Backyard Buffet: Native Plants for Wildlife

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Native plants provide the best nectar sources for butterflies like this beautiful Monarch. In addition, many native insects can only reproduce on specific native plants.

I started this blog to celebrate our beautiful planet and the amazing diversity of life with which we share it, and hopefully, to inspire others to do the same. When we celebrate and appreciate the world around us, we want to take care of it. The effort we make, if only in our own backyard, makes a difference. Pretty soon, I will have a new backyard and with it, an incredible opportunity to create a haven for wildlife.

At the end of this year, my family will be moving to a 1.6 acre lot–a small patch of woods and open meadow along a creek. To make things even better, our property is adjacent to a large park with wooded trails and a lake. Although it is located in the same suburban neighborhood where we currently live, it feels a world away. I can’t wait to be settled in the home we are building, but more than that, I can’t wait to be settled in my own little nature sanctuary. So far, we’ve seen foxes and deer, numerous species of birds (including a resident Red-tailed Hawk), and scads of pollinating insects. One reason we have such an abundance and diversity of wildlife is the variety of native plants on the property.

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The leaves of Hearts-a-bursting are readily eaten by deer and rabbits, and the berries are consumed by birds.

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Goldenrod is a favorite of the American Goldfinch, and a number of other bird and mammal species dine on its seeds as well.

The lot we’ll soon call home has become overgrown with years of disuse, but in that disuse, it has become useful for the wildlife that shares the land with us. The meadow is covered with native grasses and wildflowers like heath aster, goldenrod, blue mistflower, and boneset, attracting many species of butterflies and birds. Splashes of jewelweed along the creek beckon the hummingbirds, and hearts-a-bursting bushes offer a bounty for woodland mammals and birds. The calls of nuthatches and chickadees resound from the tops of pines and oaks, and the dead tree that stands at the back of the property bears the marks of many woodpecker feasts. Aside from removing a few invasive exotic plants, I plan to leave the lot relatively untouched.

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Heath Aster is a favorite of butterflies like this Fiery Skipper.

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Jewelweed, which blooms in late summer and fall, helps migrating hummingbirds fatten up for their journey to Central America.

What we grow in our own backyards can profoundly affect the diversity of life around us. Non-native butterfly bushes, for example, are touted as excellent nectar plants, but cannot support the reproduction of a single species of butterfly in North America. Native plants are much better at sustaining biodiversity, which is crucial to the health of our planet and our very existence.  In contrast, the typical American yard, comprised of tidy, mowed grass and non-native flowering plants and shrubs, provides very little benefit to wildlife and actually does harm to the environment. Here are a few facts about lawns that may surprise you:

  • Lawn grasses are not native to the North American continent and make poor habitat for wildlife.
  • Lawn grasses and exotic (non-native) plants reduce or eliminate insects available for insectivorous birds, as well as for other birds when they are feeding nestlings.
  • Acre for acre, the American lawn receives four times as much chemical pesticide as any U.S. farmland, killing an estimated seven million birds each year.
  • Phosphorus runoff from lawn fertilizer causes algae blooms that suck oxygen out of our waterways, killing aquatic life.
  • During summer months, as much as 60% of municipal water usage goes to lawns. (In a time when much of our nation is facing catastrophic drought, water is a resource we should be using wisely.)
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Blue Mistflower produces dense flower clusters and covers the ground with a matt of leaves. I’ll take this over a traditional lawn any day!

Plants and animals share a profound connection. Plants provide food and clean air to breath, as well as sustain wildlife. Wildlife, in turn, offers a number of tangible and invaluable services to people–such as pollination, seed dispersal, pest control, and sanitation. We can’t afford to be careless about protecting our earth and the life we share it with.  We are currently living during the “sixth mass extinction,” the greatest extinction period since dinosaurs were wiped off the planet, so we can’t act too soon.

So, start with your own backyard–it needn’t be large to make a difference! Add some beautiful native plants to your landscape that will attract more butterflies, birds, and other wildlife. Learn more about backyard wildlife sanctuary certification programs in your area, and have your yard certified as an example for others. You’ll be doing yourself and the earth a favor. In the wise words of anthropologist Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”  _____________________________________________________________________

An incredible and beautiful book about the connections between native plants and healthy ecosystems is Doug Tallamy’s Bringing Nature Home.

Many states have native plant societies which can help you learn more about the best plants to grow in your area. To learn about native plants in Georgia, including the best places to buy them, check out the Georgia Native Plant Society.

A wonderful blog about gardening with native plants is The Humane Gardener.

