Stop the Poisons: Safe Alternatives to Rodenticides


They’re being called a “modern day DDT”. Like DDT (outlawed in 1972), anticoagulant rodenticides are weapons of destruction. They kill brutally, slowly and indiscriminately, accumulate in fatty tissue, and persist a long time in the environment. Used by homeowners, farmers and exterminators, they are a serious threat to any living being that accidentally ingests them—wildlife, companion animals, and humans (especially children), alike.

Movement through the food chain
Both “second-generation” and “first-generation” anticoagulant rodenticides, the most common rodenticides, were designed to silently block the vitamin K cycle, which is essential for blood clotting. Although the “first-generation” are just as deadly if consumed often, the “second-generation” products have greater potency and build to higher concentrations in rodents, so are more lethal. These “super-toxic” poisons, which have long half-lives, cause rodents to uncontrollably hemorrhage to death—but only if they’re not preyed upon first. Because they’re so slow-acting, rodents may ingest poisons multiple times, which causes residues to accumulate in their bodies to levels many times greater than the minimum lethal dose, which exposes rodent-eating scavengers and predators to large amounts of poison. A poisoned animal can and does lead to indirect secondary (and sometimes tertiary) poisoning of other animals.

Victims do not die quickly; as the poison takes hold, rodents who ingest it continue to move about for days, but more lethargically, so that they become easy prey for dogs, cats, birds, and native mammals like the little raccoon I found on a sidewalk in my neighborhood who apparently had died a slow and excruciatingly painful death by excessive bleeding. Besides other carnivorous or omnivorous mammals such as bobcats, coyotes, foxes, skunks, cougars, bears, and companion animals, these dangerous poisons have spread throughout the food web and inhumanely kill reptiles like snakes and raptors such as owls and hawks—the very animals who can and should be preying on (healthy) rodents. Tertiary poisoning happens when a predator eats another predatory species that’s been poisoned secondarily, such as an owl who eats a poisoned snake who ate a poisoned mouse. And secondary injuries, such as lacerations, can become deadly because victims’ blood has no ability to clot. Even insects, such as bumble bees that often use abandoned rodent nests, can be killed.



Anticoagulants can quickly move through the food chain—in California’s Santa Monica Mountains, the majority of cougars, bobcats and coyotes reportedly have tested positive for exposure and many have died due to poisoning or secondary disease brought on by a weakened immune system. In Africa, raptors are disappearing at a “shocking” rate, partially due to poisons. A 2020 study at Tufts Wildlife Clinic found that 100 percent of hospitalized red-tailed hawks had rodenticides in their livers, and all but one contained brodifacoum, especially deadly to birds. None of the hawks survived.

Another study in 2023 at Tufts revealed the horrors of another rodenticide, a neurotoxin called Bromethalin that can bioaccumulate in raptors. It had already been the cause of severe illness in San Francisco’s Telegraph Hill parrots and “works by interfering with a metabolic process called oxidative phosphorylation, or how an individual cell creates energy. When that process is disrupted, the cells can’t produce the fuel to keep their normal processes functioning correctly, such as regulating fluid balance, or the amount of fluid inside the cell versus outside of the cell. When the cell can’t regulate that fluid balance anymore, it causes accumulation of fluid in abnormal spaces.”

In addition to wildlife, the use of these rodenticides can expose companion animals, such as dogs, who can be poisoned directly when they eat bait from boxes or get into unsecured packaging in their homes. Homeless or feral cats, as well as those allowed to roam and hunt freely also can become poisoned. Victims — no matter the species — suffer horribly, and for many, many days.

Regardless of how any type of rodenticide is distributed — by homeowners, professional exterminators, or HOAs — we, our companion animals, and local wildlife are at risk of exposure. Poisons are no less dangerous when packaged in tamper-proof, sealed bait boxes. The harm they cause far exceeds their limited, alleged benefits.

Room for improvement
Although we’re slowly seeing some positive strides, we still have a long way to go in eradicating these dangerous substances. Late last year, a new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency biological evaluation found that rodenticides harm more than 130 endangered species — including Florida panthers, black-footed ferrets and California condors — and are driving toward extinction at least 73 other species. Because of this, the EPA has proposed new measures to reduce unintentional wildlife poisonings and increase protections for endangered species. However, according to the Center for Biological Diversity, data from past rodenticide restrictions indicates that the new protections fall far short and will continue to leave many wildlife species at risk because, as mentioned above, predators and scavengers consume poisoned animals. Certainly any reduction of harm from these poisons is a good thing, but we need to push for much stricter regulations to ensure that both wildlife and people are safe from them. Learn more at the Center for Biological Diversity.

The good news: There are many things we can do to prevent even the thought of using poisons.
If you do have a serious problem, humane prevention is crucial:

  • Learn where rodent are coming in and plug up holes (if you need to put rodents outside, use a live trap).
  • Eliminate sources of food, water, shelter.
  • Cover or enclose veggie gardens with wire.
  • Remove ivy from buildings.
  • Clean up/seal up any outdoor food for dogs, chickens, horses, etc.
  • Remove bird feeders.
  • Clean up/seal up trash. 
  • Clean barbecues following use.
  • Prevent or remove rodents’ access to fruit and nut trees by trimming branches away from fences, roofs, and other accessible places; attach tree guards on tree trunks to prevent climbers.
  • Speak with neighbors who may be contributing to the problem.
  • Install rodent birth control, the future of humane, non-toxic coexistence!
  • Nurture a native plant garden, to attract natural predators like raptors and snakes.

And just because we see a rat or mouse doesn’t necessarily mean that our yard is infested: In the 22 years I’ve lived in my house, I’ve seen perhaps a couple of mice and four or five rats, all of which arouse my curiosity and interest, not revulsion or contempt. I’ve also noticed a few snakes and many raptors who need such food. Several rats had also been seen this past year at the community garden where I grow food, but raptors in the vicinity apparently did what they do best and there’s been no sign of the rats since. Raptors and other predators are the answer, and there is no such thing as a safe rodenticide. For more information, please visit Raptors Are The Solution (RATS).

© 2024 Eileen M. Stark

Study Confirms Neonic’s Deadly Harm to Birds as EPA Ignores Facts

The American Bird Conservancy (ABC) recently released an updated, piercing report that confirms the continual decline of wild birds — as well as beneficial insects and many other animals — due to the uncontrolled use of highly toxic neonicotinoid pesticides. It’s a lengthy read, so I thought I’d offer a fairly brief synopsis to those who appreciate and support biodiversity.

Back in 2013, the ABC produced its ground-breaking paper, “The Impact of the Nation’s Most Widely Used Insecticides on Birds” (Mineau and Palmer 2013), which warned of the catastrophic risks that these ambulant and persistent insecticides create for both terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, as well as the likely repercussions on wildlife who depend on those ecosystems.

Fast forward ten years, and “Neonicotinoid insecticides: Failing to come to grips with a predictable environmental disaster” (Mineau and Kern 2023) reveals that little has changed, except that the quantity used is hidden from us. The report examines the recent science that echos earlier alarm calls and describes the completely inadequate regulatory response by the EPA and other regulators. According to Hardy Kern, one of the study’s authors, “Some states and agencies have taken minimal actions, but we have a long way to go before these chemicals are no longer a threat to birds, native pollinators and aquatic systems.” A recent comprehensive study in Europe found pesticide and fertilizer use to be “more dramatic than forest alterations, urbanization, and climate change”.

Developed by Bayer and Shell and introduced in the early 1990s, neonicotinoids (“neonics”) have been touted as safe and more benign than any previous pesticide groups. They quickly became popular in pesticide markets worldwide and today they are the most commonly used insecticides (where they haven’t been banned). The neonics group is a synthetic neurotoxin chemically similar to nicotine and includes acetamiprid, thiacloprid, thiamethoxam, clothianidin, imidacloprid and others. They are widely used in agriculture (more than 140 types of crops, including rice, wheat, corn, sunflowers, cotton, nuts, soybeans, fruits and vegetables), in commercial nurseries, and in urban areas on golf courses, parks, gardens and lawns, in insect sprays, and flea and tick veterinary products. (Last month, in response to a Center for Biological Diversity legal petition asking that Seresto flea collars — which have been linked to more than 100,000 reports of harm or death — be pulled from the market, the EPA responded by only requiring that warning labels be placed on the collars.)

Neonics are applied as a soil injection (“soil drenching”) and tree injection, as a foliar spray, and as a seed coating (the most common application). As a plant grows, the systemic pesticide permeates all cells within roots, stems, leaves, pollen, nectar, sap, fruit, and honeydew. In addition to killing what are considered pest insects, neonics indiscriminately poison non-target beneficial species like bees, butterflies and other pollinators, including hummingbirds. An estimated 96 percent of land birds are insectivorous and must feed their young insects (which may be poisoned), and seed-eating birds commonly consume spilled seeds loaded with neonic residue. They can also encounter neonics by inhalation of vapors, skin contact, and in their drinking water. Dust generated from pneumatic seed planting machinery can also kill flying insects directly, and it can disperse off-site at seeding time (making additional plants acutely toxic), and contaminate soil. In the soil, neonics persist for months to years, with drift, irrigation or runoff carrying them long distances, eventually contaminating new soil, plant life and water supplies. Only two to five percent of most seeds coated with neonics make it into a target plant, leaving roughly 95 percent in the soil, where it can contaminate the nests of native ground-nesting bees (70 percent of native bees nest in the ground).

When consumed in lethal doses, neonics permanently bind to nerve cells, which typically causes uncontrollable twitching and shaking followed by paralysis and eventually death. But even small, nonlethal doses can cause severe debilitation to victims’ immune, reproductive, navigation, and nervous systems. Birds may become so incapacitated that they don’t eat, migrate, reproduce, and become paralyzed or experience seizures. Researchers have found destructive reproductive effects at concentrations much lower than the thresholds set by regulators: The ABC found that ingesting just one-tenth of a contaminated corn kernel (with any of the neonics) per day during egg-laying season can negatively affect bird reproduction. Appallingly, “A single corn kernel coated with a neonicotinoid can kill a songbird. Even a tiny grain of wheat or canola treated with the oldest neonicotinoid, imidacloprid, can poison a bird.” The ABC authors expressed, “Based on recent studies, we have increasing concerns over reproductive and sub-lethal effects resulting from low exposures in farm fields … Given that exposure is often season-long, this raises the specter of significant effects on a large number of bird species.”

Due to widespread use, neonics have caused and continue to cause extensive ecosystem contamination, including watersheds, groundwater, and irrigation water. Neonics’ water solubility means that they travel easily in surface runoff, contaminating aquifers and other aquatic environments—residues have even been found in seabirds’ feathers and raptors, and there is proof that they kill fish and other aquatic animals. A U.S. Geological Survey study found that neonics polluted more than half of the streams in the U.S. In addition, bats are directly and indirectly harmed, and birth defects have been found in white-tailed deer. If you’re wondering about harm to humans, the NRDC’s “Potential Risks to Brain and Sperm” article details the health impacts, including the possibility of creating even more toxic compounds when neonics are mixed with things like chlorine at water treatment plants. The good news is that organically-grown foods are mostly neonic-free.

Unwillingness of regulators
Regulation of these chemicals is extremely inadequate. The ABC authors say, “The U.S. is far behind the European Union and a few Canadian provinces in responsible regulation and mitigation. The main uses of neonicotinoid insecticides go against fundamental principles of integrated pest management. Alternatives to these chemicals do exist … We believe they have failed in the execution of their mandate and in preventing the ongoing environmental tragedy that neonics represent.”

Possibly the worst debacle of regulators is that seeds coated with neonics are not regulated at all; they’re included in the “Treated Item Exemption” of the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA), which, according to the ABC authors, means that most neonic applications are not counted in usage estimates. In 2017 a number of NGOs petitioned the EPA to remove seed treatments from the exemption. It took the EPA, which ignores the advice of its own scientists, five years to deny it. Earlier this summer the groups sued the EPA.

The U.S. government has also lessened the amount of data available about pesticide use and proliferation to scientists and the public. Earlier this year the U.S. Geological Survey cut the amount of data it collects in its National Pesticide Use Map, and beginning in 2024 its report will be released only every five years, instead of yearly. It’s also shrunken the number of pesticides it monitors from 400 to 72, partly because the USGS purchases data from a private company, which stopped including seed treatments in usage stats around 2015. The USGS says that “seed coatings are too difficult to reliably source information on and, therefore, are not included in national pesticide-use estimates.” They’re also left out of National Water Quality Assessment maps.

So, no one knows how much neonics are used on seeds. A USGS graph of clothianidin usage in the 2023 ABC report shows that over 3.5 million pounds were used in 2014 (mostly on corn), and in 2015 the usage was slightly more than 500,000 pounds. Of course this doesn’t mean that less clothianidin was used; only that seed treatments were dropped from estimated use.

A 2019 study found that U.S. agriculture is nearly 50 times more toxic to insects than it was 25 years earlier and neonics are responsible for a whopping 92 percent of that atrocity—this is especially heinous considering the “insect apocalypse” that experts predict. Despite their rampant use, neonics can actually make pest problems worse because not only do they kill beneficial wildlife; they also kill soil microbes that improve plants’ health, durability, and crop yields. And, there is even evidence that neonics reduce crop production. In the U.S., there is no law that requires manufacturers prove that their product works. Speaking with National Geographic, Kendra Klein, study co-author and senior staff scientist at Friends of the Earth U.S., said, “We have four decades of research and evidence that agroecological farming methods can grow our food without decimating pollinators.”

Are neonics the new “Silent Spring”?
North America lost more than three billion birds (even species once considered common) between 1970 and 2018 — 29% of 1970 abundance — due in part to the ubiquitous use of neonics. Even the EPA confirmed that the use of imidicloprid, clothianidin, and thiamethoxam) harm roughly 75 percent of all endangered plants and animals. According to the Center for Biological Diversity, there’s been horrendous harm to imperiled species by all three insecticides, such as “all 39 species of endangered amphibians, including the California red-legged frog, as well as rusty patched bumblebees, whooping cranes, chinook salmon, northern long-eared bats and orcas.” The American bumblebee, once the most commonly observed bumblebee species in the U.S., has declined by an estimated 89 percent in just the past 20 years. Clearly, neonicotinoids are one of the most dangerous, toxic classes of pesticides that pose atrocious longterm threats to biodiversity. We’re in the midst of a harrowing extinction crisis with beneficial insects, birds, aquatic life, and mammals dying off in appalling numbers and neonics are a major, reckless threat that the earth does not need. “Neonics may not bioaccumulate in organisms and biomagnify in food webs as did DDT and other organochlorine pesticides of old, but they appear to be as widely distributed in the broader terrestrial and aquatic environments,” according to the ABC report’s authors.

Neonics are mostly banned in the EU (even “emergency” uses have been overturned in court) and parts of Canada (Ontario and Quebec require a prescription to use neonics to coat seeds, which has drastically reduced their use). Although a few states in the U.S. have passed legislation that restricts the use of neonics (but doesn’t eliminate them), and other states are beginning to take action, only severe restrictions by the EPA will protect ecosystems, biodiversity and human health from these noxious, unnecessary chemicals before it’s too late.

In July of this year, Oregon’s Senator Jeff Merkley introduced the Pollinator-Friendly Plant Labeling Act, which would require the Department of Agriculture to create a certification program for plant producers to certify that their plants are not treated with pesticides or substance not approved for use in organically-grown products that are harmful to pollinators. Producers who choose to participate in the program would be able to use a “USDA pollinator-friendly” label on their plants and products. It’s a minor action, but is a step in the right direction.

In the home garden
The Northwest Center for Alternatives to Pesticides states, “Neonicotinoids are found in hundreds of products sold over the counter under various trade names. Many of these are designed for individual home and garden use. One of the most toxic neonicotinoids to our native bees — imidacloprid — is commonly applied to gardens, flowerbeds, shrubs, and trees in urban and residential areas.” According to the Xerces Society, “even when used according to printed instructions, garden products containing neonicotinoids can be applied to plants in concentrations dozens of times greater than on farm crops [sometimes at concentrations of as much as 120 times]. This means that bees can be exposed to lethal doses of neonicotinoids in gardens. Even if bees are not killed outright, smaller (non-lethal) doses can impact their health.” Remember that labels do not indicate that they are harmful to pollinators, so it’s important to either not buy such products or be sure to read ingredient lists (Imidacloprid, dinotefuran, clothianidin, and thiamethoxam are all neonics found in garden products). This Xerces Society brochure explains how to protect pollinators from neonics.

What you can do:

  • Buy organically-grown foods, seeds, bird-friendly coffee, and other products whenever possible (they’re not always much more expensive). If feasible, grow some organic produce at home. Find a list organic seed companies here.
  • Shop at plant nurseries that don’t use neonics (always ask if you’re unsure).
  • Don’t buy/use products that contain neonics (be sure to read labels).
  • Create pesticide-free, safe outdoor spaces using regional native plants that will encourage wildlife such as native bees, butterflies, birds, and other beneficials.
  • Ask your state and federal legislators to advance laws that eliminate (or at least severely restrict) pesticide use.
  • Email the EPA to voice your concerns about the lack of regulations on pesticide-coated seeds: pesticidequestions@epa.gov
  • Watch Beyond Pesticides’ short video for more info on toxic seeds and check out ABC’s fact sheet.

© 2023 Eileen M. Stark

When Death Supports Life: Trees, Woodpeckers, and Biodiversity


As sad and full of dread as I am about the impending loss of a giant 90-year-old American elm street tree next door, the life that the dying tree supports makes its demise seem much less calamitous. In early March we noticed the familiar tap-tap-tap of a woodpecker on a nearly vertical limb about 40 feet above ground. There, perched on thick, rough bark, was a male downy woodpecker in the process of crafting a perfectly round hole. Since it appeared to be at least two inches deep at that time, I figured that he and his mate had begun excavating the cavity at least a week earlier. The following week the pair ambitiously began work on a second hole, a quarter way around on the same limb, but facing north. Another few weeks passed and we observed them chiseling out yet another hole, this time just below the first one, facing eastward. The branch is angled slightly downward, which keeps out rain and may be less obvious to predators.

What’s with all the holes? Woodpeckers—expert woodworkers of the avian world—including the downy, hairy, pileated, flicker, and many others, hollow out separate chambers for nesting and roosting and, as you’ll read further on, are considered “keystone species” for their crucial role in creating habitat for other woodland species who depend on dead and dying trees in the landscape.

Late in April, it became clear that the third chamber — its depth now at least as long as the birds themselves — would become their little nursery. Excavation of the gourd-shaped cavity continued, but there appeared to be little activity as the month progressed, at least to our eyes and ears, grounded 40 feet below during a very wet, cool spring that kept us indoors more than usual. It wasn’t until the second week of June, when our neighbor told us of baby bird sounds coming from the cavity, that we realized what they’d been up to.

Why snags are essential habitat
With their rotting wood, hollow cavities, broken branches and loose bark, dead and dying trees — known as snags — may actually provide more varied habitat for all sorts of creatures than when they were alive. In addition to providing vital housing for many types of insects (including some pollinators), cavity-nesting birds (around 80 species in North America), amphibians, reptiles, and small mammals (including bats), they provide food and open perches, and double as storage lockers. Woodpeckers also use snags to communicate during breeding season. For species that must roost in cavities during winter, insulated roosting cavities within trees are essential for them to be able to escape frigid temperatures; it can mean the difference between life and death.

