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Attracting wildlife with native plants

blackcapped chickadee with a caterpillar in it's mouth

Invite nature into your backyard

A parent fed up with their child’s persistent use of technology (internet, video games, tablet, you name it!) has decided to pull the plug on their sedentary habits. They strip the devices from their child’s hands and throw them outside and say “Go play!” The child looks around. Before them lays their entire suburban property comprised of lawn. Looking left and right they see their neighbor’s yard, more lawn. To the back of the property where once ran a creek, now buried, is replaced by a smoothly graded ditch draining toward a culvert. This ditch is planted with what? Lawn, of course.

What the above-mentioned situation lacks is diversity, and without diversity, you can’t support a dynamic ecosystem that attracts wildlife. Turfgrass is one of the largest irrigated monoculture crops in the United States. Researchers at the NASA Earth Observatory give a conservative estimate of “three times more acres of lawn in the U.S. than irrigated corn” or about 50,000 square miles of turf. To put those numbers in greater perspective that would be like covering almost all of Illinois in turfgrass.

If you desire to create an opportunity for exploration and learning for others, promote local ecosystem health, or for your sheer enjoyment, then consider creating a landscape that attracts wildlife.

Why wildlife?

For those that continually ward off deer and repair damage caused by squirrels or raccoons, you might shudder at the thought of attracting more wildlife into your yard. However, we’re talking more than just deer. When I speak of wildlife, I am referring to songbirds, butterflies, bees, reptiles, and yes the occasional ruminating mammal.

Our development patterns have significantly fragmented, altered, and eliminated native ecosystems across the U.S. According to an article by entomologist Doug Tallamy, of the total land area in the United States, only about 5% is considered wildlife zones. Tallamy estimates this loss of habitat has imperiled 33,000 species of plants and animals rendering them “functionally extinct”.

Why natives?

Using native plants is the best strategy to attract wildlife. Our birds, insects, reptiles, and mammals evolved right alongside our native grasses and forbs and, for some, their lifecycles are codependent. Take the monarch butterfly as an example. Over millennia the monarch caterpillar developed the ability to withstand the toxic attributes of milkweed, even acquiring the ability to feed on the leaves without triggering the milky sap that gives the plant its name.

I’m sure there are those of you that scoff at the idea of installing plants in your landscape simply to be eaten! Is that what I’m suggesting? Well, yes! But let’s put that statement in perspective. Local wildlife has developed a give-and-take relationship with their respective native plants which have in turn developed elaborate chemical and physical defenses.

Doug Tallamy’s studies at the University of Delaware tracked insect damage on natives vs. non-natives. What they found was that feeding damage was higher on the non-natives. Plus, the damage that was present on native plants was less than 1% in regards to piercing-sucking damage and around 4% with chewing damage, well below the 10% threshold where the typical homeowner notices any damage at all.

Another reason for using native plants is because of an often used alternative to attracting wildlife – feeding them. Birdfeeders aside, it is not recommended to feed wildlife.

  • Wildlife are NOT pets
  • Feeding makes wildlife lose their natural fear of people, often making them a nuisance
  • Animals who depend on people can cause injuries or spread diseases
  • Young wild animals, dependent on humans for food, are less experienced in foraging for food and less likely to survive
  • Wildlife requires a variety of foodstuffs to provide the nutrients required to stay healthy
  • “People” food bears no resemblance to the food animals eat in the wild

Using native plants provides a natural food source and options for shelter and nesting materials. For an animal to pick your yard as a home they must have their basic needs met which include food, water, shelter, and a place to raise their young. Scroll down for a list of recommended native plants.

As I write this article, the goldenrod and boneset are in full bloom and loaded with insects of all shapes and sizes. Meanwhile, yellow finch feast on the seed heads of spent purple coneflowers. After adding native plants, you may value them beyond their aesthetic appeal and instead admire the vast and complex web of life they supports, capturing the awe of a child, forced outside away from technology into a vibrant landscape.

Do you have a wildlife problem or simply want to know more about a particular animal’s needs? Check out our Living with Wildlife website.

Recommended native plants for Illinois

Are natives the only answer to providing wildlife resources? Certainly not! Animals and insects use many non-natives such as hosta or sedum. Yet, to promote local ecology and identity, the following are some Illinois natives recommended in the home landscape.


  • Wild black cherry | Prunus serotina
  • Flowering dogwood | Cornus florida
  • Black gum | Nyssa sylvatica
  • Hackberry | Celtis occidentalis
  • Shagbark hickory | Carya ovata
  • Hophornbeam (ironwood) | Ostrya virginica
  • Sassafras | Sassafras albidum
  • Witch-hazel | Hamamelis virginiana


  • Black chokeberry | Aronia melanocarpa
  • Gray dogwood | Cornus racemose
  • American hazelnut | Corylus americana
  • Leadplant | Amorpha canescens
  • Spicebush | Lindera benzoin


  • Blazing stars | Liatris spp.
  • Black-eyed Susans | Rudbeckia spp.
  • Coneflowers | Echinacea spp.
  • Ironweed | Veronia spp.
  • Joe-Pye weed | Eutrochium spp.
  • Milkweeds | Asclepias spp.
  • Phlox | Phlox spp.
  • New England Aster | Symphyotrichum novae-angliae
  • Wild bergamot | Monarda fistulosa

Good Growing Tip of the Week: Did you know that observing wildlife has a calming effect on our brains? Watching animals, birds, and even the movement of grasses in the wind actually boosts our mood and has a recovery effect for stress.

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Chris Enroth is a horticulture educator with University of Illinois Extension, serving Henderson, McDonough, Knox, and Warren counties since 2012. Chris provides horticulture programming with an emphasis on the home gardener, landscape maintenance personnel, and commercial landscapers. Additional responsibilities include coordinating local county Master Gardener and Master Naturalist volunteers - providing their training, continuing education, advanced training, seasonal events, and organizing community outreach programs for horticulture and conservation assistance/education. In his spare time, Chris enjoys the outdoors, lounging in the garden among the flowers (weeds to most).