 

 

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Snowjam 2014: Birds, Beeches, and Blue Sky

Atlanta doesn’t see a lot of snowfall, but when it does, it’s a major event. A recent snow here, “Snowjam 2014,” made national news as a panicked city shut down government, businesses, and schools, leading to paralyzing traffic jams that stranded people on roadsides and forced them to camp out in gas stations and grocery stores. Yesterday we had a second snowfall (mixed with sleet and freezing rain) that shut down much of the city. Having grown up in New Jersey and Vermont, I find the frenzy and lack of preparedness for snow here to be somewhat unfathomable, but I have enjoyed the excuse to slow down, admire the change of scenery, spend time with my children, and hunker down in warm pajamas. Although the weather this week was dreadful with driving sleet and howling wind, it made for some magical scenery, which we enjoyed from our warm house while making homemade soup and coffee cake.

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Snowjam Sparkle

One of the nicest things about my snow day is that it afforded me the luxury of watching my bird feeders throughout the day–and were they ever busy! (I’m only mildly embarrassed to admit that I stayed in my pajamas all day long, though I did go outside a few times to refill bird feeders.) Even amid driving sleet and icy wind, the birds stayed active. I am always amazed how such small creatures, warm-blooded like ourselves, survive in such wretched weather. One of the ways they do this is by keeping their bellies full. Many species of birds put on an insulating and energy-giving layer of fat in the winter (much like some of us do!), so they spend the majority of their day seeking out fatty food sources—all the more reason to keep those feeders full during bitter cold weather. You’ve probably witnessed another strategy birds use to survive the cold, which is by puffing up into the shape of a little round ball to trap insulating heat close to their bodies. Birds also fight the cold by staying out of the elements, finding cover in dense foliage or cavities, and some species huddle together to share warmth. Some of the smallest and hardiest birds, like chickadees, drop their body temperature more than 20 degrees Fahrenheit at night to save energy. How lucky we are to be able to warm up with a hot cup of cocoa or by turning up our thermostats! Appropriately, my family ended the day by curling up on the couch with blankets and watching the PBS Nature “DUCKumentary.”.

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Female Northern Cardinal puffed up against the cold

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Female Eastern Towhee taking cover from the storm

This morning, sun shining, I woke to sound of a steady drip of ice melting from trees and a thundering crash of snow sliding from the roof. I dressed and readied myself quickly to get outside to hike in the woods at our local park before the magical blanket of snow was gone. My two children, ages 10 and 12, having had their fill of television and video games during the sleet and snow, willingly pulled on their boots to join me. Watching our step as we crunched through the wet snow and keeping our heads down to avoid pelting snow and ice melting from the trees made bird-watching unfavorable. Birdsong filled the air, however, and we were lucky to spot the resident pair of Barred Owls roosting in their favorite pine tree. In the wetlands by the lake, dozens of sparrows were scratching in the mud looking for good things to eat, and a Belted Kingfisher zipped by, sounding his loud, rattling call. What struck me most on this morning’s walk, however, was not the birds, but the trees – their starkness so beautifully accentuated by white snow and blue sky.

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Pondering the climb of the Ladder Tree

American Beech trees were particularly dazzling with coppery leaves fluttering in the breeze and adding a flash of color to the landscape. Young beech trees and many species of oak hold their leaves through the winter, a trait called marescence that may help them weather the hardships of the season. One possible advantage of marescent leaves–defined as “withering but not falling off”–may be that they help the tree withstand stress from cold temperatures and improve water balance. Holding leaves through winter may also provide frost protection for new buds and twigs or deter animals from feeding on them (since dead, dry leaves are less nutritious and palatable). Another theory suggests that by dropping their leaves in spring, beech trees are delivering an organic mulch at the time when it is most needed by the growing parent tree. I like the suggestion of Michael Snyder, a Vermont forester, who suggests that marescence may be “helpful to trees living in dry, cold, deer-infested environments,” but that because all trees evolved from evergreens, it may also be a “sign that beech and oak are evolutionarily delayed, still on their way to becoming fully deciduous from their more evergreen past” (northernwoods.org). Whatever the reason, the beautiful golden hues the beech leaves added to our walk today was not overlooked.

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Beech trees and blue sky

We returned home with wet hats and cold feet. The kids settled in with a cup of cocoa, while I took a hot shower before putting my pajamas back on, pouring a second cup of coffee and sitting down to work. Though the cold lingers long this winter and snowy weather has kept us from our regular routines, what gifts Mother Nature constantly provides.