But they can’t use just any old tree. A study in Washington’s eastern Cascades found that cavity-excavating birds preferred trees with significantly soft interior wood. “The researchers also found that at-risk species were nesting within burned areas where up to 96 percent of the trees had unsuitably hard wood. This suggests that many trees and snags previously considered suitable for cavity-excavating birds actually may not be.”

The availability of snags falls far short of the need as forests are increasingly decimated and development runs amok; they’re especially rare in urban areas. Removing them steals critical habitat, even if their wood is unsuitably hard. Whenever possible, allow snags to remain in low activity areas that won’t be a problem should they fall apart; when they do they’ll continue to give back in the understory. If safety is a concern but you want to retain a dead tree’s benefits, consult an arborist to shorten the trunk and any branches that might pose a problem (but retain at least 15 feet of height). If you already have a snag, retain or add native shrubs near its base—they will help keep it stable and protected from weather extremes and provide connectivity, leafy cover, and additional food for wildlife.

The Washington Department of Wildlife has more detailed info on these “wildlife trees” and the Cavity Conservation Initiative has an enchanting video that documents, up close, the lives that they support.

Back to the downy nursery story
After we learned of the nestlings, my husband began photographing the adorable babies and their parents, who worked tirelessly to provide them with insects to eat. The nestlings’ voices were loud and strong and photos revealed that they were all male (with little red caps!), and nearly old enough to fledge. Some sources say it may occur at 18-21 days after hatching, although Audubon says 20-25 days; regardless, we knew it would be soon, so we arose very early for several days, in the hopes of witnessing the fledging event. It wasn’t early enough though, because on our third day of morning observation, the loud chirping and queeking heard earlier in the week had dwindled to just one voice: In other words, we missed the main event. Disappointed, we reminded ourselves that the remaining baby’s voice offered hope that we’d at least be able to watch him leave the nest. Why the delay? Many birds, including the downy, begin incubation when the last or second to last egg is laid. Judging by his resistance to leave when the others left, this remaining nestling was likely a day younger, so incubation probably began the day before Mom laid his egg.

We decided that the next day was the day that he’d fledge and since we didn’t want to miss it, we got up at just after five o’clock. For nearly four hours we took turns watching, waiting and photographing while his parents occasionally fed him. They also had their other young to feed, but I imagine he wasn’t much trouble since he stayed put, unlike his brothers who were out in other trees, far enough away that we rarely heard them.

But like the previous day, Junior stayed put. Perhaps he was just too scared to venture out into the world, so we certainly couldn’t blame the little guy. Surely he would leave the next day! We arose early and found he was still at the nest entrance. We checked on him periodically as we fed the cats, made coffee, and had a little breakfast. At 8:05 I checked and he was still at the entrance, so I selfishly went inside for a snack. When I checked ten minutes later I found he had taken to his wings for the first time — and I missed it!! But a little later I heard him in our backyard’s Douglas-fir tree and saw Mom or Dad fly to feed him. In all likelihood, they’re still in the area, staying hidden with their parents busily feeding them, and will remain so for several weeks until they are able to secure food on their own.


Woodpeckers’ crucial connection to others
I gaze up at the holes that lead to the cavities, now silent and empty, and wonder about other species that might benefit from them. Woodpeckers are primary cavity excavators and reportedly do not use nests more than once (although they may nest in a new cavity in the same tree in subsequent years). [UPDATE, June 2023: The sources that state that Downy woodpeckers don’t reuse nest cavities are incorrect, because this year another pair (or perhaps the same parent or parents) are using the exact same cavity.] But their power-drilling labor facilitates unintentional links to other species known as secondary cavity nesters who cannot excavate their own nest sites or roost sites or may have trouble locating other natural cavities (created by broken branches or decayed wood) or artificial nest boxes. Chickadees and nuthatches also may excavate nesting cavities themselves, but they are not considered strong excavators.

Secondary cavity-nesting birds — including bluebirds, tree swallows, kestrels, some wrens, and many owl species — as well as small mammals such as bats and flying squirrels, may utilize abandoned woodpeckers’ cavities. Studies show that areas with a rich diversity of tree-cavity excavators, in conjunction with snags and other forest elements, maintain a high biodiversity of secondary cavity nesters, as well as other forest birds. In a nutshell, woodpeckers play essential keystone roles, are indicators of ecosystem health, and help other species survive.


© 2022 Eileen M. Stark

Gray Hairstreak Butterflies in Your Garden


If you watch carefully, you may notice lovely little hairstreak butterflies in your summer garden. A member of Lycaenidae, the second largest family of butterflies with over 6,000 species worldwide, the gray hairstreak (Strymon melinus) can be found from southern Canada to northern South America. Although they’re considered common, they are rarely seen in large numbers. Since they’re small—with a wingspan of up to only about an inch and a quarter—and flighty, they can be easily overlooked.

Male and female gray hairstreaks appear somewhat similar, although females have rounder and wider forewings, and a male’s abdomen during summer is pale orange toward the tip. Their dorsal wings are a bluish-gray, with an orange spot that resembles an eye—if you’re wondering why, read on. Their underside is ashy gray, with jagged bands of black lined with white, and two orange spots with black areas. There is seasonal variation in color.

“False head” pattern
When most hairstreak butterfly species land, they often perch with their head downward and their two sets of tails pointed upward (Winkler 1977). They have what’s known as a “false head” at their rear end (as far from their real head as possible), complete with tiny hindwing tails that masquerade as fake antennae. When they move their hind wings up and down in a sawing motion (Sourakov 2017), they attract attention to the rear wing — instead of their real head and body — which serves to deflect predator attacks. Those big “eyes” and moving “antennae” either scare away small would-be attackers, or trick other predators into attacking the wrong end of the butterfly so that the expendable part of the wings may be torn away and allow the butterfly to escape without mortal wounds.


It’s easy to assume that this defense would help hairstreaks survive attacks by birds and possibly larger invertebrates, and a 2013 study by Dr. Andrei Sourakov at the University of Florida demonstrated that the false head on the wings of the red-banded hairstreak allowed it to escape attack by a species of jumping spider, a predator with great eyesight (and an adorable face, close-up).

Large menu
Since gray hairstreaks are very widespread, they do not have a strong preference for host and nectar plants like many other lepidoptera species do, and they even do well in disturbed habitat like urban areas as long as it offers food, shelter, and sunlight. Adults feed on nectar from a variety of plants (often with short, tubular, composite flowers), including native goldenrod, wild onion, milkweed, dogbane, mint, etc. The male pictured below has found a patch of native yarrow (Achillea millefolium var. occidentals). Caterpillars’ menu reportedly includes hundreds of hosts in dozens of plant families, especially legumes, roses, and mallows, but also oaks, pines and strawberry plants. Young caterpillars eat flowers and fruits, while the older ones (at the final instar) may consume leaves. They pupate in a sheltered location like a curled leaf, and overwinter as pupae (James and Nunnallee 2011), possibly in wood piles, beneath loose bark, or in hollow trees or logs.


Relationship with ants
Speaking of good things to eat, many hairstreaks, including the gray, have a special mutualistic relationship with ants (known as myrmecophily), who use the caterpillars as a host of sorts, from which they harvest a nutritious liquid full of sugars and amino acids via the caterpillars’ dorsal nectary organ. In exchange for the yummy meals, the ants guard the caterpillars from predators throughout their larval life, and, needless to say, don’t eat the caterpillars themselves. So the next time you’re annoyed by ants, remember that they may be attending and protecting little caterpillars!

© 2021 Eileen M. Stark

Green Corridors Begin at Home

“Is the deer crossing the road, or is the road crossing the forest?” 

To survive, most wild fauna must be on the move—to find food, water, safe shelter and breeding sites, mates, and, for some species, to migrate. But wildlife habitat is increasingly destroyed, degraded, or fragmented into small, isolated patches—by human-made barriers such as buildings, fences, lawns, and roads—which intensify their struggle to survive.

Habitat loss is one of the main threats to wildlife. More people and development mean less natural habitat, while inaction on the climate crisis forces animals to relocate. Today, more than ever, habitat connectivity needs to be restored and wild ones’ daily and seasonal movements or migrations protected.

Habitat connectivity is defined as the degree to which the landscape helps or hinders animals’ movements, as well as other ecological processes, such as seed dispersal. Whether they’re called conservation corridors, green corridors, habitat corridors, or wildlife pathways, their purpose is identical: To provide native habitat as seamlessly as possible, so that wildlife populations may be connected instead of separated. Even in deteriorated landscapes, such corridors boost biodiversity, allow genetic exchange between populations, and may even help ease the reestablishment of populations that have been decimated, isolated, or previously extirpated.

Recognizing that every front, back and side yard—even those within urban areas—is part of an intricate ecosystem that could support a great number of species is the first step toward encouraging rich, natural diversity. When “real” or “naturescaped” yards link directly to others like them, they help mitigate some of the effects of fragmentation, a huge threat to biodiversity. In general, urban and suburban areas are highly fragmented. Wildlife corridors are essential, especially for animals with large ranges.

You might be wondering, “Aren’t large-scale habitat connectivity projects happening?” or “Isn’t my yard too small to help much?” Yes, and no: The big projects are vital and projects such as underpasses and overpasses that help wildlife cross busy roads (that kill or injure many millions of animals each year) are multiplying, thanks to recent legislation in some states, as well as the federal Wildlife Crossings Pilot Program that provides funding. But also crucial are all the little spaces that—even if they’re not in the path of pronghorn or monarch butterflies—when added up, create interconnected networks. As I wrote in my book, “To be most beneficial, gardens need to connect—to each other and to the larger world—to provide continuous passage for wildlife and allow each garden to work and blend harmoniously with others nearby. A single naturalistic garden has benefits, but when in proximity to others like it, its worth multiplies.” Studies show that “the role of corridors is crucial for enhancing biodiversity in green spaces such as domestic gardens … results clarify the effectiveness of corridors in urban landscapes and have direct implications for the ecological management of cities.”

What to do? Whether you’re an avid gardener or someone who cares about dwindling wildlife, you can take positive action to help your property, balcony, or communal green spaces act as safe stepping stones within a green corridor that supports wildlife. It’s something that we can do despite (or perhaps because of) the heinous weakening of environmental protections by certain politicians over the past few years. And, it’s effective, rewarding, and usually fairly easy if you plan ahead.

Some basic tips:
Grow a diversity of locally native plants, and be sure to remove exotic invasive plants as much as possible beforehand (incrementally if they are used by wildlife). Your yard doesn’t have to be exclusively native, but when planted appropriately, the trees and shrubs that evolved in your area are especially important for supplying food, shelter, and possibly nesting sites.

Don’t fence them out (or in). When we moved into our house, one of the first things we did outdoors was remove two gates to our backyard. They served no purpose and I wanted to make it easy for four-legged fauna to come and go. While there are situations where fencing is helpful (for a dog run, to protect a veggie garden, or to prevent a little one from wandering off), many urban and suburban back yards are separated by tall, unattractive fencing that does nothing useful except provide some privacy.

Instead of impassible fencing (that also greatly diminishes air circulation around plants and, in the case of wooden fencing, wastes trees), think living, breathing native shrubs—either in an unpruned hedgerow or more naturalistic plantings—to provide privacy. Besides being much more aesthetically pleasing, shrubs alone provide food and shelter for wildlife, shade and carbon sequestration, and contribute greatly to green corridors. Unlike fencing, shrubs provide privacy but allow small animals to pass under, through, or along, from garden to garden. If your yard is tiny and you must add a narrow barrier, consider wooden lattice fencing with large openings, upon which (noninvasive) vines could grow (but don’t do this if you live where megafauna could get caught in it).

Some types of fencing can brutally kill or ensnare wildlife (and even people), often at nighttime. Avoid metal rail fencing, any spiked fencing, and all plastic netting. When not in use, take down volleyball and soccer netting.

Rethink manicured yards. Highly pruned, overly tidy, leafless, lawn-centric yards sustain very little life and are high-maintenance. Instead, create a chemical-free native wildlife garden that is more relaxed (some might say “messy”) and has the ability to support much more life. If you’re worried about what the neighbors will say, add some signs of human intention in the front: (a) Create interesting structure by varying the heights of plants so there is a connection from tall trees to ground cover—this not only looks nice, it’s great for wildlife; (b) Choose shrubs that can grow to their full potential without crowding each other out, hiding your doors or windows, or encroaching into pathways—all of which will eventually require harsh pruning; (c) Instead of one plant here, one plant there, plan for a rhythm by growing perennials in drifts or uneven clusters, and then repeat them elsewhere in your yard (this is also highly beneficial to wildlife like pollinators who need multiple plants to feed on); (d) Consider adding step stone paths, bird baths, strategically placed half-buried rocks, sculpture, or nest boxes (if appropriate), but don’t overdo it—few “focal points” are better than many. Don’t add landscape lighting, which is deleterious to living things.

Avoid “ecological traps” and minimize danger. When we grow native plants, minimize lighting, leave the leaves, add a water source and other positive elements to our yards, one of the wonderful outcomes is the increase in wild visitors. But no matter how well-meaning our actions are, “ecological traps” may be created when we make our yards welcoming to wildlife but don’t address the human-induced hazards that lurk nearby. When we design for biodiversity we must consider not just adding habitat, but also what we might inadvertently set them up for, such as being preyed upon by cats or dogs, or injured or killed by windows or some other hazard in our yard. Of course we don’t want to eliminate windows or companion animals, so we have to embrace adaptations that allow us to keep them and protect wild ones at the same time.

In other posts I’ve addressed the disastrous effect that reflective windows have on birds as well as the consequences of light pollution. Another lethal issue is free-roaming cats. Certainly not all cats are avid hunters, but many are, and it’s up to us to take responsibility for their actions. If you already have a kitty who’s been spending a lot of time outdoors, it’s going to be difficult—or even cruel—to suddenly lock him up and throw away the key. Cats are obligate carnivores, so it’s not their fault that they hunt, or want to. For those with unbreakable habits, consider limiting outdoor adventures during baby bird season (late spring to mid-summer) and at those times of the day when birds are actively feeding (typically early morning and late afternoon), and use hanging birdbaths instead of grounded ones. The next time you adopt a new cat, keep them safely indoors but offer a place to get fresh air, like a catio. Dogs, of course, may also be problematic, especially in areas where sensitive wildlife live or nest on the ground, such as fragile amphibians and reptiles.

Minimize hardscape. Unnatural hardscape does nothing for wildlife. Every time we remove hardscape and replace it with, say, regional native plants, dead wood, a water source and other beneficial elements, we help wildlife thrive. Minimizing it in your yard also helps reduce stormwater pollution, improve water quality, and mitigate the impacts of climate chaos.

Urge urban planners and park space advocates to plant native species. Despite native plants’ benefit to ecosystems and humans, they aren’t often added. A typical city park, for example, contains large expanses of lawn and some isolated trees (often non-native). Ecosystems are much more complex and may include tall trees, smaller trees, large and small shrubs, perennials and grasses, dead wood and fallen leaves, which support a large number of species. Creating native beds surrounding single trees, or at least within designated areas, will add complex layers without eliminating picnic space.

Finally, talk with your neighbors. Imagine if everyone’s yard was connected—botanically speaking—to the one next door, preferably without fences and gates. Then imagine that these connections continue from neighborhood to neighborhood and go on for miles, finally reaching a large natural area that’s even more supportive. Some neighbors may find your ideology beyond their grasp, but others may surprise you. Some people simply may not know about the deadly hazards of development and exotic plants, and speaking with them—or at least setting an example—may help to open their eyes and hearts.

 

© 2020 Eileen M. Stark

More Than Flowers: How to Support Pollinators in All Their Life Stages

Many pollinators are in steep decline and in dire need of protection. A black-tailed bumble bee (Bombus melanopygus) feasts on hairy honeysuckle blossom (Lonicera hispidula).
Black-tailed bumble bee (Bombus melanopygus) forages on hairy honeysuckle (Lonicera hispidula).

On the heels of National Pollinator Week — when we honor the hard-working animals who give so much, let’s remember that they need much more than flowers to survive. These fascinating creatures — from bees and beetles to butterflies and moths — face seemingly insurmountable threats, including habitat loss, the climate crisis, and pesticide use. It’s tragic and overwhelming, but there is much that each of us can do as individuals, and together we can have a tremendous influence over potential habitat in everything from tiny urban lots to community gardens to large rural expanses.

Modern landscaping practices essentially strip habitat from our yards. But there are many easy DIY habitat features that can be incorporated — or simply left in place — and they are superior to artificial supports (such as bee hotels) because they break down fairly quickly (which minimizes parasite and disease problems that come with repeated use), and better imitate the natural density of nest sites that keep pollinators healthy. 

In my Pacific Northwest yard I offer a variety of native trees, shrubs and perennials throughout, as well as a mini-meadow where locally native perennials — such as western columbine, fleabane, checker mallow, blue-eyed grass and iris — grow and buzz with life. To be certain they will return next year, I also provide adequate shelter for overwintering and nesting. I leave leaf “litter”, hollow and pithy stems, and dead wood lying around, provide water and brush and rock piles, use no chemicals, and refrain from doing any “clean up” until late spring, to prevent disturbance of overwintering adults, eggs, larvae, or pupa that may be camouflaged within nature’s debris—for example, the strikingly beautiful western tiger swallowtail butterfly may overwinter as chrysalis (pupa), which looks like a little piece of dead wood during that time. 

At home, here are a dozen easy things we can do to support a variety of pollinators, from bees, moths, and butterflies to beetles and flies

~ Leave parts of your garden a little “wild.” Undisturbed shelter and nesting locations are absolutely essential, and gardens that are a bit messy and provide brush and log piles, mounds of rounded stones, as well as patches of bare, well-drained, undisturbed soil will help.

Put away that leaf blower and allow fallen leaves, twigs and bark to remain undisturbed on the ground so that butterflies and moths can make it through the winter either as eggs, caterpillars, chrysalises, or adults, and so that bees such as queen bumble bees can slumber peacefully under a leafy blanket; leave a very light layer on any lawn you have, too. Besides pollinators, many other wild ones live or overwinter in leaves, including beetles, spiders, snails, and worms, all of which are beneficial and/or support the birds, small mammals, reptiles and amphibians who need them for food. An added benefit is that detritus from trees and shrubs insulate plants’ roots, suppress weeds and retain moisture just as well as wood chips or other mulches (that may contain invasive species) but allow for ground-nesting.

For the numerous species of native ground-nesting bees (70% of bees nest in the ground in burrows), supply a generous amount of undisturbed and bare soil. Avoid tillage and anything that prevents access to soil, like plastic mulch, landscape fabric, or thick layers of mulch, including wood chips and bark mulch. Natural fallen (whole) leaves, small pebbles, and light layers of compost are fine. If you must remove some leaves in the spring, wait until late spring to prevent disturbance to species who emerge fairly late.

