When I was a young man, I listened as Joni Mitchell cried out that we “don’t know what we’ve got till it’s gone.” Her lament that “they paved paradise and put up a parking lot” resonated with many baby boomers. Perhaps you are more familiar with the Counting Crows cover of Big Yellow Taxi. No matter the version, the words of the song continue to speak to those of us who are concerned that we are losing the birds and the bees.
I am no longer that young man and I have come to realize that in modern suburbia, we haven’t paved paradise with concrete so much as with vast expanses of turfgrass. In fact, according to the U. S. Department of Agriculture, lawns have surpassed croplands as the most extensive managed landscape in this country. Though this approach to suburban landscape may be somewhat more visually appealing than concrete, it doesn’t provide much more welcome space for birds and other wildlife than a parking lot.
Many species of wildlife are experiencing decreasing populations because their “homes” are disappearing (both the places and the plants). What I haven’t always seen so clearly is that the home of wildlife is also my home. More often I have conceived of the proper habitat for wildlife to be ‘out there.’ Even when, in times past, I looked out over the broad expanse of lawn in front of my home and didn’t see much in the way of wildlife, I wasn’t concerned because I had assigned the need for conservation of birds and other wildlife to the professionals. That’s why we fund nature preserves and parks, I thought.
But I was living in a world not grounded in reality. The world is rapidly becoming more urban. It is becoming clear that if we are going to provide suitable habitat for birds and other wildlife, we need to incorporate it into our urban and suburban landscapes. How do we do that? Where will it happen? To begin with, it needs to happen in our yards. The fact is that individually owned private property (our yards) accounts for 25 to 35 percent of the landscape, and nearly half of the total green space in urban areas. Though our yards cover a relatively small amount of land compared to the total land area on earth, they can have a significant impact on the biodiversity of our cities and suburbs. The power to provide suitable habitat for birds is in our hands.
A little research into recent scientific publications showed me that the fragmented landscape of my suburban neighborhood did not need to be lifeless. It is possible to have rich and abundant bird life in my community. Even in my yard. Even without a feeder.
Growing suburbs reduce native vegetation and sever connections between natural areas. However, suburban growth can also have some benefits for birds and other wildlife by providing places to hide from predators, increasing available water,
supplementing food resources, providing new nest sites, and increasing diversity. There have been many studies of the impact of urbanization on bird populations. While it may seem reasonable to predict that the variety and number of birds will continually decrease as one moves from the relatively undisturbed forest through the exurbs and suburbs to the urban core, the evidence does not support this assumption. Suburbs can provide suitable habitat for birds because there are more ‘edges’ and more intermediate disturbance that works to increase the diversity of bird populations. There is also a greater diversity of food, some of which is the result of homeowners who provide bird feeders but much of which is created by the choices of home gardeners who plant gardens full of a variety of native plants to attract birds to their yards.
Native plants support significantly greater bird abundance, diversity, and species richness as compared to exotic plants or turf grass. They also have a positive influence on reproduction. Making the landscape more similar to native habitat by adding layers and increasing the diversity of plants while discouraging empty lawn are things we all can do to encourage a greater variety of wildlife in our communities—including birds.
As I slowly came to realize the contribution I could make toward providing a welcoming habitat for birds in my neighborhood, I began to replace most of the lawn surrounding my home with gardens. These are not just pretty, still life gardens; but gardens that support all kinds of life. I planted seed-bearing plants for the birds—echinacea and Rudbeckia maxima (giant coneflower) and other prairie plants such as prairie dock, cup plant, and ashy sunflowers. I planted viburnums and winterberry hollies as well as serviceberry trees to provide edible fruit for the birds. I also planted native plants that attract pollinators, which will also provide insects the birds will need to raise their young.
We can all have a yard that is for the birds; that will create a better habitat for them. If you are uncertain about how to start improving your own yard or which specific native plants will be most appropriate in your community, start with the Audubon Native Plants Database (https://www.audubon.org/native-plants). It will provide a list of plants native to your zip code so you can begin planting for the birds no matter where you live.
As concerned birdwatchers and homeowners, we have a tremendous opportunity (and responsibility) to provide welcoming habitats for birds and other wildlife. If we do so, and others follow our example, breaking with tradition and converting even just a little bit of lawn into native gardens, it will have a significant impact on our suburban environment. As this view of our yards spreads, we will no longer need to worry about the need to pay to see a ‘tree museum’ but will be able to do much of our birdwatching right outside the door of our homes.