Back to the Wild

Much of the work involved in wildlife rehabilitation isn’t interesting or glamorous. Actually, a lot of it is downright gross. I learned that fact my first week as a volunteer at AWARE wildlife center when my trainer Tammi asked me to cut up a dead rat for an injured vulture, testing my mettle for dirty work from day one. Cleaning soiled enclosures, washing dirty dishes, processing filthy laundry, and other unseemly tasks make up most of the work — essential, but hardly pleasant. Feeding baby animals is gratifying, but it, too, can feel like work when trying to keep up with the demands of numerous animals requiring multiple feedings a day. But rehabilitation has numerous rewards, too. One of the greatest rewards is watching an animal return to the wild, especially when you have been closely involved in its care. I’ve had the privilege of releasing several animals back to the wild, including opossums, raccoons, turtles, geese, songbirds, and hawks, as well as squirrels I have raised (see my post Nutty for Squirrels). Each of these releases was memorable, but perhaps none more so than the long-awaited release of three young coyotes last week at dusk.

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Coyote brothers on the day of their release.
photo credit: Linda Potter

The three orphaned male coyote pups from two different litters were brought to AWARE last spring after their parents had been trapped and killed, a far too frequent occurrence. Understandably, some trappers have a harder time killing defenseless pups, so they occasionally end up in our care (such scruples from people who have been paid to kill the adults, but leave the orphans to be raised at AWARE’s expense!). Because I have been vaccinated against rabies as a precautionary measure, I was one of a few volunteers who regularly fed and cleaned up after the three pups. Every Tuesday for seven months, I delivered their food and cleaned their enclosure (which became increasingly foul as they grew older!), so I witnessed their growth up-close.

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So tiny when they were brought to AWARE as orphans!
photo credit: ajiiiphotography.com

Watching the pups grow from tiny, clumsy, defenseless balls of fur into sleek, wary, and powerful predators was an incredible experience. When the pups were small, I had to fight the impulse to shower them with affection, so I hated having to clap and stomp to scare them back when they occasionally became bold or inquisitive as I delivered their food. (Coyotes that approach humans too closely usually don’t come to a good end, so good rehabilitators are committed to reinforcing their natural fear of humans.) Within a few weeks, the pups’ instinctive wariness of people overrode their curiosity. Even though I’d never done anything more than clap, they were terrified each time I approached to feed and clean, hiding or pacing frantically at the far end of their enclosure. My heart broke to see them, but I knew this fear was necessary. As the coyotes grew, seeing them living a caged life became increasingly difficult. Although AWARE’s enclosures give the animals plenty of room to climb and move around, coyotes need to run free. Until they were full-grown and able to find food, catch prey, and defend themselves, however, releasing them would have been a death sentence. Still, even though they are now full-grown, these youngsters have been forced to strike out on their own at a much younger age than their parents would have required in the wild.

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Instinctively wary of humans, the pups tried to hide whenever I approached their enclosure, even after they’d outgrown their favorite hiding place.

??????????????????????????????? DSCN7753 ???????????????????????????????       When release day arrived, Tammi and I corralled the coyotes into a kennel, wrestling one frightened kid out from a corner, and then loaded them into the back of my minivan. (Never thought I’d count coyote wrangling among my skills!) My good friend and fellow volunteer Kelly joined me on a two hour ride to north Georgia where we had permission to release the small family on private land safe from hunters, cities, and busy roads. When we arrived, we parked near a wooded area and waited a short time for dusk to fall in order to give the coyotes the best chance to explore their surroundings without danger from humans. When the moment seemed right, we lowered the kennel to the ground and opened the door. The coyotes crowded to the back of the cage. Everything must have seemed so strange to them! After a few minutes, I stepped up to the cage and gave it a gentle shake. One coyote dashed out like a shot and was out of sight in the blink of an eye. Twice more I had to shake the cage before the remaining two coyotes were compelled to leave, but once they stepped out, their legs carried them full speed ahead until the fading light obscured them from our view. How fascinating to imagine all the new experiences and adventures they had on that first night of freedom! Did they seek each other out with yips and howls as night fell, or did they venture off in their own directions? What animal did they catch for their first meal? We’ll never know their fate, but we equipped them for the wild the best we could by helping them learn to recognize food sources, catch prey, and avoid humans. We wish them long, healthy lives.

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Ready for release — good luck, boys!

Note: Like a lot of wildlife, coyotes (and foxes) generally aren’t welcome near human development, where they are frequently trapped and destroyed. Relocating these animals (without rehabilitation permits) is against the law in Georgia, and in most states, I suspect. In addition, in many states they can be hunted without restriction at any time of year, and the federal government contributes to the slaughter of tens of thousands of coyotes each year. Efforts to control their numbers have actually only served to increase their population and expand their range, which was once limited to the western United States. Sadly, these animals are grossly misunderstood. Intelligent, adaptable, and family-oriented, coyotes provide important environmental benefits. Though urban sightings are becoming more common as wild habitats are destroyed, coyotes are naturally afraid of humans and rarely approach within thirty feet. With a few precautions, they pose little danger to people and their pets. For more information on these amazing creatures, please check out http://www.coyoteyipps.com

http://www.coyotecoexistence.com

To learn more about AWARE or to make a tax-deductible donation to help wildlife, visit http://www.awarewildlife.org.