Nest sites for the other bees that nest aboveground — in stems or tunnels within decaying wood — can be augmented by placing hollow or pithy stems, or downed wood (with or without dead-ended, narrow holes drilled into them) on or above the ground. Bumble bees typically nest in pre-existing cavities such as bird nest boxes, abandoned rodent burrows, unmortared rock wall crannies, hollow logs, beneath bunch grasses, etc. We once had a bumble nest in a small pile of lawn that had been removed and was decomposing upside-down.

In perennial beds, leave flower stalks, branches (and seed heads, to provide food) standing over the winter. In early spring, dead flower stalks may be cut back to create cavity nest sites just before the first bees emerge; naturally-occurring open stems should be left in place. Cut hollow or pithy stalks at a variety of heights, about one to two feet above the ground to supply vertical nesting opportunities for insects of various sizes. You can also bundle together additional cut stalks and place them, vertically or horizontally, in a sheltered spot to create additional nesting opportunities. Female bees will find them and create individual nests, each supplied with pollen/nectar balls upon which larvae will feed. As summer progresses, new growth hides the stems which contain the developing larvae/pupa. Adults hibernate during winter and emerge the following spring and the process starts all over.

Deer browsing may create nesting sites for some cavity nesters and shrubs may be pruned (just before the shrubs break dormancy) to mimic it. However, before cutting any branches, always be certain that no birds are using the shrub for nesting.

~ Provide clean water.
Pollinators and other insects need a shallow source of clean water where they can drink and find water to create their nests. Fill a plate or shallow dish with clean pea gravel and keep it moist and near flowering plants.


~ Moisten sand or loose soil to help adult butterflies. Butterflies and moths ingest liquids like flower nectar from which they obtain sugars, minerals, and other nutrients. But they also need to “sip” from muddy or sandy puddles, sap, decaying fruit, sweaty humans, even manure piles to hydrate themselves and obtain dissolved minerals, including salt. Such minerals are vital for many physiological functions, including reproduction: Males often transfer “nuptial gifts” of sodium and amino acids to the female during mating (along with other donations). Before you say, “He shouldn’t have,” consider how evolution toward generosity might generate rewards: More gifts mean more nutrition and better egg survival. To assist, add a dash of salt to containers or areas of moist sand or soil, to be sure they get what they need.

Butterflies and moths often obtain nutrients and moisture in mud puddles, but they’re also attracted to perspiration on skin, like this green comma butterfly.
Butterflies and moths often obtain nutrients and moisture in mud puddles, but they’re also attracted to perspiration on skin, like this green comma butterfly.


~ Steer clear of pesticides. Even those approved for organic gardening, such as rotenone, are harmful. Systemic insecticides like neonicotinoids (a class of insecticides such as imidacloprid, acetamiprid, clothianidin, dinotefuran, nithiazine, thiacloprid and thiamethoxam that affect insects’ central nervous systems), are absorbed by plants and produce toxic nectar and pollen. Studies show that residues may persist in woody plants for up to six years following application and may persist in soil for several years. Herbicides and fungicides can also be harmful. In a healthy, balanced system there should be no need to resort to poisons.

~ Allow some “pests.”
Some pollinators’ young feed on insects that we consider pests, so don’t be too quick to destroy them. Many syrphid flies, which are great pollinators, lay their eggs in or close to aphid colonies, so that their legless and blind larvae can feed on them. Highly efficient, one larva may eat hundreds of aphids. They also may feed on scale insects or thrips. When mature, larvae go to the soil to transform into pupae and eventually into adult flies. Their life cycle takes 2 to 4 weeks to complete. Other syrphid fly larvae are either (1) scavengers that tidy up ant, bee, and wasp nests, (2) feeders of plant material, tree sap, and fungi, or (3) decomposers that feed on decaying organic matter, so yet another reason to not disturb soil too much and to leave plant debris where it falls to the soil.

Syrphid fly laying eggs on an aphid-infested kale plant.

~ Grow a variety of plants that are native to your area, and you won’t need to think too much about whether you will provide food for pollinators. Studies show that native plants are four times more alluring to pollinators than exotic flowers.

Small female mining bee (Andrea sp.) gathers pollen for her young on showy fleabane (Erigeron specious).
Small female mining bee (Andrena sp.) gathers pollen for her young on showy fleabane (Erigeron speciosus).

Got lawn? Whether you have a large or small lot, consider replacing or minimizing turf with native grasses wildflowers, and perennials (and mosses in shady areas). Add native shrubs and trees to provide cover and protection, especially for ground-nesting bees, as well as the fallen debris and brush/log/rock piles mentioned above.

~ Grow butterfly host plants.
To become adults, butterflies in earlier life stages — egg, larva, chrysalis — require host plants that provide habitat and food. Find out which butterflies frequent your area, and grow the plants that provide for all their stages. In the Northwest, check out this handy guide: Create a Butterfly Garden (OSU).

~ Provide nectar and pollen in a variety of flower colors, shapes, and sizes for pollinators with different needs. Flower nectar, produced in glandular organs called nectaries, is high in carbohydrates and serves to attract pollinators to distribute plants’ pollen (and in some cases, attracts protectors like parasitoids and ants—which also pollinate to a small extent—against herbivores that may be problematic). Pollen is a highly nutritious blend of proteins, lipids and carbohydrates. We’ve been taught that bees tend to prefer yellow, purple, and blue flowers — anything but red, which they can’t see — while hummingbirds can see and do use reds (although one study suggests that their preference may not be innate, but rather they choose them since bees don’t). While this is true, a 2016 research study shows that bumblebees (and probably other pollinators) choose a plant for the nutritional quality of its pollen, not only its color; they need pollen with a high protein to lipid ratio (which makes sense, since pollen is mainly used to feed their growing larvae). And, research from UC-Davis suggests that pollinators choose among flowers based on the microbes within those flowers, such as yeasts that are “commonly found in flower nectar and … [are] thought to hitch a ride on pollinators to travel from one flower to the next. Yeasts’ scent production may help attract pollinators, which then help the yeast disperse among flowers.” But flower shape and size also matter: Butterflies need clusters of short, tubular flowers with a wide landing pad, such as yarrow (Achellia millefolium occidentalis), various native bees need different types of flowers (generally shallow), while hummingbirds like relatively large, tubular, or urn-shaped flowers.

Syrphid fly (Scavea pyrastri) on western bleeding heart (Dicentra formosa).
A syrphid fly (Scavea pyrastri) on western bleeding heart (Dicentra formosa).


~ Keep it blooming.
From spring through fall, something should always be in bloom, preferably several species at a time. In the Pacific Northwest, early spring flowers, like those of osoberry (Oemleria cerasiformis), willows (Salix spp.), and red-flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum), are particularly important to bees emerging from hibernation, while late-season nectar sources such as asters (Symphyotrichum spp. or Aster spp.) help bees that overwinter as adults get through the winter. Both early and late forage may aid in bees’ reproduction. Of course, mid-summer flowers are important, too! Many native species bloom for extended periods, such as charming foamflower (Tiarella trifoliata), which may produce flowers from spring to late summer, white spiraea (Spiraea lucida), and showy fleabane (Erigeron speciosus). Learn when plants bloom to be sure you’ve got it covered, and aim for some overlap in bloom times. Remember that trees and shrubs, as well as perennials and annuals, can provide nectar and pollen. Arrange smaller plants in irregular clumps or drifts so that plants are next to or within a few feet of another of its kind, to supply enough forage and to make it easy for pollinators to find them. Provide at least three different plant species per season of bloom whenever possible.

~ Forgo hybridized and “double” flowers. When choosing nonnative plants, keep in mind that hybridized varieties may lack sufficient pollen nutrition. Pollens vary in protein content, and bees and other pollen-consuming insects need a wide variety to fulfill their protein requirement. Research also suggests that some commonly used garden plants, especially those hybridized for features valued by gardeners, like disease-resistance or flower size or color, may not provide sufficient or appropriate nutrients in nectar, needed for carbohydrates. Frilly double-flowered varieties (those with extra petals that make a flower look inflated and flouncy) are usually inaccessible to pollinators simply because they can’t get through the mass of petals to the nectaries. It’s a bit sad to watch a bumblebee, desperately trying to get inside an overly dressed flower, fly away without food.

~ Turn roadsides native. Studies show that native pollinators are much more prevalent in native stretches of roadside habitat — often the only connection between patches of remnant habitat — than weedy, nonnative stretches. If you own rural land, plant natives near your roadside and mow it very infrequently (from the inside, out) to prolong bloom and prevent harm to creatures who may be taking cover within it.

Other things we can do for pollinators include participating in “citizen science” projects that seek input from gardeners, and advocating for an end to pesticide use in our parks and communities.

Trichodes ornatus
This beetle (Trichomes ornatus), on wild buckwheat (Eriogonum sp.), is a member of a very diverse group of pollinators that are especially important in areas where bees aren’t common.



© 2017 Eileen M. Stark  |  updated 2020

Adapted from content originally published in my book, Real Gardens Grow Natives: Design, Plant, & Enjoy a Healthy Northwest Garden.

 

Just the Thicket … For Wildlife Habitat


If you’re looking for ways to counteract — in a small but significant way — the relentless destruction of the natural world and want to turn your yard into a place that supports the wildlife community, or you already garden for biodiversity, you probably know that appropriate habitat — food, water, space, cover — is essential. Food is best supplied by regional native plants that produce insects, nectar, pollen, fruit, and/or seeds, while water comes either from natural sources or human-made birdbaths or ponds. Adequate space is important to prevent competition for food, cover, and nesting sites. Cover, or shelter, is as crucial as the others because wild fauna need places that not only shield them from inclement weather, but also hide them from predators (and people). Predatory animals themselves often need cover to successfully obtain prey. A lack of cover is a limiting factor for many wildlife populations.

Increased biodiversity comes with careful planning and placement of cover habitat supplied both vertically and horizontally with small and large native shrubs and trees. Those with particularly dense foliage may also provide valuable nesting habitat, as well as privacy for you, or even a windbreak if strategically placed.

Thickets are a great way to provide cover for relatively small animals, due to their tendency to be impenetrable to large species. They may be dense groups of trees or shrubs, usually dominated by one or a few species that tend to be multi-stemmed and often densely twiggy, or they may be formed by a single species that either enlarges via underground suckering stems or sheds large numbers of seeds that have the ability to grow beneath or close to the parent plant. Thickets of the latter type may also be spread by human disturbance. 

Even when leafless, red-twig dogwood (Cornus sericea) attracts birds.


Because thickets tend to fill quite a bit of space, they usually are not suitable for very small gardens, since they will tend to “take over” a small space, either fairly quickly or over many years, depending on the species. But if you have a fairly large yard or an acreage, native thickets create mini-ecosystems within which essential food and cover are supplied for a large number of beneficiaries, from insects and birds to reptiles, amphibians and mammals, depending on the location. They’ll also conserve soil moisture and may slow — or even prevent — erosion on slopes. And, when well established, thickets keep out many invasive weeds (note: always remove weeds well before planting any type of native plants). Many of these plants also can provide food for us, but I suggest you share with wild visitors.

Thickets often get a bad rap because they don’t look particularly neat and orderly, but if you garden for wildlife you know that messy and naturalistic is much better for the wild ones. To tidy up shrubs that tend to develop into thickets, gardeners often clip out suckers and sprouts for appearance’s sake, but that’s to the disadvantage of wild visitors.

Pollinators love thickets!

Although thickets (especially thorny ones) may not be suitable for most front yards, in back yards or other areas, they can be wonderful wildlife magnets. And when located as far from human activity as possible, they also lend tranquility in an urban environment. Though my yard is just one sixth of an acre, I have several thickets—one that’s composed of snowberry and clustered rose, several of tall Oregon grape, and a large clump of thimbleberry. It seems there’s almost always something going on: A little bird or two flitting around branches looking for food, a ground feeding bird foraging within fallen leaves, pollinators hard at work, or — during nesting season — a bird vocally establishing his territory. Flowers’ pollen and nectar attract a variety of native pollinators in springtime, fruits or seeds become available later in the year, and the rose offers a place for mourning cloak butterfly larvae to develop.

Choosing thicket species
In nature, thicket-developing plants grow in forested areas, as well as open areas such as historic savannas (a grassland with trees scattered at least 100 feet apart), upland prairies (another type of grassland) or wet prairies. Needless to say, savanna/prairie plants require more sunlight than forest thicket species. Since humans have converted most savanna and prairie habitat to agriculture and livestock grazing, those thicket species aren’t having an easy time; they’re mostly forced to live on forest edges and fence rows and are threatened by invasive species.

Prairie or savanna thickets naturally would be surrounded and complemented by native herbaceous plants and grasses that are members of a plant community, which together would create a highly supportive ecosystem. Forest species also would naturally occur with ‘associates’ that interact and flourish together.

Thorny native thickets, such as this Rosa pisocarpa, offer a place for birds to rest as well as forage.


Here are some plants that typically will form thickets in the Pacific Northwest, west of the Cascades (but it’s not an exhaustive list). Choose species that would naturally occur in your area; check native status to county level here.

For sun to part sun: Douglas hawthorn (Cragateus douglasii), Red-twig dogwood (Cornus sericea), California hazelnut (Corylus cornuta var. californica), Western crabapple (Malus fusca), Western serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia), Ninebark (Physocarpus capitatus), Tall Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium), Bitter cherry (Prunus emarginata var. mollis), willows such as Salix scouleriana, S. lucida, S. hookeriana, and S. sitchensis, red-flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum), wild roses (Rosa nutkana, R. pisocarpa), Douglas spiraea (Spiraea douglasii*), white spiraea (Spiraea betulifolia var. lucida), Thimbleberry (Rubus parviflorus*), Salmonberry (Rubus spectabilis*).

For part shade to shade: Red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa), Snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus), Osoberry (Oemleria cerasiformis), Salal (Gautheria shallon).

* may spread rapidly.

Fox sparrow foraging beneath a thicket stays safe.



© 2020 Eileen M. Stark

Earth to Humans: “Wake Up!”


Fifty years ago today, my U.S. senator at the time, Gaylord Nelson, designated April 22 as Earth Day, a day for Americans to speak out about environmental crises. The “conservation governor” of Wisconsin for two terms and U.S. senator for 18 years, Nelson struggled at putting environmental issues in a prominent place in politics, but eventually succeeded. Besides authoring legislation that created a national hiking trails system and the 2,100-mile Appalachian Trail System, he was deeply involved in important bedrock environmental laws including the Wilderness Act, Clean Air Act, Clean Water Acts, Federal Pesticides Act, and National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

Although Nelson came up with the idea, it was ordinary citizens who made Earth Day what it was and what it has become, through grassroots political action. The first Earth Day in 1970 was, to date, the largest demonstration of any kind in the country. The goal was an “environment of decency, quality and mutual respect for all other human beings and all other living creatures.” Clearly, he believed in a better future for the planet and all its residents.

Which brings me to the strange times that could become the new ‘normal.’ While it’s very difficult these days not to focus on how the pandemic affects us, climate chaos and widespread exploitation of animals continues unabated. The link between animal and human health is clear; we must remember the other gentler members of the planet with which we are connected—for both their sakes and ours. Although we are just one species on Earth, we have — by far — the biggest impact. 

I’ve always known that wildlife ought to be left alone, to live the natural life that they evolved to live. Wild animals fear us, don’t want us around, and certainly don’t need us. And when we invade and destroy their habitat, the harm that can come to them — and us — is appalling, to say the least. As if we need proof, one study demonstrates that as humans encroach into species-rich habitats — for development, road building, hunting, mining, etc. — biodiversity declines, wild landscapes disappear, and exposure to ‘new’ microbes increases. Many diseases, like Ebola, SARS, HIV, Lyme disease and others, arose that way. Scientists tell us that around 70 percent of emerging infectious diseases in humans are of zoonotic origin, and nearly 1.7 million undiscovered viruses may exist in wildlife.

Our current pandemic is similar to other unknown viruses that have come about under similar circumstances — that is, when humans steal various innocent wild animals from their natural homes and cruelly toss them together in horrendous markets. It’s almost as if the uncontrollable pathogens are responding to human actions that have put harrowing pressure on the natural world, leading to damaging and widespread consequences that put all life — human and non-human animals, and even plants — at risk. Failure to take care of our home and other species’ natural homes also means a failure to take care of ourselves.  

The media has mostly focused on the connection between pandemics and “wet markets” (where miserable live animals are slaughtered and sold). COVID-19 did likely originate in a live animal market in China, but these markets are not the only places that pose dangers, or where animals suffer intensely. Scientists now believe that the current pandemic started as a result of wildlife trafficking and that the disease probably originated in those wonderful pest-eaters — bats — and moved in a live animal market to an intermediary host — possibly the highly endangered pangolin, the most trafficked mammal on earth — and from there the disease jumped to humans. Although some locales have banned the sale of wildlife for food, there are loopholes for alleged medicinal purposes and won’t trafficking just go underground?

Moreover, confining enormous numbers of tortured, domesticated animals close together in factory farms essentially creates breeding grounds for pandemics. Studies have linked factory farming (also one of the largest sources of methane emissions) to more virulent, faster-mutating pathogens. The same animal ag corporations that worsen the climate crisis abet the creation of new, deadlier diseases at high volume that can adapt to humans.

And let’s not forget the indirect destruction, killing and other environmental disasters, such as broken heat records, dying coral reefs, and uncontrollable wildfires. Both climate chaos as well as its causes — rampant development, deforestation, animal agriculture, and other ecosystem destruction — must end, since all force free-living wildlife into contact with people.

As Carl Safina writes, it’s only going to get worse and next time we could face unimaginable “lethal chaos.” But we’re nearly there, when it comes to how we’ve caused crossover contamination to other species. One example: The Siberian (or Amur) tiger, one of the six remaining tiger subspecies and one of the most terribly endangered due to poaching and habitat loss caused by humans, may go extinct soon due to the deadly canine distemper virus (CDV). CVD was first described and likely originated in South America where the closely related Eurasian human measles virus raged in the 1500-1700s. Those epidemics “likely facilitated the establishment of CDV as a canine pathogen, which eventually spread to Europe and beyond.” The virus is suspected to have caused the deaths of thousands of Caspian seals during outbreaks in 1988 and 2000; it nearly exterminated the black-footed ferret, and has decimated Africa’s wild dog populations. CDV hit Serengeti lions in 1994, when the epidemic killed a third of their population — nearly 1,000 animals at once — as well as a huge number of leopards, bat-eared foxes, and hyenas. Additionally, global animal trade spreads the often fatal ranaviruses, which infect amphibians, reptiles and fish, and one reason for the global decline of wild native bees are diseases that spillover from managed, commercial bumble bee or honeybee (Apis mellifera) colonies that suffer from a range of exotic and high-impact pathogens.

The largest mass extinction (since the dinosaurs)
Pandemics may happen more often when climate change is unabated. For example, the Ebola epidemic in West Africa coincided with cutting down forests for agriculture. Bats who lost their homes were forced into new places when their habitat was destroyed. Changing weather patterns also alter vectors and the spread of disease.

