Whether we live in the city, the suburbs or wild areas, people who tend plants are not just gardeners, but builders of ecosystems. In 2014, the Audubon Society initiated the Habitat Heroes project to assist gardeners and community groups in the work of caring for songbirds. Devised as a response to diminishing habitats across the U.S., the project addresses the effects of rapid development of our wildlands. Great swaths of the country once occupied by woodland, wetlands, and desert habitat are being overtaken by urban sprawl. Today, an estimated twenty million acres of North America is carpeted with turf lawns. If we were to picture this through the eyes of migrating birds, we'd see patchworks of rooftops and lawns where we once found natural rest stops. For the myriad species that cross the continent each year, seasonal habitats are essential to life. San Bernardino County is host to dozens of species of migrating birds, from swallows and bluebirds, to warblers and hummingbirds. Some travel hundreds of miles to reach our back yards. Through years of drought, we've learned much about the benefits of cutting back lawns for water conservation. Now the Audubon Society asks that we also think of yard care in the service of wild birds. Through Habitat Heroes, Audubon offers simple, yet effective tips on how even small gardens can become living habitats. The project begins with basic facts about food and shelter, and includes steps we can take to protect wildlife across our communities.
Critter Conscious Plant-scapes
Our trees are the foundation of the backyard food chain. They are home to insect life, the most essential food source for songbirds. In Bringing Nature Home, Etymologist Doug Tallamy of the University of Delaware describes the nesting habits of chickadees, who feed a brood of chicks between 390 and 570 caterpillars a day. Not all trees are equal to the task of sustaining wildlife, explains Dr. Tallamy. His research shows that of North America's trees, some are better than others at promoting insect diversity. An oak tree, for example, can support 534 species of caterpillar; willows, 455; birch, 413; poplar, 368; maple, 285; and pine trees, 203. He compares this to non-native gingko trees, which hosts only five insect species. Tallamy recommends that we look to local trees when planning our home landscapes. Plant trees, he suggests, interspersed with mid-sized native shrubs, and ground-covering pollinators. For Southern California, native shrub selections include drought-hearty wild rose (Rosa californica); serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia); native sumac (Rhus trilobata), golden currant (Ribes aureum), and others. Pollinator-friendly native plants are increasingly available at nurseries. Rather than exotic and non-native varieties, we can choose bee and butterfly-attracting plants that bolster native insect life. Flowering beardtongue (Penstemon), sage (Salvia), and bee balm (Monarda), are widely available. For plants specific to local areas, specialty nurseries like Rancho Santa Ana Garden (Claremont) and Theodore Payne (Sunland) offer both educational resources and such California-friendly plants as narrow-leaf milkweed (Asclepias fascicularis), California buckwheat (Eriogonum), and more.Audubon's program suggests Structural Diversity in backyard planning. In other words, creating multi-level landscapes, with plenty of ground cover, for forage, and woody shelter, for nesting. For bird health and safety, Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is recommended, and we can minimize backyard hazards by managing outdoor lighting, marking picture windows, and keeping cats indoors during the daytime. Feeding opportunities are presented all year long. The right mix of plants and trees will provide spring and summer meals. Seed and suet feeders offer additional sustenance during cooler months. Nesting boxes can attract long-term and return visitors, and strategically placed water is critical, throughout the year. Bird-friendly gardening is good for many reasons. It provides us with enjoyment, and the knowledge that we can all play a role in protecting habitats, one yard at a time.
“How to Create a Bird Friendly Yard,” by Rene Ebersole, Audubon Magazine (online):
“Bringing Nature Home (web resource),” by Doug Tallamy
Landscape Guide for Mountain Homes, LASCD. – An excellent handbook on drought-friendly landscaping for all of San Bernardino County, with native plant selections for both high-altitudes and lower elevations.
Cornel Laboratory of Ornithology (Web Resource) – With information on birdhouses, migrating birds, and more.