My Eco-centric Evolution

I’ve always liked nature and being outside. I was lucky to have a lot of opportunities to enjoy outdoor recreation while growing up (hiking, skiing, team sports, camping, kayaking), and I still get out and stay active. My college years at the University of Vermont instilled a strong sense of environmental responsibility in me, but my career path (teaching) didn’t lead me outdoors. While all of these experiences helped to shape me, I ultimately credit an injured baby chipmunk for starting me on my journey to a living a life more connected with nature.

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A catalyst…

About four years ago in my late thirties, I was having an early “mid-life crisis” of sorts. Like many people, I was feeling like my best years and opportunities were behind me. A homemaker with a devoted, hard-working husband who regularly travels for work, I was filling my time with meeting the demands of the household, chairing PTA fundraisers at my children’s schools, volunteering at a cat shelter, and other activities. My children, then six and eight, were both in school full-time, but I was reluctant to return to a demanding career teaching high school English. Lacking a satisfying professional or creative outlet, I was most definitely feeling lost and depressed.

One afternoon, one of our indoor cats slipped outside when one of the kids left the porch door open. I only noticed the cat had escaped when motion out the window caught my eye and I turned to see her batting a ball of fur. The tiny chipmunk seemed stunned, but unscathed when I raced out and rescued it from the cat, but as night was falling, I decided to keep it safe overnight to make certain it was okay. In the morning, the chipmunk was most definitely NOT okay (cat saliva is toxic), so I quickly searched the internet for a wildlife rescue. I stumbled upon Atlanta Wild Animal Rescue Effort (AWARE) and called to ask if they’d take the chipmunk. Driving to the center with the suffering creature on my lap, I decided I’d ask to volunteer and learn how to rehabilitate wildlife myself, if they would have me. Animals have always been an important part of my life, and I thought learning to work with wildlife might lift me out of the funk I’d been in.

Finding AWARE changed my life. Caring for wildlife that has been injured or orphaned by human activity makes me feel like I’m playing a small role in restoring the balance between people and wildlife. In addition, developing and presenting education programs about wildlife and conservation while working with our non-releasable wildlife ambassadors (raptors, bobcats, skunks, crows, an opossum, a snake, etc.) has taught me a tremendous amount about animals, ecology, and the environment. My experiences at AWARE have motivated me to earn my wildlife rehabilitator’s license and to seek knowledge in related fields. Rehabilitating birds, for example, compelled me to attend a weekend of workshops to learn more about songbirds and raptors. That weekend made an avid birder out of me. I’ve since joined my local Audubon chapter on several bird walks in my area. Last year, I learned to identify over 150 new bird species, and my yard list (number of species seen) is up to 45!                      

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Teaching high school students about wildlife

Going beyond birds and mammals, the Master Naturalist class I recently completed brought to light the interconnectedness of all living things. During one class, Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Haskell spoke about The Forest Unseen, which details the year he spent observing a one-meter patch of forest near his Tennessee home. Our instructor then challenged us to spend time sitting quietly in our own backyards and noting our impressions every day for a week. If a tiny patch of forest could inspire a prize-winning book about the wonders of nature, I was determined to find inspiration in my yard too! I discovered, indeed, that nature constantly offers up gifts if we stop and pay attention — the music of birdsong filling the air, the shade of a leafy canopy, the amusing antics of squirrels, the allure of the moon. Although I’d never thought my small suburban yard was particularly special, I gained a new appreciation for it that week. We can all tune in to the natural world as a source of comfort, inspiration, amazement, reflection, happiness, humor, energy, calm… We need only to step outside, or even just look out the window, and look closely at our surroundings.

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Squirrels can be very amusing.

So this is my mission — to be aware of the wonders found right outside my door and to do my part to take care of them. Hopefully, others will be inspired to do the same. The Senegalese poet Baba Djoum wisely said, “In the end, we conserve only what we love. We will love only what we understand. We will understand only what we are taught.” The more I learn, the more my family tries to live responsibly and healthfully in a way that honors and conserves our planet. My family has adapted to my quirks – like pulling recyclable items out of trash cans and making our own toothpaste – and we’ve given up straws, juice boxes, new plastic bags, and other disposable items (more on these things to come!). We are FAR from perfect, but we are making a start. If we can inspire even a few people, and they inspire a few others, and so on, we will begin to see a significant change. We can do it! Hope you’ll join me in leading an eco-centric life!