Mary Meyer, Extension Horticulturist and Professor
Grasses, especially native grasses, can attract a wide range of wildlife and insects. While you might first think of the cover grasses provide in summer and winter, they also supply food for many grassland birds and are critical for butterfly larva food. Planting a prairie gives you the best environment for wildlife habitat; however, you can still make an impact with grouping 2-4 kinds of grass and using 3-5 plants of each kind. You could even try a stylized prairie by grouping the grasses in drifts similar to a traditional border. Diversity in a garden not only looks good, but can attract a wider variety of insects and birds. Leaving the grasses standing in winter can provide cover and winter shelter to wildlife. We rarely think of grasses being attractive, let alone critical for butterflies, but many species of skippers, satyrs, pearly eyes, wood nymphs, and browns, REQUIRE grasses and sedges as larval food, so these plants attract a number of butterflies as sites to lay their eggs.
Photo 1: A skipper butterfly rests on feather reedgrass. Skippers are a large group of butterflies whose larvae feed on grasses.
Grasslands, which not surprisingly, are predominately grasses, have lost 1,000s of acres to development and agriculture, resulting in drastic declines in grassland birds. Of the 37 species of grassland birds that appear to be reasonably well monitored by the North American Breeding Bird Survey, 32 are demonstrating some form of decline, while only 5 are experiencing some form of increase (Sauer, 2005). Habitat loss is the main reason cited for decline in these grassland species. Adding native grasses in your garden can increase the diversity of your garden and provide a home for native butterflies and birds.
Inviting wildlife into your garden is great especially if it's birds, butterflies, honey bees and other pollinators. What about mice, ticks, snakes and mosquitoes? Yes, this 'less desirable' wildlife lives in grasslands and is all part of nature! Making sure your home is properly sealed from openings for wildlife, wearing protective clothing when walking in tall grass, eliminating standing water for breeding mosquitoes, and mowing paths through areas you want to keep natural are precautions and means for living with the less favorite forms of wildlife.
Click the link below to see table 1 which lists common native grasses and the range of wildlife these plants can attract.
Species Fact Sheets: http://plants.usda.gov/
BirdLife International. 2004. Grassland birds are declining in North America. Presented as part of the BirdLife State of the world's birds website. Available from: http://www.birdlife.org/datazone/sowb/casestudy/63.
Sauer, J. R., J. E. Hines & J. Fallon, 2005. The North American Breeding Bird Survey, Results and Analysis 1966 - 2004. Version 2005.2. USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Centre, Laurel, MD