than her own published study.  It’s an intriguing contradiction.

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(1)    John Carey, “Nonnative Plants: Ecological Traps Offering alluring habitat for songbirds, exotic plants may actually decrease the animals’ long-term survival and fitness,” National Wildlife Federation, January 14, 2013

(2)    Cornell Ornithology Laboratory, Guide to Birds

(3)     Tallamy, Doug, “Flipping the Paradigm:  Landscapes that Welcome Wildlife,” chapter in Christopher, Thomas, The New American Landscape, Timber Press, 2011

(4)    “Extreme weather caused by climate change decides distribution of insects, study shows,”  Science Digest, February 20, 2014

Doug Tallamy refutes his own theory without changing his ideology

In our debates with native plant advocates, the scientist who is most often quoted to support their beliefs is Doug Tallamy who wrote an influential book, Bringing Nature Home:  How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in our Gardens.    Professor Tallamy is an entomologist at the University of Delaware.

Professor Tallamy’s hypothesis is that native insects require native plants because they have evolved together “over thousands of generations.”  Because insects are an essential ingredient in the food web, he speculates that the absence of native plants would ultimately result in “ecological collapse” as other animals in the food web are starved by the loss of insects. (1)

Professor Tallamy freely admits that his theory is based on his anecdotal observations in his own garden, not on scientific evidence:  “How do we know the actual extent to which our native insect generalists are eating alien plants?  We don’t until we go into the field and see exactly what is eating what.  Unfortunately, this important but simple task has been all but ignored so far.”  (1)

This research has now been done to Professor Tallamy’s satisfaction by a Master’s Degree student under his direction.  The report of that study does not substantiate Professor Tallamy’s belief that insects eat only native plants.  In his own words, Professor Tallamy now tells us:

“Erin [Reed] compared the amount of damage sucking and chewing insects made on the ornamental plants at six suburban properties landscaped primarily with species native to the area and six properties landscaped traditionally.  After two years of measurements Erin found that only a tiny percentage of leaves were damaged on either set of properties at the end of the season….Erin’s most important result, however, was that there was no statistical difference in the amount of damage on either landscape type.” (2)

Corroborating Evidence

This finding that insects are equally likely to eat native and non-native plants may be new to Professor Tallamy, but it isn’t new to the readers of Million Trees.  We have reported many studies which are consistent with this finding.

Anise Swallowtail butterfly in non-native fennel
The English garden, where plants from all over the world are welcome

Specialists vs. Generalists

When debating with native plant advocates, one quickly learns that the debate isn’t ended by putting facts such as these on the table.  In this case, the comeback is, “The insects using non-native plants are generalists.  Insects that are specialists will not make that transition.”  Generalists are insects that eat a wide variety of plants, while specialists are limited to only one plant or plants in the same family which are chemically similar.

Professor Tallamy offers in support of this contention that only “…about 10 percent of the insect herbivores in a given ecosystem [are not specialists],” implying that few insects are capable of making a transition to another host plant.

However, categorizing insects as specialists or generalists is not a dichotomy.  At one extreme, there are some insects that choose a single species of plant as its host or its meal.  At the other extreme, there are insects that feed on more than three different plant families.  It is only that extreme category which has been estimated at only 10% of all phytophagous (plant-eating) insects.  The majority of insects are in the middle of the continuum.  They are generally confined to a single plant family in which the plants are chemically similar.

Putting that definition of “specialist” as confined to one plant family into perspective, let us consider the size of plant families.  For example, there are 20,000 plant members of the Asteraceae family, including the native sagebrush (Artemisia) and the non-native African daisy.  In other words, the insect that confines its diet to one family of plants is not very specialized. 

Soapberry bug on balloon vine. Scott Carroll. UC Davis

Professor Tallamy offers his readers an explanation for why specialist insects cannot make the transition from native to non-native plants.  He claims that many non-native plants are chemically unique and therefore insects are unable to adapt to them.  He offers examples of non-native plants and trees which “are not related to any lineage of plants in North America.”  One of his examples is the goldenrain tree (Koelreuteria paniculata).  This is the member of the soapberry (Sapindaceae) family to which the soapberry bug has made a transition from a native plant in the soapberry family in less than 100 generations over a period of 20 to 50 years.  Professor Tallamy’s other examples of unique non-native plant species are also members of large plant families which probably contain native members.  Professor Tallamy is apparently mistaken in his assumption that most or all non-native plants are unique, with no native relatives. 