According to a new study, as early as the next decade, many more animal species than previously predicted will collapse if greenhouse gas emissions are not lessened, and it won’t be gradual. Nearly all species and all regions will be affected and abrupt collapses in tropical oceans could begin soon. Coral bleaching events have already begun, and collapse of highly diverse tropical forests ecosystems could follow just several decades later. One example that may speed up: As much as half of the planet’s 6,000 amphibian species are in danger of extinction due to a global pandemic caused by wildlife exploitation. Chytridiomycosis, a fungal disease that’s found on every continent except Antarctica, is quickly pushing some species toward oblivion; some, like the Panamanian golden frog are thought to be gone. The disease’s spread can be traced back to the commercial trade in exotic animals and is exacerbated by the climate crisis.

If we don’t learn now, will we ever? We certainly can’t stop every negative aspect of modern human society, but we can proceed in a more gentle, compassionate, sustainable way to reduce our ecological footprint. Not only will it lessen climate change and promote conservation, it will improve our health.

© 2020 Eileen M. Stark

Welcome Little-Known Moths to Your Garden

Smerinthus jamaicensis


The little sphinx moth caterpillar
 was on a mission: To find a safe, secure spot where she could transform herself and stay alive during the cold, wet winter months ahead. On a warm September day last year I watched as she inched her way across half the length of my back yard, occasionally meandering around roadblocks like plant stems and small rocks that must have seemed like insurmountable boulders to her (although at one point she nimbly climbed up and over a small log in her path). A couple of times she burrowed down into loose leaf cover, but then moved on, perhaps surmising that a better place would come along. After I walked away for a few moments I lost track of her. Since my yard is a leafy nirvana for butterflies and moths such as her species (Smerinthus jamaicensis or twin-spotted sphinx) that need to nestle themselves in soil under fallen leaves so they can pupate over the winter months, she probably found a suitable place that would hold her until a warm spring day allowed her to emerge and take to her wings.  

We’re nearing the end of National Moth Week, a short stretch of time set aside to appreciate these gentle, humble, and nimble flyers who tirelessly supplement the daytime work of bees, butterflies, and other pollinators, as well as offer food for other animals. They get a fraction of the attention that butterflies do and are often vilified, despite their close relationship, beauty, and rich diversity. Within their hidden world are unusual, intriguing, and dramatic behaviors. Moth species outnumber butterflies by around ten to one; there are more than 11,000 species in the U.S., with another 160,000 globally. 

Gardens are very important places for moths since development and agriculture severely limit their habitat. There might be dozens of moth species inhabiting an ordinary urban or suburban garden, and the way you manage yours can affect the conservation of their populations, which are, as you might expect, seriously in decline, like most insects. Here are some tips:

Protect them from light pollution. For nocturnal and crepuscular moths, as well as other insects and migratory birds who use celestial navigation, unnatural lighting can cause disorientation and confusion, leading to exhaustion and death. The best way to help restore their natural behavior is to turn off all exterior lights, using motion sensors when necessary. If you must have lights on, use only dim bulbs in warm tones, which are less likely to attract moths. Draw shades and draperies indoors as well, to prevent light trespass.

Ease up on “clean-ups”. Adult moths and their caterpillars, as well as some butterfly species including the mourning cloak, need fallen leaves, stems, twigs and other plant debris to help them hide from predators and to provide suitable places to pupate and spend the winter. Let fallen leaves stay on soil and delay cutting back spent plants until well into spring (the later the better), rather than doing it in autumn or winter (and always check branches that may hold a chrysalis). If you must neaten up a portion of your garden in the spring/summer, leave collected plant material elsewhere in your yard.

Forget about herbicides and other pesticides, which can kill moths and other insects. This will also benefit your garden by increasing the number of predatory insects that help control the pesky ones. There needs to be a supply of prey in order to feed the predators—it’s a natural cycle that needs to be supported.

Limit hardscaping (concrete, gravel, decking) and increase the amount of area given to plants other than lawn, since moths and other wildlife can’t use hardscape for habitat.

Grow a wide variety of plants (preferably native species local to your area) to appeal to a diversity of moth species—everything from grasses and flowering perennials to shrubs and trees. Gardening for moths is similar to gardening for butterflies and other pollinators, although moths generally tend to feed on a greater variety of foods than butterflies. 

As adults, most moths need a sugar source and they may feed on plant nectar, rotting fruit, or tree sap. Moth-pollinated flowers tend to be fragrant and pale or white, such as western mock orange (Philadelphus lewisii), oceanspray (Holodiscus discolor), and snow brush (Ceanothus velutinus), which allow nocturnal moths to easily find nectar after dark, so think “moonlight garden”. Moths that pollinate by day typically feed at flowers that native butterflies do, since they usually have long tongues. Some moths, like the twin-spotted sphinx, have reduced mouthparts and digestive tracts so don’t eat at all in their adult stage; they exist briefly only to mate and lay eggs, which in turn may provide food for predators like birds.

Almost all moth species need a host plant on which to feed during their larval stage. Many moth caterpillars eat leaves like most butterflies do, but some species may eat seeds, woody stems, or roots. The most important native host plants for moths and butterflies in the Pacific Northwest — considering the abundance of species they host — include Oregon white oak (Quercus garryana), oceanspray (Holodiscus discolor), and species in the following genera: Acer (maple), Alnus (alder), Arctostaphylos (manzanitas and bearberries), Ceanothus (wild lilac), Populus (aspen and cottonwood), Ribes (currants and gooseberries), and Salix (willows). 


© 2019 Eileen M. Stark

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Urgent Alert! Western Monarch Butterflies Desperately Need Our Help

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Western monarch above showy milkweed (Asclepias speciosa). Photo courtesy Xerces Society/Stephanie McKnight.

 

The final results are in from last November’s Western Monarch Count and they are alarming. Although there were millions of western monarch butterflies overwintering in California in the 1980s, the 2018 count reveals just 28,429—the lowest number ever recorded and an 85.2 percent decline from 2017 and a 99.4 percent decline from the ’80s, according to the Xerces Society. One research study estimated that 30,000 could lead to western monarch migration collapse. [Update, January 2020: the 2019 count is similarly shocking.]

Nineteen ninety-seven was the last year that monarchs numbered above one million; there has been significant decline in both the total number of butterflies reported per year and the average number of monarchs per overwintering site. Western monarchs overwinter mainly in California (with some in northern Baja and Arizona). They are a separate population from those in the eastern US, which overwinter in Mexico. The decline in western monarchs is much more severe than those in the East.

The Xerces Society has developed a Western Monarch Call to Action that includes conservation measures must be taken immediately if we are to save this beautiful species from extinction. If you live in the western states, please have a look; if you know people who live in the area (particularly the California Coast Range, Sacramento Valley, and the foothills of the Sierra Nevada), please share this with them.

We cannot sit by and wait for state agencies and non-profits to try to bring them back to safe levels. It’s going to take massive, multifaceted actions to bring back these wonders—actions that come from empathy and ecological enlightenment, not technology. 

For those of us who garden in the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere, here’s how we can help grow habitat. Monarch habitat must contain both milkweed host plants and a diversity of other plants. Devote as much of your yard as possible to habitat; consider converting an open expanse of lawn you don’t use, since you will need a mostly sunny spot. That said, you don’t need a huge space and even if monarchs never visit your patch, other pollinators will be supported.

Asclepias fascicularis sRGB

Narrowleaf milkweed (Asclepias fascicularis) along a Wasco County, Ore. road.

♦ Plant native milkweed—monarch’s only host plant—especially if milkweed historically occurred in your area. Learn which one(s) might naturally occur and be most suitable for the pollinators in your area of OregonWashington, Nevada or California. For other states, contact your state department of fish and wildlife or native plant society. To find where you can buy locally native milkweed seed in the US, click here.  

♦ Grow a variety of native nectar plants so you have flowers from spring until fall. Be sure they are native to your area and were propagated from material in your area for best results. If you have the space, plant at least three different species during spring, summer and fall. Arrange at least 3 or 4 plants in groups or swaths, fairly close together, so that pollinators can find them easily and nectar is plentiful. For gardens west of the Cascades, consider these spring flowering shrubs, and some summer and fall pollinator plants. Monarchs need nectar in both spring and fall for migration, and for breeding during summer.

♦ Never buy pollinator plants treated with insecticides. Systemic insecticides like neonicotinoids will harm monarchs and other beneficial pollinators long after they’ve been treated. If you’re unsure, ask the grower (or shop elsewhere).

♦ Avoid all pesticides in and around your yard to avoid harming beneficial insects, as well as plants and soil.

♦ Encourage the growth of native pollinator-friendly plants in your neighborhood and any community gardens nearby, or start your own pollinator plot in the garden if you are a member. Or, turn a vacant lot or part of a park into a large pollinator bed.

No patch of earth to garden in? There are many ways to volunteer to help monarchs, such as becoming a citizen scientist or public advocate. Much of what we know comes from volunteers contributing observations.

It’s also imperative that we support organic agriculture by purchasing organically grown foods, since one of the reasons for the dangerous loss of insects, birds, and aquatic wildlife is the application of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers used in conventional agriculture.

Finally, please do not buy mass-produced or captive-reared butterflies. It may do more harm than good.


© 2019 Eileen M. Stark

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Plants Are a Matter of Life or Death for Birds

Chcikadee feeding

Finding enough food to feed a family can be difficult or impossible when plants are mostly non-native.


I always recommend that we grow
as many native plants as we can to sustain wildlife, but to avoid overwhelming apprehensive gardeners I also mention that our yards don’t have to be exclusively native to be beneficial. Well, now there’s a number to aspire to: 70 percent native, minimum. That’s what a group of researchers have found is necessary for insectivorous birds to raise healthy young and keep their populations steady in human-dominated landscapes, the most swiftly growing ecosystem on the planet.

Their study, the first to examine the effect of non-native plants on an insectivore, looked at the connection between plants, the arthropods (insects, spiders and others) that eat and hang out on those plants, and the breeding success of one insectivorous bird species that, along with most other terrestrial birds, cannot survive without consuming arthropods. Published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, it was conducted in the Washington D.C. area by the usual suspects, University of Delaware researchers Doug Tallamy and Desirée Narango, along with Peter Marra, director of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center. They sought to determine how exotic plants affect songbirds’ reproductive success in urban and suburban landscapes.

Data was collected from about 150 citizen-scientist homeowners whose properties were provided with artificial nest boxes to attract paired Carolina chickadees*. Once their nests were complete, the researchers recorded life on plants within a 50-meter radius where nesting chickadees search almost incessantly for the most nutritious food they can find. During breeding season, arthropods make up more than 90 percent of their diet, which is composed primarily of moth and butterfly larvae, spiders, and Hemipterans (such as aphids and leafhoppers). During non-breeding season, chickadees will consume some plant material, but more than half of their diet is still animal-based, which may have important implications for annual survival. Throughout the year, caterpillars—rich in fat, protein and carotenoids—are an extremely important food item and essential to nestlings’ fast growth.larvae on aspen leaf

Unsurprisingly, native plants were teeming with “bird food,” while non-natives were nearly devoid of life. The reason? Most native insects need native plants because they are specialists—they co-evolved with certain plants and can feed only on them due to their chemical compositions; they cannot survive where those native plants don’t exist. 

Nest boxes were also monitored, as was the survival of parents and fledglings. Analysis of data revealed rapid declines in populations of Carolina chickadees when yards supported mostly non-native trees and shrubs. As soon as the percentage of natives falls below 70, the probability of sustaining the species drops to zero. In other words, when there is little native plant biomass, the parents either do not establish nests or they cannot locate enough food and their babies starve to death. But at 70 percent or higher, the birds can thrive and sustain their populations. The number is a baseline: The more insectivorous a bird, the higher percentage of native plants needed to support them.

Developers and property owners typically convert native plant communities into habitats composed of mostly non-native plant species. Usually chosen for some aesthetic effect or because they’re so commonly available, they are extremely poor at supporting native invertebrates at the base of the food chain and those—such as songbirds—who cannot survive without such highly nutritious prey. Non-native plants—invasive or not—appear harmless, but substantially influence ecosystems in dangerous ways. Effects that begin at the bottom of the food chain go straight up, creating so-called ‘food deserts’ for birds, which _MG_7373 sRGBmay lead to starvation and possibly local extinction. Sadly, that is the case with most yards. If we really want to help birds, we need to realize that their lives are in our hands. Small changes for us will be colossal for them.

 

 

 

Though the study focused on just one insectivorous bird species in the mid-Atlantic region, the results are applicable to migratory birds who need high quality food at stopover sites as they undertake their arduous, exhausting semiannual journeys, as well as 431 other insectivorous species (in the U.S.) that need similar support in habitats far away. Because I live in an urban area where natural cavities for cavity-nesting birds (such as black-capped chickadees and woodpeckers) are scarce, each spring our clean chickadee nest box is dutifully placed in our back yard. We have photographed mom and dad chickadees feeding their young both spiders and insects or their larvae, and for the past five years every chickadee nestling has fledged (and, as far as I know, lived to adulthood). Nonetheless, the study mentions that when spiders are a sizable part of insectivorous birds’ diets, it’s due to non-native vegetation. I can’t do much about the non-natives in my neighbors’ yards, but I can replace exotics in mine. 

Spider Treat

How we can help
Reading about shocking, dramatic declines in insects and insectivorous birds, as well as countless other creatures in trouble due to human actions can be disheartening, but this study proves that when we (and our neighbors) prioritize  regional native plants at home that have great capacity for supporting biodiversity, we can make positive change for them and ourselves as well, since supporting wildlife can be very rewarding. Clearly, countless lives depend on how we garden and which plants we choose. And the little invertebrates themselves—part of the intricate web of life—have value in and of themselves.

Quercus (oak), Prunus (wild cherry), Salix (willow), Betula (birch), Populus (aspen & cottonwood), and Acer (maple) were among the top performers on Tallamy’s list pf plants found to host lepidoptera (moth and butterfly larvae) in the mid-Atlantic states. So instead of a ginkgo tree, opt for a native oak tree. Instead of a flowering cherry hybrid, choose a native cherry (in the Pacific Northwest: Prunus emarginata). Instead of Japanese maple, plant native maple (in the PNW: Acer macrophyllum, A. circinatum or A. glabrum). Some woody PNW trees and shrubs known to host lepidoptera include native dogwood (Cornus spp.), western red cedar (Thuja plicata), serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia), elderberry (Sambucus spp.), oceanspray (Holodiscus discolor), western mock orange (Philadelphus lewisii), honeysuckle (Lonicera spp.), and herbaceous plants like checker mallow (Sidalcea spp.), monkey flower (Mimulus spp.), and milkweed (Asclepias spp.). Choose species that would have historically grown in your locale, whenever possible, and add associated species—those that would grow with them naturally—as well. The 30 percent leeway allows us to grow some non-natives that we love and/or food for the kitchen table.

Chickadee hungry

Regional native plants are critical for supporting wildlife like insectivores, including chickadees.

 

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* Carolina chickadees, which are very similar in appearance to black-capped chickadees, are almost entirely insectivorous during breeding. Although they are fairly common across their range, their populations declined by 16% between 1966 and 2019, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

 

© 2018 Eileen M. Stark

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Flip the Switch to Save the Dark!

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                        To Know the Dark
To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
And find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
And is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.
                                                  —Wendell Berry

 

If you live in or near a city, chances are you don’t see many twinkling little stars at night because light pollution — the fastest growing form of human-caused pollution — is making the night sky glow brighter each year. In fact, night skies across roughly half of the U.S. are polluted by artificial light. A fairly recent study from the University of Exeter found that observable light emissions increased globally by at least 49 percent from 1992 to 2017. But that figure only includes light visible via satellites, and scientists estimate the actual increase may be much higher — as much as 270 to 400 percent, depending on  the region.

Excessive, poorly designed lighting that spills skyward changes the predictable day/night cycle that life evolved in. Even tucked into bed, our glaring human footprint trespasses into the nocturnal world to mess up biological rhythms and health, consume and waste energy, steal the beauty and wonder of the nighttime sky, contribute to climate change, and disrupt beings within complex ecosystems. 

As I wrote in a Portland Monthly article a few years ago, myriad wildlife species that work the dusk and dawn or graveyard shifts depend on uninterrupted darkness to provide exquisitely timed cues that direct communication, reproduction, protection, sleep, foraging behavior, and orientation. For long-distance migratory birds who travel at night during spring and fall using celestial navigation, artificial light can disrupt or kill them in several ways. The timing of migration (when wildlife leave their summer or winter grounds) is controlled by several factors, one of which is photoperiod (the duration of light and dark), a predicable indicator of time of year. When the haze of artificial lighting conceals this cue, birds may leave too early or too late, which may cause them to miss optimal nesting conditions. And when lured into a maze of city lights, migrants become confused and disoriented and often collide with unnecessarily illuminated buildings, or drop from exhaustion. It’s estimated that as much as a billion birds are killed this way each year in North America, but it’s not only birds that are affected.

Nocturnal moth (Cyclophora pendulinaria), awaiting the dark.

All animals—reptiles (including sea turtles), amphibians, mammals (including humans)—are negatively impacted. Arthropods, like nocturnal moths — their fate seamlessly interconnected with other ecosystem members — perish rather than pollinating, breeding, and supplying food for birds. And the seasonal cycle of plants, including trees — particularly those with the misfortune of being planted beneath streetlights or in the path of landscape lighting — is threatened. Researchers believe that early bud break caused by incessant light will have a cascade effect on other organisms whose life cycles work in tandem with such plants, as well as the plants themselves. A recent study suggests that intensified light at night may have serious far-reaching consequences in disruption of key ecosystem functions and services.

Plants need to “sleep” in darkness, just as we do, and sleep deprivation is as harmful to trees as it is to animals. Trees that are sensitive to day length tend to be more affected by artificial light, and changes to day length can cause disruptions in flowering patterns, growth of larger leaves (which can cause them to be more susceptible to air pollution or water stress), and even prevent trees — particularly young ones — from entering dormancy in autumn. Longer growing seasons are not a good thing! Tree species most affected by artificial light include dogwood, maple, birch, aspen and cottonwood.

The bright side
Although nights are getting brighter each year since continual development and sprawl amplify light pollution
, there is a bright side: It’s reversible. Organizations such as the International Dark-Sky Association and many smaller groups, like Audubon of Portland’s Lights Out campaign, are working to preserve and protect the night skies, and there are Dark Sky communities, parks, and preserves. While it will take urban planners, designers of fixtures and buildings, and elected local officials to create standards for outdoor lighting that minimizes light pollution, glare and trespass overall, those of us who are homeowners can each do our part—and it takes very little effort. 

Hello darkness, my old friend
→ Switch it off:
Turn off unnecessary outdoor lights or, better yet, install motion-sensors that are designed to turn on only when needed and turn off after a short period of time.
→ Shield it: Use fixtures that aim light downward and that are shielded to prevent glare and “trespass” on habitat and neighbors. Those that have a solid cap above the bulb that prevents light from traveling skyward are best; you can also buy shades to fit existing fixtures. Lowering fixtures sometimes can also help.
→ Warm it up: Select warm-colored LEDs (under a 3,000 Kelvin rating) that supply only the amount of light needed. Those that emit short cool or blue wavelengths are brighter, scatter light more, and are worse for wildlife.
→ Remember indoor lights: Close draperies, especially during peak migration seasons (April through June and August through November) to stop rays from straying outdoors.
→ Request shields: Shields on streetlights may be possible. Inquire with your local department of transportation.
→ Buck the trend of landscape lighting: Most “decorative” outdoor lighting is pointless, detrimental to wildlife and plants, and wasteful, particularly fixtures that point light upwards and sideways.
→ Close all blinds, shades and/or shutters to reduce nighttime light that attracts and confuses wildlife.

