Birds, Butterflies, Toads, Turtles: Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
Eft (Photo by Dennis Quinn, CTHerpConsultant.com )
Spotted salamander (Photo by Dennis Quinn, CTHerpConsultant.com )
Many of us remember chasing fireflies on summer nights as children. In our family, it was a Fourth of July ritual. Others wistfully recall listening to hoot-owls, and finding frogs, toads, turtles, newts, salamanders, and, yes, snakes.
Are they gone forever, like childhood? They don't have to be.
"The key to a wildlife-friendly landscape is a diversity of food and shelter, and a water supply," says Peter Picone, a wildlife biologist at DEEP Wildlife Division at Sessions Woods in Burlington. "Unfortunately, those elements are harder to find in urban and suburban landscapes today."
Luckily, it's not difficult to do better. Here are seven ways we can be like Mr. Rogers and ask, "Won't you be my neighbor?"
1. Imagine that grocery stores opened reliably from April to June but only sporadically from July to March. Those are difficult circumstances, but very similar to the experience of many pollinators.
"Consider the bees, for example," says Picone. "Bumblebees emerge in very early spring to forage and build nests. Other bees forage much later, some as late as early November. But all these bees are important pollinators and need food sources at least six months of the year." The same is true of other pollinators, which many people are surprised to learn include wasps, ants, hummingbirds, bats, beetles, butterflies, and moths.
Remedy: Make sure something is in bloom throughout the growing season. Allow some flowers and grasses to stand through winter.
2. We've all met children who eat only a few foods; they're called picky eaters. Among insects, picky eaters are called "feeding specialists." The monarch butterfly caterpillar is their poster child, as it requires leaves of the milkweed genus, Asclepias. The monarch is only one of many specialists, however. Picone recalls the first time he saw a flurry of wood nymph butterflies scatter from a patch of little bluestem, a native grass. "I was surprised to learn that little bluestem hosts wood nymph larvae," he says. Little bluestem and other native bunching grasses also provide nesting material and habitat for native bees.
Remedy: "Variety is so important," says Picone. "Mix native trees, shrubs, perennials, or annuals at different heights, with successive blossoms."
3. Think small. Tiny creatures can't outrun a lawn tractor or avoid the power of a leafblower. "The less you mow and blow, the safer it is for small ground dwellers," says Picone.
Remedy: One solution is to replace a conventional lawn with a low-mow lawn and mow it just a few times each year. Another idea: Replace lawns altogether where they are not needed or do not grow easily. It will be a kinder environment for box turtles, toads, salamanders, newts, and other small reptiles and amphibians.
4. Imagine you are a nighttime critter, like a firefly or a bat. You count on darkness to tell you when and where to find a mate or forage for food. According to the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, nighttime lighting interferes with fireflies' love lives. What a heartbreaker! According to Firefly.org, fireflies lay their eggs on leaves. When we take leaf litter away, the eggs go with it. Furthermore, leaf litter is habitat for fireflies in their early stages. Want to encourage fireflies? Dim the lights. Leave the leaves (and see 'Additional Info'). Bats are voracious mosquito-eaters, but night light interrupts their habits, too. Ditto for some moths.
Remedy: Adopt some lighting ideas from the International Dark Skies Association (see 'Additional Info').
5. Like us, all creatures need water. Small puddles are right for butterflies. Toads and fireflies like the moist environment of a shallow puddle, too. Frogs benefit from immersion, so larger puddles or ponds work better for them. Keep in mind that most amphibians rely on surface water for some portion of their reproductive cycle, too. Many birds and dragonflies, on the other hand, visit fountains and birdbaths three to five feet above the ground level.
Remedy: Give them all some H20.
6. Imagine that our lumber supplies disappeared, and no one could build or repair their homes. That's not unlike the plight of many creatures when they can't find leaf litter, dead standing trees, or fallen logs. Picone suggests these "dead" materials are full of life-giving resources. For instance, he recalls the time a trunk snapped on a gray birch in his yard. "The following spring, I found a chickadee raising a brood in the hollow she made at the top of the break," he says. Owls and other raptors use standing dead trees to scan for prey. Some owls nest exclusively in standing dead trees. Decaying wood is also a source of insects, mosses, lichens, and fungi—a regular snackpack for wildlife.
Remedy: Leave some deadwood in place.
7. Imagine cooking a chicken for your family, then learning the hard way the chicken had eaten something that makes everyone sick. That's what happens when an owl or hawk eats a poisoned rodent. Likewise, some fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides can harm or kill birds and other small creatures.
Remedy: The remedy here is simple: reduce or eliminate chemicals in the landscape.
If you're wondering what to do when animals invade your space and become pests, Picone suggests that we learn ways of preventing invasions.
"We often find many more raccoons and skunks per square mile in an urban setting than in the wild. Sometimes, we inadvertently subsidize animals," says Picone. He suggests, for instance, we place wire enclosures below porches, decks, and sheds, and over attic vents. Don't leave food trash in unsecured trash cans. Keep meat, fish, and bones out of compost piles.
Picone reminds us that even a small amount of change is helpful. "If you can devote even a square yard to habitat improvement, you will make a difference," he says.
Enhancing Your Backyard Habitat for Wildlife by Picone is a free download at bit.ly/backyard-wildlife.
Fireflies: xerces.org/publications/guidelines/conserving-jewels-of-night & firefly.org/build-firefly-habitat
Birdhouse patterns: bit.ly/Cornell-bird-boxes
Darken skies: darksky.org
Photo 1: Eft; Photo 2: Spotted salamander. Photos by Dennis Quinn, CTHerpConsultant.com