The pace of evolution

Even if insects are “specialists” we should not assume that their dependence on a native plant is incapable of changing over time.  Professor Tallamy’s hypothesis about the mutually exclusive relationships between native animals and native plants is based on an outdated notion of the slow pace of evolution.  The assumption amongst native plant advocates is that these relationships are nearly immutable.

In fact, evolution continues today and is sometimes even visible within the lifetime of observers.  Professor Tallamy provides his readers with examples of non-native insects that made quick transitions to native plants:

  • The hemlock wooly adelgids from Asia have had a devastating effect on native hemlock forests in the eastern United States.
  • The Japanese beetle introduced to the United States is now eating the foliage of over 400 plants (according to Professor Tallamy), some of which are native (according to the USDA invasive species website).

These insects apparently made transitions to chemically similar native plants without evolutionary adaptation. If non-native insects quickly adapt to new hosts, doesn’t it seem likely that native insects are capable of doing the same?  That is both logical and consistent with our experience.    For example, the native soapberry bug mentioned above has undergone rapid evolution of its beak length to adapt to a new host.

Although Professor Tallamy tells us that the relationship between insects and plants evolved over “thousands of generations,” he acknowledges much faster changes in plants when he explains why non-native plants become invasive decades after their arrival:  “Japanese honeysuckle, for example, was planted as an ornamental for 80 years before it escaped cultivation.  No one is sure why this lag time occurs.  Perhaps during the lag period, the plant is changing genetically through natural selection to better fit its new environment.”  Does it make sense that the evolution of plants would be much more rapid than the evolution of insects?  Since the lifetime of most insects is not substantially longer than the lifetime of most plants, we don’t see the logic in this assumption.

Beliefs die hard

Although Professor Tallamy now concedes that there is no evidence that insects are dependent upon native plants, he continues to believe that the absence of native plants will cause “ecological collapse.”  In the same book in which he reports the study of his graduate student, Professor Tallamy repeats his mantra:  “…our wholesale replacement of native plant communities with disparate collections of plants from other parts of the world is pushing our local animals to the brink of extinction—and the ecosystems that sustain human societies to the edge of collapse.”

This alarmist conclusion is offered without providing examples of any animals being “pushed to the brink of extinction.”  In fact, available scientific evidence contradicts this alarmist conclusion. (3)

Here are more articles about the mistaken theories of Doug Tallamy:

  • Doug Tallamy claims that non-native plants are “ecological traps for birds.”  HERE is an article that disputes that theory.
  • Doug Tallamy claims that native and non-native plants in the same genus are not equally useful to wildlife, but he is wrong about that.  Story is HERE.
  • Doug Tallamy advocates for the eradication of butterfly bush (Buddleia) because it is not native.  He claims it is not useful to butterflies, but he is wrong about that.  Story is HERE.
  • Doug Tallamy publishes a laboratory study that he believes contradicts field studies, but he is wrong about that.  Story is HERE.
  • Doug Tallamy speaks to Smithsonian Magazine, Art Shapiro responds, Million Trees fills in the gaps:  HERE
  • Doug Tallamy’s Nature’s Best Hope perpetuates the myth that berry-producing non-native plants must be eradicated because they are less nutritious than the berries of native plants.  Available HERE
  • Doug Tallamy believes we must prevent hybridization.  Hybridization is a natural process that increases biodiversity and enables plants and animals to adapt to changes in the environment.  Available HERE.
  • There is NO evidence to support Doug Tallamy’s claim that insect populations are declining because of the existence of non-native plants.  Available HERE.

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(1)    Tallamy, Doug, Bringing Nature Home, Timber Press, 2007

(2)    Tallamy, Doug, “Flipping the Paradigm:  Landscapes that Welcome Wildlife,” chapter in

Christopher, Thomas, The New American Landscape, Timber Press, 2011

(3)    Erle C. Ellis, et. al., “All Is Not Loss:  Plant Biodiversity in the Anthropocene,” http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0030535