My Yard Is for the Birds

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 birdsechinacea 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.

2015 Monarch Update From Cincinnati 

Each year since 2007 we have watched patiently for the return of the monarch butterfly to our little half acre. That was the year Nan was walking along the fence on the south side of our yard and spotted a monarch caterpillar acting strangely. As she stopped to observe this behavior the caterpillar became a chrysalis right before her eyes. This set off a chain reaction of excited study and observation that led to the planting of various species of milkweed in our garden and the yearly collecting of monarch caterpillars to protect them from their predators and ultimately release them back into our garden. It’s our own little effort to counter some of the impacts of the eradication of milkweed from midwest agricultural land through the use of Roundup and the drive for efficiency that virtually eliminates fencerows and other ‘non-productive’ land where milkweed used to grow.

The monarch migration from Mexico that begins each spring and leap-frogs north by generation doesn’t generally bring many monarchs to our garden early in the season. Though we have seen our first monarch the past two years around Father’s Day, they don’t stay long as they move on across Lake Erie and up into Canada. In fact, we generally don’t see more than a few monarchs until August when they come, lay their eggs on our milkweed, and prepare to begin the great migration south. So, along with the milkweed, we plant asters and goldenrod that will be in bloom late in the summer and on into the early autumn to provide a nectar source for our little friends. And we wait for them to come.

Sometimes we will have quite a few, as in 2011 when we released almost 140 butterflies. Sometimes, as in 2013, we will see only a handful. But this year has been the best so far.

We took our first monarch caterpillar inside this year on August 1. Since then there have been monarchs mating and laying eggs on our milkweed every day. I look out the window beyond my computer as I work and see several monarchs drifting from plant to plant all day long. It has been a magnificent year! (Though a bit difficult to focus on my work!)

Since we brought our first little guy into the house less than three weeks ago, we have had to work hard to keep up with the feeding as this year’s brood has threatened to eat us out of house and home. As of today (August 18) we have brought in 158 I caterpillars and quite a few eggs that have not yet hatched. (We generally try not to bring in leaves with eggs on them as we haven’t had a good track record nursing them to become caterpillars, but this year they are so prevalent that it is hard to pick a leaf and not get an egg!)

It remains to be seen just how many we will have before they start south, but there are clearly dozens of eggs on the plants in our garden now that in the days to come will become caterpillars. Also, in the next several days we will release dozens of monarchs into our garden as we currently have several screens of chrysalises and many other caterpillars who are “J’d up” preparing to become a chrysalis in the next several hours. It is already a great year for the monarch in Cincinnati … at least in our garden. And if we don’t run out of milkweed, we will contribute a record number (for us) back to the great migration

The Good, the Bad & the Ugly

Monarch nectaring on tall verbena

Both of the last two years my wife, Nan, has written in the Hamilton County Master Gardener newsletter ComPOST about the experiences we have had in our little half acre working to attract and preserve the monarch butterfly population. This year it is my turn to reflect a bit on what kind of year 2012 was for our little friends.

Let’s start with the BAD. Why not? I don’t need to tell you that the summer was hot and dry – too hot and dry in many areas for good monarch reproduction. Chip Taylor of the Monarch Watch organization says, “It is now clear that fall population will be on the low side. We have received many comments on the poor quality of the milkweed available to monarchs for the last generation. The low number of nectar sources that will be available to monarchs moving through the lower Midwest in September is a concern. Some fall flowers have already bloomed, some have died and many of the others are stunted and just barely alive. There will be nectar but it will be harder for the monarchs to find.”

Actually, our personal experience was that we didn’t just have fewer monarch butterflies, we had virtually no monarchs in our yard this summer. We saw one or two early but word on the street seemed to be that it was so warm so early that they just went on north. Some areas in Canada reported record numbers early in the year. But, whatever the reason, despite growing several kinds of milkweed, we had no butterflies until a handful stopped in our yard on their way south in September. That is a far cry from the 150 or so monarchs we released as they eclosed from their crysalis’s in the summer of 2010. Others in the midwest had similar experiences. One garden blogger that I read recently wrote about the lack of butterflies this summer in his yard. You can find a link to that post here.

So, let’s move on to the GOOD. Even though we are very interested in helping the monarch population survive, we enjoy all kinds of butterflies and have planted the host plants for many of the native butterflies of our region. So, even though we have not had monarchs this summer, we have had a good variety of others and it has given us a new appreciation for the beauty and variety of these little creatures. As all gardeners know, creating diversity is a good thing!

But what about the UGLY?

One day at the end of August I realized that there were Giant Swallowtails laying eggs on our Wafer Ash in our backyard. And soon enough, we spotted first eggs, then tiny caterpillars; barely visible and looking like little smears of bird poop! We brought these little guys inside and fed them both Wafer Ash leaves as well as leaves from a Rue plant we have in our yard (also a host plant for the Giant Swallowtail). These caterpillars as they have grown have had the same effect on Nan and I as the first Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillars we ever saw in our yard … you just can’t help but break out into a big grin when you look at them. They are gloriously and wonderfully made! And they become the largest butterfly native to our area.

So, even though the summer seemed to be a bust early on. We have had a lot of GOOD along with a joyful bit of UGLY at the end.

