The news about wildlife can be depressing. Over the last two decades, the monarch butterfly population has fallen by over 80 percent. Since 2007, white nose syndrome has killed over 5 million bats throughout North America. And honeybee populations throughout the country plummeted 44 percent from 2015 to 2016.
The good news is that each of us has a greater chance than ever to make a positive and dramatic impact on the wildlife in our community. It’s as simple as changing how we think about the spaces that surround our homes, whether those are balconies or windowsills, postage-stamp lawns or acres of land. With just a few small tweaks, we can create more welcoming environments for insects, birds, and other creatures. We can each create our own wildlife-friendly yards.
In order to appreciate the benefits of a wildlife-friendly yard, it’s important to first understand the natural processes happening just outside our windows.
In his book Bringing Nature Home, entomology professor Douglas Tallamy describes the transfer of the sun’s energy through our environment. “Nearly every creature on this planet owes its existence to plants,” he writes, “the only organisms capable of capturing the sun’s energy and, through photosynthesis, turning that energy into food for the rest of us.”
The energy captured by plants is then consumed by creatures such as butterflies, songbirds, hummingbirds and bees. Herbivorous, or plant-eating insects, are a particularly important part of the food chain. After they eat the plants that have harnessed the sun’s energy, these insects become food for larger species, including other insects, amphibians, birds and mammals.
“I cannot overemphasize how important insect herbivores are to the health of all terrestrial ecosystems,” Tallamy writes. These insects are “very good at converting plant tissue of all types to insect tissue, and as a consequence they also excel at providing food—in the form of themselves—for other species.”
In other words, a yard full of tasty bugs is a sumptuous buffet for wildlife that we admire, such as birds. Tallamy writes that the number of terrestrial North American bird species that rely on insects and spiders to feed their young is a staggering 96 percent. Even hummingbirds feed their young a diet comprised largely of insects. Without bugs, there would be almost no birds.
The goal of many gardeners, however, has been to eliminate as many insects as possible from their yards. Some may use chemical pesticides to kill insects and unwanted plants.
Unfortunately, these treatments may backfire as pest insects adapt to the chemicals. At the same time, these pesticides may harm insects such as ladybugs and bees (not to mention pets, wild birds and even people).
Along with pesticides, many gardeners rely on insect-resistant, non-native flowers, trees and shrubs to fill their landscapes. While native plants and animals were in Ohio when the Europeans arrived, non-native garden plants, such as Japanese honeysuckle, are imported from other continents specifically because our native insects don’t view them as a food source. What gardeners might not realize is that by eliminating insects’ food source, we also eliminate the larger fauna that feed on them, like birds.
How, then, can those who value wildlife make a difference? Stay tuned: future articles in this series will look at the importance of native plants in a healthy wildlife yard, simple ways you can transform your outdoor spaces to make them more wildlife-friendly, and the positive impact and wild visitors you might see as a result.
For inspiration in the meantime, have a look at the video Build It and They Will Come, which documents some of the visitors attracted to a wildlife-friendly city yard in Ohio. –Meredith Southard
An animal lover since she could shriek the word “doggie,” Meredith Southard has written for national and statewide publications on topics such as wildlife rehabilitation and rescue, conservation dogs, and the animals of Ohio’s wetlands. On warm spring nights she can be found traipsing around vernal pools with a flashlight, looking for salamanders and frogs.
Photo of Ohio wildlife-friendly yard courtesy of www.BackyardHabitat.info