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Bringing Nature Home by Dr. Douglas Tallamy

dfWhen the educational director of a state Audubon Society, a biologist, questioned whether or not native plants support more insects than alien plants, it was clear that at least some in the world of bird conservation are on the wrong track. Dr. Douglas Tallamy’s wonderful new book, Bringing Nature Home (Timber Press, Inc., 2007, $27.95), demonstrates the importance of native plants to healthy, viable terrestrial ecosystems.

The good professor says in his preface, “Occasionally we encounter a concept so obvious and intuitive that we have never thought to articulate it, so close to our noses that we could not see it, so entangled with our everyday experiences that we did not recognize it.” The concept is that because there is too little space left for the wildlife we care about and love to watch, we must make our yards friendlier to the birds, frogs, butterflies and other wild creatures with which we share this planet. With roughly forty million acres of land in American yards, his is a compelling argument.

Tallamy, who heads up the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at University of Delaware, appeals to the gardener in all of us to convert our personal landscapes. Although he says that Bringing Nature Home is not a “how-to” book, in a way, it is precisely that. While he does not attempt to instruct us on which plants to use, he takes us step by important step through the crucial reasoning around why we should – indeed, why we must – return as much of our personal property to native plants as possible. We must do that because native plants do (in spite of the above-mentioned biologist’s doubt) support the insects upon which those same birds, frogs, butterflies (and all the rest of us for that matter) depend.

Dr. Tallamy discovered that link when he and his wife purchased 10 acres in southeastern Pennsylvania. The land, previously farmed, was filled with alien plants such as autumn olive, multiflora rose, Bradford pears and others. The vegetation was so dense they had to cut trails through it in order to get inside of it. Then he took a walk along the trails to look for insects. He found virtually none except on the few natives struggling to survive under the stranglehold of invasives. It was a defining moment for him and he began to present programs to educate the general public about his discovery. The pamphlet he made up to hand out at those presentations eventually grew into the book.

Birders who still support the idea that autumn olive is good for birds – and there are a lot of them out there – will gain insight from the following, “…the foliage of autumn olive is inedible for almost all native insect herbivores. A field rich in goldenrod, Joe-Pye weed, boneset, milkweed, black-eyed Susan, and dozens of other productive perennials supplies copious amounts of insect biomass for birds to rear their young. After it has been invaded by autumn or Russian olive, that same field is virtually sterile.”

Filled with beautiful photographs of insects, plants, birds, and hard data presented in an easy to read style, Bringing Nature Home is a book every conservationist should read carefully. And every conservation educator must, as Tallamy himself has done, incorporate its message into his or her material and presentations.

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