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Safety concerns?
Most home burglaries occur in broad daylight, not in the middle of the night, and excessive lighting does not lessen crime. _MG_0166In fact, studies show that bright lights can make victims and property easier to see, as well as create much greater contrast and excessive glare, which increases the deep shadows that may actually increase crime and vandalism and make it more difficult to see potential intruders on your property. To improve security, use motion sensors that don’t give criminals a leg up. 

 

 

© 2018 Eileen M. Stark

Updated 02/2024

Take Care During Fall (and Spring) Garden “Clean-ups”

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The last of the warm, dry fall days are upon us
and it seems like a great time to be puttering around the garden. But this time of year is actually not a good time to be “cleaning up”—that is, removing fallen leaves and woody debris from bare soil, pruning standing plants, and making your yard look somewhat like a victim of a gardening magazine makeover. Leaves and other plant material that fall to earth are part of nature’s systems that nurture and shelter wildlife and enrich and protect the soil. Healthy soil has an uncanny ability to not only keep plants thriving, but also store carbon.

Bedtime for bugs
Leaving fallen leaves on soil is one of the best (and easiest!) things you can do to support wild ones such as birds, amphibians, and small mammals in your garden, as well as myriad invertebrates, including bees, butterflies, spiders, beetles, and worms. Leaves and other plant matter are meant to fall to the soil, to provide food for unfathomable numbers of microbes as well as the macroscopic consumers and recyclers that feed on decaying plant matter. Further up the food chain, many creatures—ground-feeding birds, for example—rely on nature’s soil cover to provide for those they need to eat, which they find under leaves and downed wood (fallen twigs and branches, etc.).

Fox sparrow

A fox sparrow finds dinner under leafy cover.

If we zoom in a bit, we might see small organisms, such as syrphid fly larvae depending on plant debris for a sort of blanket to help them through the cold, wet winter. As things warm up in springtime, some kinds of syrphid fly larvae will consume enormous quantities of aphids and leafhoppers that can harm our edible plants. Adult syrphid files (also called “hover flies” or “flower flies”) are important pollinators: spring through late summer I see quite a variety of them in my garden, probably because I prescribe a healthy dose of fallen leaves on the ground in autumn.

A leafy layer also encourages other pollinators to make it through the winter. For example, as pollination season shuts down and bumble bee workers (females) and males perish, newly crowned bumble bee queens (technically “gyne,” an impregnated queen who has not yet founded a nest but will establish a whole new generation of bumble bees next year) live on. Queens find refuge by digging a shallow tunnel in loose soil—known as a hibernaculum—that’s often tucked under leaf litter. And, many species of lepidoptera (butterflies and moths) overwinter under fallen leaves as eggs, larvae, pupae, or adults. If we disturb their slumber by blowing or raking them away, they and the ecosystem will suffer. Essentially, they and their habitat need to simply be left alone if we want them to grace our gardens and wilder spaces next year.

Pupa Western Tiger Swallowtail

Western tiger swallowtail pupa, clinging to wood, waits out the winter and spring.

Don’t cut back
Fall pruning isn’t a good idea because it may stimulate a plant to put on new growth, which could be sensitive to the lower winter temperatures soon to come. Another important reason not to prune in autumn is that branches and bark — particularly of native plant species — may support butterfly and moth pupae, (aka chrysalis). Swallowtail butterfly pupae pass the winter attached by thin threads to woody material — disguised as dried up leaves or old bits of wood to fool predators — until the warmer temperatures of spring stimulate their metamorphosis into adults. While some non-native fruit trees do need winter pruning and it’s beneficial to remove diseased and dying annual vegetable garden plants to prevent the spread of disease to next year’s kitchen garden, in all other parts of the yard, if you must prune woody plants, approach it the following spring, being sure not to disturb any nesting birds.

Erigeron speciosus (showy fleabane) seed head. When viewed closely, seed heads can be fascinating in their complexity.

Moreover, although they may look dead, the seed heads of PNW native perennials such as fleabane, fescue, goatsbeard, and lupine provide food for seed-eating birds, while their stems or stalks—pithy or hollow—provide shelter and/or cavity nests for beneficial insects like the wild bees that nest in small tunnels. If you must cut them back to the plants’ bases, do it as late as possible in springtime and, instead of throwing them away, place the cut stems in an out of the way place so that anyone using them to get through the winter won’t be discards and so that they may be used by the new year’s cavity nesters.

And, aesthetically speaking, allowing fading plants to stand during winter provides structure and form. On cold, frosty mornings they can be magically transformed into silvery jewels.

Protect and nourish the soil
Down at soil level, besides providing a haven for overwintering organisms, fallen leaves and woody debris protect the soil, which can degrade and erode fairly quickly from excessive rain, sunlight, and wind. In nature, soil is protected and mimicking the way it does that will help your soil stay healthy. And over many years, leaves decompose into layers of organic matter that feed plants naturally and gently, improve the condition of soil, and store carbon with the help of mycorrhizal fungi. The other day I relocated a plant to a spot in my front yard that’s been collectively accumulating a couple dozen inches of leaves over the past 15 years. To my delight I found the result of their decomposition: A couple of inches of soft, dark, rich organic matter that wasn’t there a decade ago. 

Even when we’re being careful, though, it’s easy to cause disturbance. A few autumns ago, as I moved a small amount of leaf litter to another area, I inadvertently uncovered an overwintering queen bumble bee. I felt terrible as I watched her stumble around, obviously weak and awoken from a sound sleep. Luckily it was a warm, dry day and eventually she flew off into the sunshine. But clearly the awakening had been a rude one, because a short while later she returned and burrowed into some loose soil covered by leaves, just a few feet from where she had been. After she was safely underground, I gingerly placed a couple of particularly interesting rocks several inches from her tunnel’s entrance, as well as some oak leaves on top of the soil to remind myself of where she slept.

Moral of the story: The more we clean up and work towards a neat and tidy garden, the worse off beneficial birds, bugs, and countless other life forms will be. If you tend to be a neatnik (like I am), try to catch yourself every time you start moving into manicure-mode and getting overly tidy—especially in the wilder parts of the yard where wildlife may visit or set up house. It just doesn’t make sense to risk losing them for the sake of neatness or to maintain a certain ‘look.’ If you have piles of leaves that have been raked off hardscape or lawn, here are additional ways to use them in your garden.


© 2017 Eileen M. Stark

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Catios Keep Cats and Birds Safe

Born to a homeless mom, Swirlee and his siblings were brought to us at about 12 weeks of age to be socialized so that they could be placed in homes, rather than live difficult lives outdoors. We adopted Swirlee, now 9 years old, and as his personality emerged — from quiet, shy kitten to outspoken king of the castle — a catio proved to be indispensable.


What’s a “catio” and why would you want one?
A catio is an outdoor enclosed patio for cats (and sometimes their caregivers), where they can enjoy the sights, sounds, and smells of the outdoors without getting into trouble. While catios can’t provide total freedom, they prevent Kitty from getting hit by a car, being badly injured or killed by wildlife such as coyotes, acquiring fleas and all the diseases that can result from them, fighting with other cats, and upsetting neighbors who don’t like cats. They also lessen indoor-only cats’ chance of getting feline hyperthyroidism (an increasingly common feline disease caused partly by exposure to chemicals in the dust from flame retardants in bedding and electronic devices), relieve boredom, and assist in multiple-cat households when cats need their space or just a nice place to nap. Last — but definitely not least — catios help keep birds and other little wild creatures safe. Especially if you use bird feeders and/or have a “real” garden designed to attract and support wildlife, allowing your cat to roam freely creates an “ecological trap” that invites disaster, particularly when they are young or seem born to kill. New research has documented just how bad it is.

Most wild bird species — even those considered somewhat common — are in trouble and while predation by cats is certainly not the only cause of birds’ population declines, it is reportedly the leading cause of injury for wild animals treated at Audubon’s Wildlife Care Center in Portland, accounting for nearly 40 percent of intakes; numbers are likely similar at other wildlife rehabilitation facilities. Domesticated cats are predators and obligate carnivores and, despiteyellow warbler migrant their domestication, most yearn to stalk and kill prey—we can’t blame them; it’s in their DNA. Since we are ultimately responsible for our cats and their actions, it’s our responsibility to keep them indoors but also to think about their needs by offering a place to lie in the sun, breathe some fresh air, and watch a little slice of the world.

Of course, expecting a cat who has always been allowed to roam freely to suddenly agree to stay indoors may be asking too much (no matter how exciting the catio may be!). We were privileged to have had the opportunity to rescue and adopt a Katrina Kitty in 2005 who yearned to go outside (as he had at his previous home); we caved in to his demands, but only for fairly short periods mid-day when birds are least likely to be foraging, never during baby bird season, and never at night, but he did kill some birds and rodents. But young cats who are new to your household and those who have never experienced the outdoors are ideal candidates for the catio life. We have several other rescued cats and our catio is crucial for meeting their outdoor needs—they love it, especially on warm, sunny days. Even our newest rescue, Caspurr, an older gentleman who had been outdoors on his own for who-knows-how-long (probably abandoned), is very happy that we have a catio. [Update 4/2022: With great sadness, we were forced to put Caspurr to sleep last month. Fast forward a month: an unwanted, neglected, all-white kitty, now named Swan, was welcomed into our home. Swan had also been in the habit of going outdoors whenever he pleased, but he seems quite happy with just the catio.]

Many choices
There are many different types of catios, from fairly inexpensive window boxes that cost less than $100, to more expensive and elaborate designs that may include catwalks, tunnels, roofs, furniture and multi-levels (the latter is essential!). Some people design and build their custom catio themselves, as my husband, Rick, and I did, while others hire a contractor or handyman. Kits to build your own are available online. For more detailed guidance and tips, as well as links to companies that sell kits, check out this article from The Humane Society of the U.S.

Before renovation.

When we initially thought about making a catio, we considered turning half of our elevated deck into one, but it would have been very difficult and there was no way for the cats to come and go on their own—that is, no place to install a little cat door.  Our cats really love our deck, but some of them cannot be trusted not to leap eight feet to ground level. We once tried stretching some plastic netting (which I strongly frown upon) across half our deck, but it became dangerous when our little Violet got a claw caught in it and dangled in mid-air! Luckily I found her soon after it happened.

One day, it hit me: Why not turn a mostly unusable space on the east side of our house into a space for the cats? When we bought our house I thought it could be made into a little sunroom, but a catio wouldn’t require heating and insulation and such, and our house didn’t need to be any bigger.

A little history: When our house was built in 1929, there had been an exterior wooden porch, about 13 feet long by 7 feet wide, with two doors to the inside at either end. Twenty to thirty years later (in the 1950s, judging by the type of brick) someone put a concrete floor over the wooden floor and created narrow planters made with brick and mortar, and installed a huge floor-to-ceiling window and sliding glass doors. Sometime later, the space was enclosed to make it into a greenhouse of sorts, with translucent fiberglass panels for walls and roof; the planters were covered with formica (see photo above). But functionality as a greenhouse was poor: Summer temperatures soared well over 100º because ventilation was nonexistent when the exterior door was closed, and it was very cold during winter. Plus, the old fiberglass had yellowed, the carpet was filthy, and the sliding glass doors and window that covered the interior wall were single paned and very energy inefficient (and they looked awful in an older home). Renovating the space would help increase energy efficiency in our house,  provide us with a much more useable space and keep our cats happy.

The Casbah Catio
Since we did everything ourselves, it took about 5 months (of mostly weekend work) to complete, not counting the time it took to replace a window and door; during the winter months things were put on hold. Rick did the majority of the planning and work; I helped with tiling and did most of the painting (and gave moral support!). We were able to reuse some of the wood from the old structure, and some came from our local Rebuilding Center, which sells reclaimed materials (I love that place!), but we did have to buy a fair amount of new materials. Huge rocks that had been buried in the planters found better homes in the garden.

I’ve always loved the design of northwestern Africa and I was finally able to sneak some elements into this catio. The tile came from the outlet room of Pratt and Larson in SE Portland; selection varies and I think we made at least five trips there to find what would look good together. At $1 a pound, it was a great deal.

Initially, the most important task is planning. Some suggestions: (1) Try to site it where the cats will be able to see things of interest; (2) think about how the cats will be able to get in and out (it’s best to connect it to the main house because if you have to carry your cat to and fro, it may get little use after the novelty has worn off); (3) consider how you will keep it dry so it can be used year-round; and (4) be sure to give cats variety, including some elevated places to perch, cushy places to snooze, a litter box, and scratching posts. Make some sketches and draw up a basic plan. If you are going to do any demolition, be sure to figure out where you can take items (like old carpet or glass) to be recycled, rather than just throwing it in a landfill.

Here’s a basic synopsis of how we turned an unusable space into our catio: First, we removed the existing glass doors and window (and carefully smashed them up to transport to a recycler; the metal frame also was recycled). The wall was then framed in and a new, large window (that closely resembles an original window in our living room) and a door that enters our dining room were both installed. Next, the new window, door and areas below were covered and demolition began.

Demolition

Demolition Days (boyz just love to wreck things, don’t they?). Actually, we both hated this part (it was definitely the most difficult and dirtiest part—a huge mess, as you can see). Rick’s definition: “Grunt work.” We left the existing concrete foundation (beneath the brick) even though it wasn’t built well to begin with.

 

The original porch floor had never been connected to house, so that had to be fixed; we also dealt with some rot in a sill plate where a door once stood. Following that, 4x4s were added and walls were framed in. Painting was done as things progressed. Although I hate using plastic, because we wanted natural morning light to enter the catio and the house’s window and door, we chose a roof of clear, corrugated polycarbonate outdoor patio cover (lightweight, easy to install, inexpensive)._MG_8965

An outer door that leads to the back yard was then installed and we chose DIY screens to keep the cats in. Most people use a large metal mesh, but we chose recyclable aluminum screen (not nonrecyclable plastic), for several reasons: First, a few years earlier, two small immature birds had entered our house through a very small opening one morning and were immediately caught and killed by our cats; we feared this could happen with the large mesh. There is smaller mesh available, but it’s difficult to see through. Window screen, on the other hand, almost disappears from view after installation. Second, we like to have the door that connects the catio to our dining room open during nice weather and we wanted to keep insects out, and keep our cats from killing them. Of course, screen is shreddable by claws and it gets dirty, but for the most part we’re happy with it. (However, if I were to do it all over again I would opt for screens that could be removed for easy annual cleaning.) If the screens ever get completely shredded, it’s not very difficult to replace (and recycle) them. Whatever you do, don’t use plastic mesh.

Speaking of doors, we wanted a cat door so the cats could come and go as they pleased, but we were concerned about cold drafts during the winter. Rick installed a Freedom Pet Pass door, an energy efficient flap door. The only thing that’s problematic is that because our two formerly feral female cats are tiny (only about 7 or 8 pounds) and scare easily, they have trouble pushing the door outwards due to a fairly strong magnet; they usually manage by pulling it inward with their claws unless we come to their rescue. Coming inside requires less force, so that isn’t a problem for them. The door is visible at the lower left corner of the final photo, below. We usually have it propped open for the cats when the outside temperature is above 62ºF or so.

Levels are absolutely essential for felines, who often make their living by observing prey below. We placed them so they could easily hop from one to another. My cats highly recommend varied levels for bird and squirrel watching!          

Lovely Violet (now around age 15), who came to us as a 5-month-old feral kitten, loves levels …

 

Luna, too!

Luna, 13, another rescue, also loves levels, and naps in the catio on warm days.

 

We also added a bench at the far end that offers some storage space and seating.

tile backer board

Backer board was installed before tiling began.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

tile B4 grout

Placing tile. It was finished with a light brown grout.

 

 

 

Tiling was actually fun because we were on the home stretch and it brought such warmth and a personal touch. The cats couldn’t care less, but we love the tile. We added a soft brown grout between tiles.

 

Finishing touches: A large log (found near a river bank) was also added, as well as final bits of woodwork and paint. Scatching post, litter box, water bowl, lantern, grass for grazing, and cushions for comfort (with washable covers) were the final touches to our Casbah Catio.

The Casbah Catio

Swirlee & Luna enjoying their Casbah Catio. We later wrapped portions of the log with sisal rope to entice climbers, but so far it’s only been used for scratching.

 

© 2017 Eileen M. Stark

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American Robins of Summer: Their Hidden Lives and Loves, and Letting Go

Camille, an American robin
American robins (Turdus migratorius) are familiar birds, found nearly everywhere—in urban and suburban parks and gardens, on farmland, and in wilder forests and even subalpine meadows. We enjoy hearing their cheery songs and watching them search for squirmy bits of food, but let’s face it: They’re taken for granted. Considering how closely robins live among us, it’s amazing how little we know about them. To truly appreciate and respect a bird or anyone else, we need to discover how they live and love. Here’s a glimpse into a portion of the life of a charming bird and several of her babies, whom she raised almost directly under my gaze. They taught me how little I knew.


As I puttered around my garden on the afternoon of July 4th,
I savored the quiet time and hoped for a mildly noisy evening for the sake of wild birds and other animals who intensely fear fireworks and yearn for peace and quiet. As I approached my front door, the sound of wings fluttering in a nearby Camellia shrub stole my attention and I glimpsed someone quickly wing her way into a small tree nearby. Whom had I disturbed? A quick scan revealed none other than a shy American robin, perched on a branch, patiently waiting for me to leave. But curiosity got the best of me, so I backed up a few steps and hid motionless behind a red-flowering currant shrub to learn what this beautiful bird was up to. A few minutes later she returned to the Camellia and this time I could see that her bill was full of grass. Grass? That’s right: Nesting material! As my eyes focused, I realized that she was perched on the edge of a nest, to which she was adding the finishing touches.

Like a statue I stood for a few moments longer as she arranged the bits of grass. As soon as she flew off I ran inside to tell my husband, Rick, the exciting news: “A robin’s building her nest right under our bedroom window!” We raced upstairs to the bay window that overlooks our front yard, and there — only 5 or 6 feet from the window and about 10 feet aboveground — it was: A perfectly round little nursery, created with mud and grasses and such. We were astonished, elated, and honored that this nest had fallen into our proverbial laps, providing us with a rare opportunity to peek into the life of an enchanting bird. She had obviously been working on her nest for quite a few days, but we hadn’t even noticed. And that’s the way she wanted it.

Nest construction
Though I’ve discovered quite a bit about the black-capped chickadees and Anna’s hummingbirds who raise their young in our yard nearly every year, I knew little about robin family planning. To learn about their breeding habits I turned to books and websites and found that American robins are very busy birds. As the weather warms in springtime, winter flocks break up and males begin to claim and defend territories of about a half to a full acre, typically in the same general area as the previous year. Males sing emphatically and almost continuously to exclude others; they also sing to attract their mate, and once they do, a short courtship ensues. Both male and female choose a nest site and typically, couples have—or try to have—2 or 3 broods during their breeding period, and I suspect that this female was on attempt Number Three since it was already July. I’d seen a robin collecting nesting material in our back yard in April, so two previous nests were certainly possible. (Sadly, many nests just don’t work out since cup-shaped nests are not immune to predation or parasitism; I’ve watched robin nests be permanently abandoned after crows repeatedly harassed the nest builder; once I found a dead mangled baby in our bird bath after a crow had flown off.)   