Giant Swallowtail Caterpillar on Wafer Ash Leaf

2011: Monarch Update

An update from Nan:

Last year I wrote an article about Monarch butterflies and how Mark and I do what we can each year to encourage them to visit our backyard garden. We plant several different types of Asclepias, the host plant for the Monarch, and we then bring the caterpillars indoors to increase their chances of survival. We then release the adult butterflies for the cycle to begin again. Eventually, in mid-September, the newly eclosed adults leave us and migrate to Mexico. This year we released more than 75 adult Monarch butterflies. This is about 40% fewer than we released in 2010.

We’ve been doing this for 4 or 5 years now and we learn new things every year. I think the most important thing that we learned this year is how important the state of Texas is to the Monarch migration. When spring arrives each year, the butterflies overwintering in Mexico take flight, take in nourishment and most begin to immediately mate. This allows them to deposit eggs on the milkweed that is found along the HUNDREDS of miles they will cross in their northern migration through Texas. These are butterflies that have been overwintering for months. They are the same butterflies that traveled up to 2500 miles in order to reach Mexico. They have not eaten in months. Instead, they are living off the fat they have stored from last fall during their journey south. (The generation of Monarchs that make the journey south and begin the return trip live up to five months, while all other generations of Monarchs that populate our gardens in summer live only two to six weeks.) And so, their one mission is to mate, begin the journey north and LAY EGGS! The vast majority of these butterflies will lay eggs in Texas and soon die. Mission accomplished.

Now, imagine that Texas is suffering from a drought. And temperatures are WELL above normal. The milkweed is suffering from the dry conditions and the butterflies cannot stand the extreme temperatures. Some of the migrating Monarchs will die before they are able to find suitable amounts of milkweed. Those that survive decide to move farther north to find better conditions, only to find those areas north are still too cool and/or rainy for the Monarchs or the milkweed. That is exactly what happened this past spring and so the experts watching the migration had low expectations for a ‘good’ Monarch year. Despite that, as I said earlier, I thought we had a decent turnout in our own little corner of Monarch country.

The story doesn’t end there though. When September came around, Texas was still experiencing drought along with very high temperatures. Monarchs ‘bulk up’ during their migration south and again, Texas takes up hundreds of miles of that migration. Important miles. This year, because of its hot, dry summer, it did not have as much nectar to offer the butterflies.

Now, all we can do is wait and see how they fare on the mountaintops in central Mexico – and hope for a perfect Spring. Especially in Texas. We can do our part by planting milkweed for them before they arrive here starting in late June. I know Mark and I will be waiting for them with anticipation….and plenty of milkweed!

2010: A Great Year for the Orange and Black

A report from Nan:

My husband, Mark, and I have been rooting for the Orange and Black for the last 4 seasons or so. We do what we can to help out…we grow food for them, we provide housing and a nice place to hang out. They’ve done OK for the last few years, but this year was an exceptionally GREAT year. It just seemed to all come together this year for the Orange and Black. Of course, if you follow sports, you know that I cannot possibly be talking about the colors of the Cincinnati Bengals. What I am referring to is the beautiful colors of Danneus plexipus. The Monarch butterfly.

Mark and I have become Monarch ‘enthusiasts’ over the last several years and have done what we can to help increase the monarch population. We plant milkweed – Asclepias tuberosa, A. incarnata, and A. curassivica – throughout our gardens and we monitor the number of caterpillars produced each year. The summer of 2009 was a disappointing summer for our beloved monarchs. We’re not sure why, but most likely because it was a wet and cool summer (wow, do you remember that after this year’s hot, dry summer??) and we only saw a Monarch or two throughout the 2009 season. In comparison however, this year was phenomenal. We ‘incubated’ about 130 monarch caterpillars this year, lost a few of them to the parasitizing tachinid fly and watched about 125 monarch butterflies emerge in our backyard.

Usually starting in late July or early August, after the milkweed has been busy growing to its full beauty, the holes in the leaves begin to appear. Those holes…what a beautiful sight! The eggs have hatched and the caterpillars are eating. This is what we’ve been waiting for! The cleaned, plastic bins are inside our Monarch Room in our lower level and they are ready to become a safe haven for these first instar caterpillars for the next 10-14 days or so.

We bring the caterpillars in, place them in one of the MANY bins we have, and provide fresh milkweed leaves 3-4 times a day. Each bin has a volume of at least 16 quarts and is covered with a small window screen that serves two purposes: to keep the caterpillars INSIDE the bin and to provide a place for the caterpillar to ‘hang’ so it can complete its metamorphosis. We limit the number of caterpillars in each bin and we bring in fresh milkweed leaves. The caterpillar frass is removed at least once a day.

We have had the pleasure to watch many caterpillars grow through their 5 instar stages, hang in their signature “J” shape for hours before they pupate and ultimately emerge as beautiful adult butterflies. We are still learning as we go and are doing our best to recognize and eliminate parasites such as the tachinid fly and the protozoan parasite, Ophryocystis elektroscirrha (OE). We will continue to learn more each season as, hopefully, more and more Monarchs make their way back from their habitats in Mexico. And, as all good fans, we hope more and more gardeners join us in cheering for the Orange and Black in 2011!