According to several accounts I read, female robins may begin a new nest soon after the previous brood has fledged. When this happens, the male takes on their care while she quickly finds a new nest site and constructs it by herself (robins don’t reuse nests but may reuse materials or build a new nest atop an old one). After reading about Dad’s duties, I went to our back yard, camera in hand. Sure enough, there was Big Daddy in the bird bath, teaching Junior how to take a proper bath. Afterwards, they both left, but Junior returned ten minutes later, eager to practice this new (and no doubt thrilling) activity on his own. (Learn how to tell male, female and juvenile robins apart here.)

Big Daddy & Junior

Reportedly, robins build their strong, insulated nests from the inside out, pressing dead grasses, stems, and twigs into a cup shape using their wing’s wrist. Attached securely to a branch with spider silk, the nest is then strengthened by layering soft mud with bill and feet (which explains the mud I’d noticed in the bird bath!), more grass, more mud, and so on, and finally lined with fine, dry grass to protect the eggs and insulate them. For two days we observed her from the closed window as she brought more grass and pressed her breast onto the inner sides of the nest to smooth and contour it. Upon completion it measured about 6.5 inches wide by 4 inches deep, with a 4.5-inch inner diameter. During the days of July 6 and 7 she sat on her nest for short periods and the suspense (as to when she’d lay her first egg) was killing us. Finally, mid-morning on July 8 I noticed the first egg, and it was a most brilliant greenish-blue—the quintessential “robin’s egg blue.”

_MG_2468

Why blue?
There have been many theories. According to Tim Birkhead, author of The Most Perfect Thing: Inside (and Outside) a Bird’s Egg (Bloomsbury, 2016), Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles) surmised that robins’ blue-green eggs offer protection from predators due to cryptic coloring: When seen from below, through their “wicker nests,” the eggs blend into the blue sky. “This is wrong at several levels, including the fact that … [their] nests are lined with mud and impossible to see through; and that he assumed that the main predators would see the nest from below,” writes Birkhead. Three later explanations—camouflage and conspicuousness, avoidance of brood parasites, and individual recognition—have been tossed around, but a more recent one, thanks to technological advances in measuring color, makes the most sense to me: According to a study published in 2016 in The American Naturalist, birds like robins who typically nest in somewhat open nests within forests or other leafy places (where light levels are moderate) evolved towards having darker eggshells because the pigment protects the egg’s interior from dangerous UV radiation, but also allows the eggs to absorb more light, causing them to heat up more quickly, leading to faster embryonic development. Shorter incubation periods mean less risk of egg predation, but will likely be disastrous if climate change, which leads to more hot days during birds’ breeding periods, is allowed to continue. The blue-green color itself comes from biliverdin, a pigment that’s applied in the shell gland (aka uterus) just before delivery.

My biologist mind was spinning with more questions that weren’t answered in Ornithology 101, such as: How is eggshell formed? What is the real purpose of turning the eggs? How do the chicks breathe? I’ll get to those, but also about this time I decided Mama robin should have a name. “Robbie” was just too banal for such a beautifully plumed bird whose dark eyes suggest a wonderful gentleness. I settled on “Camille” (French pronunciation: kah-MEE), after the Camellia shrub that cradled the nest, but also because the name means pure and perfect.

Making eggs
I’ve always been fascinated by the self-contained life support systems called eggs and got to wondering about the shells. I knew that creating eggs is immensely draining on a female’s energy reserves and that extra nutrients are essential. I also knew that eggshells were made of calcium carbonate, but didn’t know that calcium is the most difficult mineral for many birds to obtain and that most female birds (other than birds such as raptors who eat bone by consuming whole prey) need to actively seek extra calcium.

No one knows exactly how birds know which foods are high in calcium, but it is essential that they ingest it during the evening hours prior to laying an egg so that a chalky solution of calcium carbonate can be applied to the membrane that envelops the embryo soon after it reaches the uterus. Birkhead notes that “most small birds seem to rely on calcium-rich snail shells that they find on the ground.” Robins may also eat arthropods like millipedes (often found in decaying leaves and other dead plant matter) that have a calcium-rich exoskeleton. Whether they use shells or skeletons, this is yet another reason to leave priceless natural materials on the soil and to not use any poisons. Without adequate calcium, birds may produce fragile, thin, or otherwise defective shells—with disastrous results—or fail to produce eggs at all. In case you’re wondering, avian eggshells are hard when they are laid, not soft.

Incubation
American robins typically lay three to five eggs; most common is four. Incubation, which is done by moms since male robins don’t have a brood patch, lasts for 12-14 days. The day after Camille’s first egg was laid, another followed, but incubation was sporadic those first two days. Full incubation usually doesn’t begin until the last or second-to-last egg is laid so that all will hatch on the same day or thereabouts. With the addition of the third egg, laid on July 10, she began devoting nearly all of her time to incubation, quietly and secretively leaving only to grab something to eat and stretch her wings. She was rarely off the nest for more than 30 minutes, much less during slightly chilly mornings. We wondered whether she’d produce a fourth egg, but July 11 brought no more, so three it would be. On that day I heard a robin’s call outside the window around 7:20 AM and saw Camille return to the nest around 8:00. About an hour later I noticed what I believe was her mate on our neighbor’s rooftop while she was off foraging. I imagine her call had something to do with this, but I don’t know whether it occurred on a regular basis.

Whenever she returned after foraging I noticed that she would do a little dance in the nest. Contrary to sources that state that robins turn their eggs with their bills while standing on the edge of the nest, Camille always used her feet when we watched her. Turning eggs is essential for successful hatching, but is reportedly critical only during the first few days of incubation. Turning encourages the flow of nutrients and such within the egg, promotes the development of an embryo’s external blood vessels, and ensures that the embryo is positioned correctly with respect to the yolk and albumen (so that it can make full use of the albumen). Moms also position eggs so that no obstruction will prevent hatching.

Escaping the shell
According to Birkhead, hatching is complicated: Since they can no longer depend on the oxygen that comes through tiny eggshell pores and into blood vessels that line the inner shell, embryos need to do several things before the main event: Start shutting off that blood supply at their umbilicus and take it into their body; draw what’s left of the yolk into their abdomen (to use as food for the first few hours after hatching); and puncture the membrane of the “air cell” that’s inside the egg at the blunt end. As soon as they puncture it, they can use their lungs—for the first time—to obtain the oxygen and energy needed to come into the world.

These tiny creatures, imprisoned in shells, are impossibly weak and equipped with only a little egg-tooth at the tip of their bill—powered by a feeble neck muscle—to crack the shell. To learn how they actually break out, I consulted my dust-covered college ornithology textbook by ornithologist Sewall Pettingill, who described how an embryo “scrapes and presses the egg-tooth against the inside of the already weakened shell until a crack results,” a process known as pipping. Zooming in on photographs I took revealed that there were tiny cracks in the eggs many hours before hatching, so it isn’t a quick, simple operation. “From a star-shaped crack, a fissure develops, usually around the larger end [of the egg]. Muscular action of the embryo, chiefly in the legs and neck, forces the shell apart at the circular fissure,” Pettingill explained.

Day 0 First hatchling

On the 12th day of incubation (July 22), all three chicks broke free of their shells. The first one hatched very early (perhaps well before dawn; we first noticed him/her at 7 AM, already gaping for food). The second hatched sometime between 10:30 and 11:30 AM, and the third at twilight, probably between 8:40 and 8:50 PM (the eggshell was still in the nest at 8:55, and because the parents remove (or eat) broken shells quickly because they’re sharp, it must have happened just minutes earlier).

As you can see in the photos, the chicks began life utterly helpless: Blind, nearly naked, and so weak they can barely hold their heads up. Needless to say, we were completely in awe, fascinated at their wondrous and fragile beginnings. In this photo you can see the egg-tooth at the end of one’s bill on Day 1 (the day after hatching).

Day 1

Growing up
Camille, like all bird moms, was completely devoted and attentive to her young. When she wasn’t foraging for food or feeding them she would brood them (cover them with her body); this went on until nearly the end of the the nesting period when the nestlings’ bodies filled up the nest and daytime temperatures were high. During their first few days in particular, she showed great concern. Her comings and goings were secretive, as they had been during incubation—she’d fly or hop short distances, rather than flying quickly and directly to and from the nest.

Several sources state that both parents feed the young, but we never saw anyone but Camille feeding her babies. Perhaps Big Daddy had his wings full with the previous fledglings or they had an agreement, or it’s possible he helped out only at dawn while we were still asleep (although I have doubts about the latter). Rick did notice him perched atop our roof one afternoon, so he may have assisted her by keeping an eye on the nestlings at times. But we never saw him after that, so I hope it was just their way of doing things and not that something terrible happened to him [Addendum 2018: Big Daddy is alive and well!]. His absence was unfortunate, as you will read below. Besides feeding, Camille had to do most of the nest guarding and keep herself in good condition. 

Nest activity was a whirlwind of frequent feeding, pooping, and incredibly fast growth. Aging the nestlings is done simply by day number, with hatching day designated as Day 0, the first full day as Day 1, and so forth. On Day 1 we filmed Camille bringing a huge earthworm to the nest, big enough to strangle a chick. When she couldn’t get it in their gaping mouths, everyone gave up and fell asleep with the mangled worm draped over and around them; then she got on top. Adult robins may eat beetles, caterpillars, spiders and snails (as well as fruit such as serviceberries when insects and other arthropods are scarce), but Camille fed her babies mostly worms early on, although I saw her actually shove a moth down a tiny throat on the first day as well. That was my cue to I water the garden more often than usual to try to make worms more available, especially since the weather was warm and dry, which causes worms to go deeper into the soil. I also bought a cup of meal worms and placed some near the nest in the mornings. Later in the nesting period I saw her feeding them the fruit of English laurel (an invasive species), the product of an untrimmed neighbor’s hedge, as well as blueberries from our yard. Robins are important seed dispersers and large seeds are regurgitated. I estimate that at least 30 trips were made to the nest each day for feedings.

We can’t talk about feedings without mentioning what comes afterwards. Nestlings of passerines (and some other kinds of birds) bag up their excrement into a neat little receptacle called a fecal sac, which is essentially a white mucous membrane filled with poop. The young defecate at the edge of the nest and parents dutifully either carry them away or eat them to keep the nest clean and tidy. Some accounts say that robins will eat the sacs when the nestling are young, as they contain much undigested food, but then carry them away toward the end of the nesting period when the birds (and sacs) are much bigger. Not so with Camille—she ate them until the very end, even when the globs became quite large. I imagine she was hungry! 

On Day 3 I could clearly hear tiny vocalizations from the babies when Mom approached or perched on the nest. Also, dark pterylae (feather tracks from which their contour feathers arise) were now visible.

Day 3

And then there were two
Day 4 was uneventful, and except for some hot afternoon sun hitting the nest that caused heat stress, everything seemed fine. One of the young was a little bigger and stronger looking than the other two; no doubt the first to hatch. At the end of Day 4, Rick noticed all three gaping as usual when Camille landed on the nest. But the next morning, after watching the nest for some time, I realized that I could only see two babies. After Camille left to forage, I opened the window and took photos to see if I could detect the third chick in an enlargement. After downloading them, I was devastated: One of the babies must have died during the night and apparently was carried off by Camille (no one was found beneath the nest on the ground). Or, an early bird (American crow) might have carried the little bird away (I’d found a dead baby robin in our bird bath the previous year, left by a crow).

Day 5

Nestling mortality is usually due either to predation or starvation, and it could have been a predator attack, although I have doubts, for several reasons: More than one nestling would likely be missing; being a light sleeper I would have heard something outside the window; no predators were ever seen near the nest; and there would probably be some damage to the nest (in the case of a large predator like a raccoon). Of course it’s impossible to know for sure, and it could have been a crow but it’s also possible that the youngest, who may have been nearly a day younger than the first to hatch, starved. Although they all looked close in size, the smallest one might not have been able to compete for food, especially with the afternoon heat that may have weakened her further. One study showed that most starvation occurred late in the season due to reduced availability of earthworms. Plus, since only Camille—not her mate—was feeding them, there may have been a food shortage. If only I had known it was that dire, I would have put out more meal worms! Reportedly, only about 25 percent of nests are “successful,” defined as producing just one baby robin, so they’ve got it rough. No wonder they need to produce more than one brood per year and no wonder everything seems to be conducted in such a rush! Nest-bound birds are in real and constant danger; an entire brood could be lost to a bad storm or predator. 

Brother and sister?
Their rate of growth was incredibly rapid and daily changes were obvious, especially when comparing photographs. After the fifth day we could see their individuality. One was larger and appeared about a day ahead of the other. His eyes opened a day sooner as you can see in the photo below (on Day 5), his feathers grew in sooner, and he basically appeared stronger. The other was a bit scrawny-looking and we wondered about gender differences, even at this young age.

Day 6_

Day 6

 

Day 9

Day 9

 

As they matured, I began to think the larger one might be male, especially when feathers on his head appeared darker. I named him “Big Boy” and the smaller one “Lilla” (Swedish for little). Cornell Lab of Ornithology mentions that male juveniles “may have fewer pale shafts on the crown, larger and blacker spots on the breast, and upperparts may average darker than in females.” Later it appeared that my guess was correct.

The only worry now was the heat: During their first week, temperatures were in the mid-80s and on Day 2 they were showing heat stress by doing an avian version of panting called gular fluttering, in which birds rapidly flap membranes in their throats to increase evaporation. During the second week, temperatures soared into the low 100s and I read that young birds are more likely to die from excessive heat than cold. Rick and I put our heads together and created a shade barrier that we hoped would help during the hottest part of the afternoon. Up went part of an old bedsheet that we managed to hook on nearby branches as high as we could. While it didn’t create a lot of shade, it did supply some after 5 PM when the sun would hit the nest. I hate to think what would have happened had the heat come during incubation since eggs rarely hatch at air temperatures over 104ºF.

Gular fluttering on Day 11.

Gular fluttering on Day 11.

 

Day 12

A hot Day 12.


The empty nest
As I mentioned, the period between hatching and fledging happens in such a frantic rush, as if it’s a matter of life and death. And so it is: A nest is a dangerous place for young robins with high nest predation and mortality, so they need to leave the nest at a time when they are not the least bit prepared for life on their own, typically only 14 to 16 days after hatching. On August 4 (Day 13), Big Boy ventured to the edge of the nest and sat there, no doubt instinctively knowing that this would be one of the most perilous times of his life. I saw him perch twice, then go back to his sister, who wasn’t too keen on taking on the world just yet. The next day, in the middle of the afternoon following a fruity snack provided by Mom, I quietly watched from the ground as Big Boy again sat on the nest’s edge. Then, all of a sudden, he bravely took to his wings for the very first time. It was a short, shaky downward flight that took him into our neighbor’s yard. And then, due to hedges and fencing, I could no longer see him.

Big Boy, an hour before he left the nest.

I knew Camille would go after him to ensure his safety and to reassure him during what must be a terrifying time, and I assumed she’d return to Lilla in a fairly short time. I was curious how long she would spend with Big Boy out on his own, so Rick and I took turns watching the nest. When two hours had rolled by and Lilla began calling out for her mother, I began to worry. Fledglings need their parents to teach them all about dangers and how to stay out of harm’s way and to feed them for the first few days, and then to teach them how to forage for themselves. A baby robin without a parent stands little chance of surviving.

Finally, after a long three and a half hours, Camille returned to the nest to feed Lilla. What a relief to me, but also to Lilla who had never been separated from Camille for so long. We now wondered how long Lilla would stay in the nest by herself.

Lilla, alone in the nest

A heat-stressed Lilla, alone in the nest.

Early the next morning, Day 15, I was lying in bed weighed down by a sleepy cat. I heard robin voices outside the window and wondered what all the commotion was about, but didn’t want to mess with the sleeping beauty. Then, silence. When I finally managed to get to the window, she was gone. Little Lilla was now a fledgling, and the nest was silent and empty.

Though Camille was probably relieved to have her offspring finally fledge, I was a mess. Watching these selfless birds had filled me with a sense of calm and made me temporarily forget the troubles of the world. The bond I built with them, though totally one-sided, was real and deep (and we didn’t even get to say goodbye!). Viewing the nest now was just an excuse to tear up, and it didn’t help that they were now out of sight, in the neighbor’s “pesticide marinaded yard,” as Rick describes it. But two mornings later, when I saw Big Boy perched inside our leafy fig tree, wisely trying to remain unseen, pragmatism reminded me that fledglings must turn into successful adult birds — they need to hone their foraging techniques, learn their species’ song, form social relationships, and recognize good breeding habitat when they see it — so that they, too, can bring baby robins into the world. To help out, plates of wormy compost went into the back yard in the hopes of luring them away from pesticides.

Big Boy, Day 16

Big Boy, Day 16

 

Lilla on Day 19

Lilla, Day 19

 

Camille collects blueberry treats (Day 20).

Camille collects blueberry treats (Day 20).

 

The fledging period is complex and fascinating and I wish I could have witnessed more of it, but I caught glimpses of both Lilla and Big Boy a few more times as Camille fed them berries or worms. The last time I saw them with Camille was exactly three weeks after leaving the nest and they appeared to be well on their way to adulthood.

It’s now early September, four and a half weeks post fledging, and there are no signs of the juveniles, who are likely nearby but no longer dependent on their parents. They will wear their freckled juvenile plumage until autumn. Small groups of adults frequent our leaf litter now and then to forage together, so evidently breeding territories are now obsolete. This morning I photographed a robin who had the exact same eye ring as Camille, looking for blueberries.

Researchers say that only a quarter of young robins make it through their first year. I hope Big Boy and Lilla beat the odds.

So now you know, too. 

______________________________

Want to help American robins?

♦ Avoid using all pesticides.
♦ Provide open ground-foraging habitat that can accumulate leaf litter beneath trees.
♦ Grow fruit-bearing native trees and shrubs, such as madrone, serviceberry, huckleberry, and thimbleberry (in the Pacific Northwest), which are especially important for inexperienced juveniles.
♦ Allow muddy areas to remain for mud collecting and snails for females needing calcium.
♦ Install a bird bath in a quiet spot where it can easily be maintained and observed.
♦ Avoid pruning trees and shrubs in the spring and early summer when birds are building nests.
♦ Keep kitty indoors and discourage others from visiting your property.
♦ Prevent robins from being injured or killed by window collisions.

 


© 2017 Eileen M. Stark

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A Little Bird Tells Us About the Necessity of Native Plants

Chickadee with larva
It’s often noted that native plants and animals depend on each other
because the two evolved specialized relationships together over thousands of years, but that’s a basic explanation that doesn’t offer any details. I’ve often wondered about individual animal species and to what extent native plants are essential to them. I watch ladybugs devouring aphids on native perennial, shrub and tree leaves, warblers foraging for insects in various shrubs and trees, and black-capped chickadees bringing squirmy larvae to their hungry nestlings. But how much do birds really benefit when we choose to grow natives?

To my delight, a new study that focuses on one insectivorous bird species—the Carolina chickadee (Poecile carolinensis)—was recently released in Biological Conservation. Chickadees—whether they’re Carolina, Black-capped, or Chestnut-backed—are fairly common backyard species that, like most birds, don’t reproduce on seeds and fruit but instead eat and feed insects to their young. The study’s authors evaluated regional native plants, but also those that originated outside North America to see if they were a limiting factor for this particular species’ ability to effectively raise babies. Their results prove that non-native plants reduce the quality of habitat for Carolina chickadees by not providing enough food for their young.

Insects are crucial
It is the living environment—including insects—that sustains us and every other species. Herbivorous insects make up more than a third of the world’s animals, and their role is indispensable: By converting plant material to protein, they are nature’s only way of getting plants’ energy into animals who don’t eat plants directly, and into the animals who eat the ones who feed on insects.

Most herbivorous insect species are called specialists, meaning they can’t choose what they eat. Their menu is short; they must rely on only certain types of plants (that they evolved with) which have certain chemical compositions that support them, and can’t exist where those plants don’t exist. A well-known example is the monarch butterfly—an insect whose larvae can only feed on native milkweed plants—but there are countless others. If you already recognize the charms of regional native plants and have witnessed how growing them attracts more wildlife to your yard, all of this comes as no surprise. Native plants host and support more native herbivorous insects and, consequently, more birds and other wild ones.

Egg cluster for Baby

In addition to insect larvae, occasionally parents feed adult insects or clusters of insects eggs (shown here) that are most likely found in native plants.

The study
During the study’s two-year survey in the Washington, D.C. area, the research team correlated the birds’ diets to the plants they forage in. Using 97 suburban yards, they determined the species and origin of each tree and shrub, then checked the leaves of 16 plants at each site for caterpillars while tracking which plants received the most foraging visits from chickadees. Nest building in and near each yard was also examined through- out the chickadees’ breeding period, roughly April to early June on the east coast. Data revealed that these birds were more likely to nest in yards with native trees and shrubs than in yards with ornamentals that evolved outside North America. The native trees used the most included oaks, elms, cherries, and maples due to their ability to support the larvae of lepidoptera (butterflies and moths) and sawflies, which are essential for rearing young chickadees. Baby chickadees (and other birds) need a lot of food to survive: Previous research has shown that these busy parents need to collect 5,000 to 9,000 bits of food (depending on the clutch size of the brood) per nestful of chickadees, plus feed themselves!  According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, “during a lodgepole needle miner [an insect that can kill trees] outbreak in Arizona, one chickadee was found with 275 of the tiny caterpillars in its stomach at one time.”

The native connection
Chickadees are generalist foragers, meaning they’ll look for food nearly everywhere, not just on certain plants. They will forage in non-native plant species but won’t find much, since few host the food they need. In my experience, black-capped chickadees may also feed their babies some adult insects and the occasional spider (which may be found almost anywhere), but in native trees such as oaks, a high diversity of larvae can be found, and large numbers of them can often be found quickly. Douglas Tallamy’s research has found that a small percentage of plant genera support the majority of Lepidoptera. Other research found that woody plants apparently support many more Lepidoptera species than herbaceous plants do. Whether that is because “woody plants in general are both longer lived and larger than most herbaceous plants and thus may be easier targets for insect herbivores to exploit,” or because “herbaceous plants are underreported as lepidopteran hosts because they are more difficult to identify and less conveniently searched by collectors,” we ought to grow more woody plant to maximize biodiversity, if only to give the benefit of the doubt (and provide birds more cover!). And, as I reported two years ago, another study confirmed that relatives of native trees (i.e. scarlet oak,

Chickadee young are fed by their parents for several weeks post-fledging.

Young chickadees need to be fed by their parents for several weeks after fledging.

a distant cousin of the west coast’s Oregon white oak) host and support fewer species of insects than the native counterpart, and that non-native trees that have no native relative in a region provide next to nothing. Yard after yard of ornamental, introduced species effectively destroys insect diversity and harms native wildlife.

So, now we have more compelling evidence that growing natives can improve the human-dominated landscape by supplying numerous ecological advantages, beauty, and the ability to support the entire life cycle of insectivorous birds. Whatever benefits the chickadees will also benefit other species, and increase biodiversity overall. The Douglas-firs in the back of my yard and the towering elms in the parking strip on my street nearly always have birds in them. Besides chickadees, I see woodpeckers, nuthatches, warblers, kinglets, bushtits, and more. The chickadees simply tell us what they all need.


© 2017 Eileen M. Stark

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The Best Way to Feed Hummingbirds in Warm Weather

Anna on columbine

Scorchingly hot weather is upon us in the Pacific Northwest, and it’s understandable to want to feed hummingbirds, but here’s the thing: Hummingbirds have no sense of smell and cannot tell if the sugar water in a feeder has gone bad. Deadly toxins can contaminate a sugar solution rather quickly in very warm weather—as fast as 24 hours—especially if the feeder receives some sunlight. Hummingbirds may become ill (and consequently more subject to predation) and even die from feeding at unattended feeders. And I don’t even want to think about a mother hummingbird’s nestlings who might starve to death after she’s been sickened by fermented sugar water that’s rich in mold and bacteria. So if you cannot keep your feeder fresh and clean, please don’t feed them via artificial feeders. 

Anna on Penstemon ovatusReal flowers are best
To avoid all these potential dangers, I strongly recommend growing plants (preferably native to your area so that other species benefit as well) that provide natural nectar which contains micronutrients, unlike refined sugar. Besides the nutrition and safety of real nectar, you won’t have to deal with unwelcome insects at feeders. Hummingbirds may also consume a sugary liquid from trees and often forage where woodpeckers called sapsuckers create sapwells from which hummers feed. I’ve also seen them at ripe fruit on my fig tree.

Also keep in mind that these amazing little birds do not live on nectar alone: their diet and that of their young includes a surprisingly large amount of tiny insects (and spiders) for protein, and the best way to provide it is, again, with native plants, which supply drastically more insects than non-native plants. And, needless to say, fresh water is essential for all birds and your yard should be free of any pesticides.

Feeder recommendations
If you do feel a need to feed hummers via artificial feeders, here’s a handy chart for how often to clean and refill your feeder, courtesy the Wild Bird Shop:

Daily high temp in shade / Frequency of cleaning/refilling
61-70º                                4 – 5 days
71-80º                                3 days
81-85º                                2 days
86º+                                   daily
 

♦ Refill with just the amount of sugar solution that will be consumed in the time period according to the temperature range.
♦ Keep feeders in the shade.
♦ Choose feeders that don’t have tubes or removable parts, which are very difficult to keep clean. I like the HummZinger feeders, which are VERY easy to clean. Rinse well after cleaning with hot soapy water (no bleach).
♦ Stay away from the colored, pre-mixed commercially available solutions—natural nectar is colorless, and adding red dye and preservatives is adding unnecessary, unnatural, and possibly harmful chemicals to the birds’ food. If your feeder doesn’t have red on it, simply hang a red ribbon next to the feeder.
♦ Only use white cane sugar in a ratio of 4 parts water (preferably filtered, w/o chlorine) to one part sugar. No honey, molasses, or syrups.

HummZinger

 

© 2017 Eileen M. Stark

 
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A Winter Treat for Wild Birds: Plant-Based Suet

Black-capped chickadees love peanut butter-coconut oil suet!

Black-capped chickadee, salivating over peanut butter-coconut oil suet.

 

Back by popular demand, here is my vegan ‘suet’ recipe for wild birds trying to make it through cold weather. While the insects, fruit, or seeds provided by native plants are the best way to feed birds (because those who eat at feeders are much more likely to get sick and spread disease), there are times when they could use some help getting through frigid days and nights. Small birds especially, with their remarkably rapid metabolism, need to find enough calories for the day but also build up fat reserves to get through their lengthy nighttime fasts—all in the course of the minimal daylight hours of winter. Young birds have it the toughest since they have to compete with mature birds who have better access to food and roosting sites. Despite their amazing abilities to get through cold, stormy winters, some do die during especially stressful times.

Yellow-rumped warbler with a mouthful

Yellow-rumped warbler with a mouthful of raisin.

This “suet” contains a lot of fat and protein and seems to be more appealing to birds than the traditional, animal-derived suet. It also lacks the probability of antibiotic and who-knows-what-else contamination, and the “yuck” factor inherent in store-bought suet (Wikipedia describes “suet” as “the raw, hard fat of beef or mutton found around the loins and kidneys.” Yumm … ). And, the fats in this recipe used in place of the dead animal lipo — especially the coconut oil — pack in the health benefits. I strongly recommend using organic ingredients whenever possible considering the deplorable loss of birds and other animals to pesticides and the harmful effects of synthetic fertilizers.

Bushtits awaiting their turn at the suet feeder

Bushtits anxiously await their turn at the feeder.

This recipe also helps you avoid participating in the sheer misery and environmental destruction associated with animal agriculture. Of course, other solid fats have their pitfalls. I passionately avoid palm oil—the cheap fat linked to climate change, tropical deforestation, habitat degradation, animal cruelty, and indigenous rights abuses—which seems to be found in almost every processed product under the sun these days. And while coconut oil, which I combine in this entree with peanut butter, is far from a perfect ingredient, it is slightly less problematic, especially if you buy organic and fair trade. And, making your own means no plastic to dispose of.

Which birds might flock to this suet? In my yard, a lone, very bossy male yellow-rumped warbler named Rumpy (pictured above) makes a point to come back every winter for his suet, but northern flickers, downy woodpeckers, bushtits, black-capped chickadees, chestnut-backed chickadees, scrub and stellar’s jays, juncos, Bewick’s wrens, nuthatches, and song sparrows are common patrons as well (with Rumpy’s permission, of course). 

 

vegan suet ingredients
Here is the recipe for one small (roughly 6 ounce) “cake.”
Double the recipe for large feeders.
Bonus points if you use organic ingredients!

¼ cup coconut oil, preferably unrefined
¼ cup unsalted peanut butter, preferably chunky
⅛ cup + 1 to 2 tablespoons raw, unsalted sunflower seeds
⅛ cup + 1 to 2 tablespoons raw coarse corn meal (aka polenta)
⅛ cup + 1 to 2 tablespoons raw millet, hulled or not
1 to 2 tablespoons chopped raisins or other dried fruit, optional
Additional chopped unsalted peanuts or nuts, optional

Directions: Gently warm coconut oil over very low heat (or in microwave under low power) just until it starts melting. Remove from heat and stir in peanut butter, then other ingredients. (Add more dry ingredients if it’s runny.) Spoon the mixture into a mold (small storage containers work well) that will fit your feeder. Cover and freeze on a flat spot for at least an hour before popping it out of the container and placing in your feeder outside.

If it’s very cold outside I store it in the refrigerator for a few hours so it’s not impenetrably frozen when placed outdoors. Likewise, when nighttime lows are predicted to go below around 30°F I bring the feeder indoors at night and keep it in a cool spot (less than 60°F) and place it outside early the following morning.

TIPS:
♦ This suet is intended only for cold weather and will begin to soften at temperatures above 60º F or so. It will become a drippy mess if subjected to sunlight in such weather.
♦ To prevent disease transmission, be sure to clean suet feeders with hot soapy water and rinse well before each refill. No bleach.
♦ Rotate bird feeder positions to reduce the likelihood of birds eating poop-contaminated food on the ground, and if you have more than one feeder, space them apart to keep birds from getting unnaturally close.
♦ To reduce the chance of window strikes, place all bird feeders either within 3 feet of your house or at least 25 feet away.
♦ To keep squirrels and other rodents at bay, hang feeder on a pole with a squirrel baffle, placed at least 8 feet from any jumping place.
♦ Suet feeders with tail props are nice for woodpeckers like flickers who normally feed with their long tails supported vertically.
♦ 
Extra cakes may be stored in your freezer for several months or in your refrigerator for a week or two.

downy female

Downy woodpeckers love this suet recipe!

 


© 2017 Eileen M. Stark

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After a Storm: Dead Wood Gives Life

snaggy-stump

Following a particularly nasty ice and wind storm that damaged or took the life of many mature trees in Northwest Oregon, it’s time to clean up nature’s ragged pruning job and literally pick up the pieces. Or is it?

Clean up sparingly
If there are damaged limbs on a street tree or yard tree close to your house, hire a certified arborist to remove any dangling branches and clean-cut any ragged wounds and stubs left by breakage, particularly if you have a tree that is prone to disease, such elm-damage-ice-stormas an elm. Sharp cuts that don’t leave stubs (partially amputated branches not cut back to the branch collar that look like you could hang a hat on it) will allow for faster healing and may prolong the life of the tree. But if safety is not an issue, consider that natural, important habitat is created when damaged limbs are simply left on the tree. As I wrote in my book, “interactions between wildlife and decaying wood are fundamental to ecosystem functions and processes in forests, aquatic habitats,” and your garden, whether they be wooded or more open.

We’re usually far too eager to remove anything and everything that’s fallen to the ground to keep our yards neat and orderly. Unfortunately, this sort of maintenance can be harmful not only to our backs, but also to dwindling
dead woodwild species that need natural, woody “litter” and some disarray, not homogenous expanses of bare soil, bark mulch, or clipped lawn. In fact, “cleaned up” landscapes are usually outright harmful to wild species, including pollinators and recently fledged birds who need low cover to stay safe. Like fallen leaves, “dead wood” or “downed wood” is so essential that many creatures (and plants) cannot survive without it. So, instead of hauling away branches, logs, bark debris, stumps, twigs and such, be compassionate and leave it (or move it to an appropriate, out-of-the-way part of your yard) so that it can decompose naturally and begin to provide food, shelter, nesting material, or places to raise young. Decomposing dead wood has many other unnoticeable yet complex eco-functions, like supporting fungi that live in symbiotic relationships with plant roots. Eventually, the stuff that may look messy to us turns into fertile soil which supports plants which support insects which support birds, and so on.

Snags are a good thing snag at Smith & Bybee lakes

What about dead or dying trees? Known as snags, with their hollow cavities, broken branches, and loose bark, they actually may provide more varied habitat for all sorts of creatures than living trees do! In addition to providing essential housing for many types of insects (including pollinators), cavity-nesting birds, amphibians, reptiles, and small mammals (including bats), they provide food, open perches and double as storage lockers. Woodpeckers also use them to communicate during breeding season.

Snags are in very short supply as forests are increasingly decimated, and they’re extremely rare in urban areas. Removing them not only steals crucial habitat; it’s expensive. Leave snags in low activity areas that won’t pose a problem if they fall apart; when they do fall they’ll continue to give back in the understory. If safety is a concern but you want to retain a dead tree’s benefits, consult with an arborist to shorten its trunk to snag with female flicker feeding youngroughly 15 feet tall and cut back branches. If that’s not possible and you must cut it down, leave the trunk on the ground where it won’t get in your way and leave the stump. If you already have a snag, retain or add native shrubs near its base. They will help keep it protected from weather extremes and provide connectivity, leafy cover, and additional forage for wildlife.

The Washington Department of Wildlife has more detailed info on these “wildlife trees” and the Cavity Conservation Initiative has an enchanting video that documents, up close, the lives that they support.

 

Designing with dead wood
Although some people view snags and other dead wood as unattractive, more and more of us see them as aesthetically pleasing natural sculptures, issued gratis to the landscape and priceless for wildlife. Keep them, work around them, and incorporatesnag "sculpture" them into your landscape, and the wild ones will thank you.

Consider grouping logs and branches in layered piles, with the largest at the base, in quiet places under trees where they can provide shelter from predators and roosting sites for little ones. Fallen trunks or massive logs can recline individually on the ground, where they might act as lovely focal points that will change over time, displaying dead wood (stump)the quiet beauty that unfolds during all stages of natural decomposition and regeneration. Imagine a “nurse log” in your own yard that will increase biodiversity by providing decades of nutrients and moisture to other plants and soil organisms. While natural, moss-furred nurse logs (fallen forest trunks and limbs) provide complex substrates for regeneration of trees in intact forests, there’s no reason you can’t foster similar function in your yard (but never remove nurse logs from a forest). Surround a fallen giant with native ferns and other shade lovers to blend and complement, and the mystery and magic begins. It rots slowly at first, then begins to crumble away, providing more sustenance for other species. After a few decades, the log will be reduced to nothing but fragments, but the soil—nurtured, enriched, and full of life—will pass on its riches.

A few plant species do best when growing on or next to downed wood. In the Pacific Northwest, Vaccinium parviflorum (red huckleberry), that deliciously berried shrub that hikers know and love, is almost always found growing on a stump, nurse log or other decomposing wood in forests. When I planted red huckleberry shrubs in my yard a few years ago, I buried some rotting wood in the planting hole and added dead branches and conifer cones on top of the soil. So far they seem to like it.

Nest boxes and more trees to the rescue
If you’re like most people and don’t have a snag or a mature tree with decay on your property, consider adding a species-appropriate nest box for cavity nesters like chickadees, chickadee nest boxnuthatches, woodpeckers, swallows, or owls that is sited correctly and is accessible for annual cleaning. Though not as good as natural nest sites due to their inability to insulate as real tree cavities do, boxes are better than nothing.

Lastly, if you’ve lost a tree or have the space for one more, consider planting a regional native replacement (or two or three) that will thrive in the site’s conditions. It’s crucial that we keep planting and protecting, so the cycle can continue.


© 2016 Eileen M. Stark

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Reimagining the Ecological Value of Cities for Dwindling Pollinators

Bombus vosnesenskii

A recent literature review on the ecology of urban areas published in Conservation Biology offers irrefutable evidence that cities can and ought to be havens for wildlife, specifically pollinators. In “The City as a Refuge for Insect Pollinators,” the authors, a group of multidisciplinary scientists from around the world, recommend that urban areas—particularly fast growing ones—be managed to support biodiversity.

Habitat loss, degradation and fragmentation, industrial farming, wildlife diseases, and widespread use of toxic pesticides have wiped out and continue to wipe out many insect pollinator species. Along with other invertebrates, we really don’t know how many are disappearing from the earth forever, although new studies show horrifying losses. Since urban sprawl is a major reason for the shocking loss of biodiversity, it’s surprising that historically, the consensus—even among conservationists—has been that cities can’t or don’t need to support wildlife. But many years of research on wild bees in urban areas proves that cities can or still do supply habitat for both pollinator abundance and diversity, and “in several cases, more diverse and abundant populations of native bees live in cities than in nearby rural landscapes.”

While we certainly need to also restore and protect rural and suburban lands, there’s a growing realization that “pollinators put high-priority and high-impact urban conservation within reach,” writes the team. “The relatively small spatial and temporal scales of insect pollinators in terms of functional ecology (habitat range, lifecycle, nesting behavior compared with larger mammals for example) offer opportunities for small actions to yield large benefits for pollinator health.” Small actions: they’re talking about you and me, as well as city planners. As the authors note, many residents understand the urgency and necessity, and are willing to help. Turning our yards into “real” Cedar waxwing in red-flowering currantgardens, complete with native plantings and other elements that support entire life cycles of local biodiversity, ought to be paramount. Priceless benefits to us (crop pollination and a chance to admire nature’s beauty), to countless other species that rely on plants or insects for food, and to plants (pollination), come with the package.

Urban conservation often aims to connect people to nature. This is, of course, a good thing, since nature education is extremely important—it’s been said many times that the more we learn about wildlife and natural processes, the more we will want to protect it. But if more effort was spent on wildlife itself and providing what it needs (large, undisturbed, interconnected areas of native flora), no doubt many species would be much better off. I always feel a need to apologize to startled birds and little mammals I encounter on walks in natural areas around the city. There’s a reason wildlife refuges often close off sections to pedestrians: many species are hypersensitive to human presence; they see us as predators and the stress harms them. It would be immensely beneficial if parts of urban areas were also simply left to the wild ones.

I can’t agree more with the authors. If we want to recover and protect pollinators and other wildlife globally, we need to tend to their needs locally. It will take policy makers, planners, and environmental managers, but also each of us, whether we work individually or engage with community organizers.

 

© 2016 Eileen M. Stark

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Cultivate Compassion in the Garden (and Beyond)

painted turtles

Whether they’re hidden within fur farms or factory farms or other atrocious places—mistreated and maligned for profit—or in plain sight and struggling within unraveling ecosystems that disappear a little more each day, the suffering of non-human animals due to our expansion and behavior is everywhere. On an ecological level, the most devastating consequence of our ubiquitous presence is the disappearance of wild species that just need to be left alone. They want to live on, and in peace, just as we do. They have just as much right to exist without harm and suffering as we do.

Habitat destruction (including that caused by climate chaos) is not painless and is the main threat to most wild flora and faunas: Less than four percent of original U.S. forests remain; oceans are dying; waterways are heavily polluted with toxins; farmland is quickly expanding; a new study shows that in the past 20 years we’ve managed to destroy a tenth of the earth’s wild areas. Half of North American bird species are predicted to go extinct by the end of this century and some especially sensitive amphibians are already there. We’re the most invasive, destructive, and over-consuming species ever to walk the earth, and it’s costing us the earth, as well as our health and happiness.hermit thrush

Our big brains are burdensome as we thoughtlessly invent things that damage and destroy, but they’re also an asset when we realize our obligation to protect and sustain. Habits of exploitation can be broken. We can stop pretending that everything is fine or beyond our control, and realize that we are very much a part of nature. We don’t have to, for example, conform to having manicured, high maintenance, lawn-dominated landscapes that require massive chemical and fossil fuel applications just because other people have them. We can make choices based on caring what happens to those downstream, just as we wish those upstream would to do to us.

When our species was young, we weren’t separated from nature. Even now, within our bubbles that disconnect, we enter this world not with a fear of natural processes and wild creatures, but with an intense curiosity. But as kids we learn to be fearful—we’re taught to fear the proverbial “big bad wolf,” and trepidation of wildlife and natural processes continue throughout many people’s lives. Education can help change that, and even awaken us to the awe-inspiring, interconnected layers that nature has fashioned over eons of evolution.

Courtesy Predator Defense

Photo courtesy Predator Defense

Just as essential is empathy for other species (that is, looking at their world from their point of view, with compassion). It may be our most important capability and what is sorely needed to bring some balance to the earth’s members. When we allow empathy to guide our choices and practices, we act selflessly and gain empowerment along the way. Changing our ways isn’t always difficult and some changes can be very simple; it just takes some thought and a little motivation. With compassion we can defiantly say “no” to synthetic toxic chemicals crafted by mega corporations that discriminate against other species and seek to control the natural world, “no” to wasteful monoculture lawns, and “no” to merely decorative plants with zero wildlife appeal. We can say “yes” to planning gardens that not only look pretty but also benefit and sustain other species,  “yes” to keeping Fluffy and Fido away from birds and other vulnerable creatures, “yes” to keeping outdoor lights off and making windows visible to birds, and “yes” to initiatives and politicians that seek to preserve and protect natural areas. There are, of course, countless other ways to express compassion for the planet outside the garden.

It’s easy to think that the war against wildlife—from the microorganisms within degraded soil to persecuted predators trying to survive on a human-dominated planet—is happening somewhere “out there.” While a huge percentage of wild lands are dominated by livestock ranching that has “caused more damage than the chainsaw and bulldozer combined,” urban and suburban spaces—including the roughly 40 million acres of land that’s currently lawn—offer an important conservation opportunity and a way for us to personally provide for others right at home.

It’s equally easy to be pulled down by the ticking extinction clock, but once we turn our backs on conventional gardening, we become part of a conversion—or revolution, if you will—that is proactive. Learn how healthy, balanced ecosystems function; watch native plants (especially when grown with others that co-occur in the Native bumblebee on Vancouveria hexandraarea) attract and support a diversity of native insects and other creatures; recognize the  bees and the flower flies and the birds that depend directly or indirectly on those plant communities; discover their life cycle and how to keep them healthy and protected. Plant trees, let the leaves do their thing, allow the dead wood to stay, and forget about pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. If we do all that, we’ll find ourselves more connected and caring even more about what happens within the dwindling, wilder ecosystems on this beautiful planet, and wondering how even more beautiful it will be if more of us empathize with other species.

 

© 2016 Eileen M. Stark

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An Underappreciated Insect: The Syrphid Fly

Toxomerus occidentalis, female slurping nectar on Erigeron specious (showy fleabane)

Toxomerus occidentals (female), soaking up nectar on showy fleabane (Erigeron specious)


Beneficial in many ways, syrphid flies — also called flower flies — 
are true flies in the order Diptera, family Syrphidae. Some can be recognized by their ability to dart around as well as hover in the air in one place, wings nearly invisible, as they search for flowers on which to feed—somewhat like a tiny helicopter, but with much more grace (this flair led to their other common name, hover fly). They come in various shapes and sizes (typically 1/4 to 3/4 inch in length); the tiny ones require a hand lens or macro lens to get a good look. And when you do, you’ll be amazed at the beautiful patterns and bright colors that often serve to mimic dangerous looking bees or wasps and fool predators like birds into leaving them alone (but don’t worry, they couldn’t sting you if they wanted to!).

Syrphids in the genus Spilomyia often mimic wasps, with vivid yellow and black patterns and modified antennae.

Syrphids in the genus Spilomyia often mimic wasps, with vivid yellow and black patterns and modified antennae.


Multi-functional

Not needing to carry and store pollen for their young (like most bees do) doesn’t prevent them from being extremely important pollinators. Researchers have found that although syrphid flies pollinate less effectively per flower visit, they visit flowers more often, resulting in essentially the same pollination services as bees. And, it’s thought that they may be more tolerant of the landscape changes that we humans insist on, than bees are.

But syrphid flies are not only important as pollinators in gardens, organic farms, and wild areas. During their immature stage, most species that are found in gardens and nearly half of the 6,000 syrphid fly species worldwide are voracious consumers of aphids, scale insects, and other soft-bodied pests. In coastal Central California, researchers compared romaine lettuce sprayed with an insecticide and lettuce without insecticide. They found that syrphid larvae were primarily responsible for suppressing aphids in organic romaine lettuce, and called the sprayed lettuce “unmarketable.” Other types of syrphid fly larvae are either (1) scavengers that tidy up ant, bee, and wasp nests, (2) feeders of plant material, tree sap, and fungi, or (3) decomposers that feed on decaying organic matter. To add to their achievements, larvae are reportedly more effective in cool weather (as in early spring) than most other such predators.

Myathropa florea, male. Larvae feed on bacteria at the base of trees or in decaying leaves.

Myathropa florea, male. Larvae of this species feed on bacteria at the base of trees or in decaying leaves.


Life Cycle

Females lay their tiny, elongated eggs singly on leaves—typically near aphid colonies, so food is within reach—and they hatch in a few days. The tapered, grub-like larvae are blind and legless, but the mouths of these aphid-eaters are equipped with triple-pointed darts that enable them to pierce and suck their prey dry. At maturation, the larvae are promoted to the soil to become pupa and, eventually, adult flies. Their life cycle takes several weeks; reportedly three generations per year are typical in the Northwest. Most syrphid flies overwinter as larvae in leaf litter—yet another reason to not remove fallen leaves from soil!

Close encounters
The best way to spot these helpful, colorful little insects in your garden is to move slowly and quietly, and observe carefully. Sometimes all I have to do is pause next to a group of flat-topped flowers (white or yellow ones seem to be their favorites), and within a few minutes one or two will show up to eat (and to dazzle me—in morning sunlight these exceptional little pollinators shimmer!). I’ve photographed nine different species in my small yard, and I’ve just started. Hopefully I’ll encounter many more of these fascinating little flyers in the years to come.

To avoid confusion with bees and wasps, just remember that syrphid flies have huge compound eyes (which help to determine their gender—female eyes are spaced slightly apart while males’ come together at the top of their head); their bodies are sometimes flatter than bees and wasps; their antennae are usually very short; they don’t carry pollen around like most bees do; they have one pair of wings (unlike bees and wasps that have two pairs). The second pair of wings of flies has been reduced to two little knobs called halteres, which can be seen in the photo below. Halteres function like tiny gyroscopes that allow them to stay balanced by detecting and correcting changes in rotation while flying, and enable their zippy acrobatic flights.

Although the mouth parts of syrphids vary between species, allowing different species to access nectar in differently shaped flowers, their typical mouth is basically a retractable extension with a spongelike tip that can soak up either nectar or pollen. The species that have this can only feed on open flowers that have easily accessible nectar. Some species have a modified mouth that allows them to feed at elongated, tubular flowers.

The halteres can be seen at the base of the wings.

The halteres can be seen at the base of the wings.

 

Conservation
Syrphid flies have been studied very little in the U.S., but European research has shown that species diversity has fallen in areas of intensive human activity. According to the Xerces Society, in Britain, seven of the 22 flies for which Biodiversity Action Plans have been prepared are syrphid flies. Given the substantial loss of pollinators induced by habitat loss, pesticides, nonnative species and climate chaos, and the profusion of others in danger of extinction, there is a definite need to conserve all types of wild pollinator communities.

Providing for these flies is similar to most other pollinators: A variety of flowers from spring till fall for adults, and appropriate habitat for egg laying, larval development, and overwintering. Attract and nurture syrphid flies with a diversity of native plants that provide a lot of nectar and pollen (females need pollen to produce eggs). In the Pacific Northwest, try yarrow (Achillea millefolium var. occidentalis), stonecrop (Sedum spp.), goldenrod (Solidago canadensis), blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium spp.), fleabane (Erigeron spp.), white spiraea (Spiraea betulifolia var. lucida), mock orange (Philadelphus lewisii), and aster (Symphiotrichum spp.). The flowers of chamomile, dill, parsley, and other garden herbs with flat-topped flowers are also very attractive to them, as is the pollen of grasses and sedges that’s often available early in the season. Be sure to allow leaf litter and downed wood to remain on soil to help them get through the winter and to provide food for the decomposer types.

Aphid remedy
If you have an aphid problem on some plants, remember that predatory insects that keep pests at acceptable levels need prey like aphids. Always inspect aphid colonies for syrphid fly larvae before even thinking about control, even “organic” remedies. Use only plain water to spray off aphids (that can’t climb back on), but only if necessary. Never, ever use insecticides, to which syrphid flies and other creatures are very sensitive. Usually, just turning your back is the best thing: One summer a large patch of native bleeding heart (Dicentra formosa) in my backyard was absolutely infested with aphids. I decided to let nature take her course—cheering on the ladybird beetles and birds who flourished with the situation. As the leaves died back (as they do naturally when the heat of summer arrives) I forgot about the aphids. The following year there were scarcely any on the bleeding heart, but I found another species of aphid on nodding onion (Allium cernuum); again I did nothing and nature took care of it. The following year the wild onion and bleeding heart were fine, but the aspen trees were stricken. Yet again, ladybugs, lacewings, and several species of songbirds took advantage of the generous buffet. The following year there were no outbreaks in my yard, at least none that I noticed.

 

Syrphus opinator (female) on Spiraea betulifolia var. lucida

Syrphus opinator (female) on white spiraea (Spiraea betulifolia var. lucida)

 

Eristatis male on yarrow (Achillea millefolium var. occidentalis

Eristalis sp. on yarrow (Achillea millefolium var. occidentalis)

 

© Eileen M. Stark 2016

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Beyond Bees: The Underappreciated Pollinators

Common ringlet (Coenonympha tulle)
The majority of flowering plants evolved to take advantage of insects, and depend on them (and less commonly, other animals or wind) to fertilize their flowers, facilitate gene flow, and prevent inbreeding. Bees might be the most obvious pollinators, and on a warm summer day it seems flowers and bees were made for each other. Native bees, including the 90% of species native to the U.S. that are solitary rather than social — that is, females create nests and raise their young without the help of any other bees — are considered to be the most important pollinators (move over, European honeybees!) and are invaluable members of natural systems. But other capable pollinators—like butterflies and moths, hummingbirds, wasps, ants, herbivorous fruit bats, and even rodents—share the pollen distribution workload, and offer ecological benefits as well. Less well known are the thrips, beetles, mosquitoes (yes, you read that right), and flies that are actually quite accomplished pollinators. Distributing pollen may be a sideline for them, but they often excel because they don’t take pollen back to their nests, as most bees do.

Thrips go way back—to the Permian period, over 250 million years ago—but get a bad rap because of a few species that threaten crops. Studies show that they are strong pollinators of some plants, particularly early in the season when most other pollinators aren’t around.

The adult ornate checkered beetle (Trichodes ornatus) feeds on flowers such as wild buckwheat (Eriogonum spp.), transferring pollen from anther to stigma.

The adult ornate checkered beetle (Trichomes oranatus) feeds on flowers such as wild buckwheat (Eriogonum sp.) and helps transfer pollen from anther to stigma.

Beetles are particularly important in semi-arid parts of the world and have a highly developed sense of smell. They are expert and essential pollinators, according to the Forest Service, and also were around millions of years before bees appeared. Like many species of birds, bees, and butterflies, beetles are in danger of extinction. The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists over 70 beetle species as endangered. The main threats include habitat destruction, chemical pollutants (e.g., pesticides), displacement by introduced species, and hybridization with other species due to human interference.

Although many flies (order Diptera) are recorded as flower visitors, relatively little is known about pollination by flies, compared to other more obvious pollinators. Many flies are strong pollinators, including syrphid flies (which deserve their very own special post) as well as some tachinid flies, which are the most diverse family of the order Diptera (true flies). As adults, they are flower visitors, feeding on nectar and/or pollen; in their larval stages many species help to control insects that we consider pests.

Suillia spp. attracted to bear grass (Xerophyllum tenax) receives a pollen reward.

Pollination by insects is usually mutually beneficial. Here, a fly (Suillia variegata) attracted to bear grass (Xerophyllum tenax) receives a pollen reward and the flower gets fertilized.

While I’m not advocating the nurture of mosquitoes in your garden (the females do suck blood and can carry disease, after all!), it’s noteworthy that mosquitoes, like all insects, do have a role in natural systems. Their primary source of food is flower nectar (with males eating nothing but nectar) and they buzzily and incidentally carry pollen from flower to flower. Plants like goldenrod (Solidago spp.) use mosquitoes as pollinators, as do orchids of northern latitudes, grasses, and many other types of plants. And they are a source of food for birds, fish, amphibians, spiders, bats, dragonfly larvae, and other animals.

How you can help a variety of pollinators

Within our increasingly fragmented landscapes, gardens that provide pollen and nectar-rich plants—as well as nesting and overwintering sites—can create critical habitat and connections for pollinators and other creatures. No space is too small, and when in close proximity to other larger gardens, natural areas, or greenways that sustain native plant populations appropriate to the region, their value deepens.

◊ Choose natives that occur naturally in your area, or at the very least heirloom ornamentals (rather than newer hybrids that may not provide sufficient or appropriate nutrients that native species do). Some garden herbs like cilantro, parsley, and dill attract some pollinators when allowed to flower.

◊ Avoid nonnative invasive species like “butterfly bush” (Buddleia davidii) that sound good, but aren’t.

◊ Provide structure and layering in the form of native trees and shrubs that provide food, cover and nesting sites for various pollinators.

Syrphid _ Eumerus sp.

Syrphid fly (Eumerus sp.) on Sedum spathulifolium, a west coast native.

◊ Plan for continuous flowering, spring through fall. Early spring nectar is particularly important for early-emerging queen bumble bees and other solitary bees, as well as flies and beetles.

◊ Choose a variety of plants that differ in the size, shape, and color of blossoms to attract a variety of pollinators. Arrange perennials in drifts or swaths of at least three of a kind, rather than singly here and there. And don’t forget that trees and shrubs produce flowers!

◊ Stay away from pesticides and other chemicals. Insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, and synthetic fertilizers are particularly harmful to sensitive pollinators. Don’t purchase plants pre-treated with neonicotinoids; if you’re unsure, ask.

◊ Don’t be too neat. Leaf litter, dead wood (tree snags or piles of branches), and other natural detritus provide essential habitat, nesting materials, and overwintering sites for adult pollinators or their eggs, larvae, or pupae. And allow some bare soil for pollinators that nest in the ground.

◊ Grow lepidoptera (butterfly and moth) host plants that provide food and habitat for their young. Find out which species frequent your area and grow the native plants that they need to breed.

◊ Provide shallow water and some moist soil. A shallow pie plate or flowerpot saucer, filled with clean gravel or small rocks allow insects to drink without drowning. Also, butterflies and moths need muddy or sandy puddles to obtain water and nutrients. Add a dash of salt to be sure male Lepidoptera get enough sodium prior to mating.

Please see this post for more detailed info on supporting pollinators in all their life stages.

© Eileen M. Stark 2016

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Attract Ladybird Beetles (“Ladybugs”) to Your Northwest Garden Humanely

_MG_2279

The Western blood-red ladybird beetle (Cycloneda polita) — one of about 90 species throughout the Pacific Northwest and about 6,000 species worldwide — is tiny (4 to 5 mm), but like most others in the Coccinellidae family, is a voracious consumer of aphids, scale insects, and mites; a few species eat fungi. Revered for centuries due to their role as a pest controller, ladybird beetles at one time were even thought to have supernatural powers. The “lady” for whom they were named was the “Virgin Mary.” Once you have these native predators in your garden you’ll want to keep them, and there’s an easy way to do that.

But first, a little about these endearing little insects, the vast majority of which are beneficial: The most obvious ladybird beetles (often called “ladybugs” in North America, although they are not true bugs) evolved a brightly colored shell to exhibit what biologists call aposematic (warning) coloration, which functions to repel and warn predators that they taste awful (due to production of toxic and unpalatable alkaloids). The “eyespots” on their pronotum (that covers the thorax) are a form of mimicry, possibly to further fool a predator by appearing dangerous, or by adding to the inedibility factor. Their actual face is the tiny black and white portion with brown antennae that you can see in the photo above. The Western blood-red ladybird beetle is plain and without spots, but some species have remarkable color patterns that vary greatly and make identification difficult. Other species lack dramatic coloration.

Life Cycle
Adults are commonly seen on plants in spring and summer, foraging for small invertebrate prey (often aphids), although they will eat nectar, water, or honeydew (the sugary secretion from insects like aphids and white flies) when food is scarce. They overwinter by hibernating in large clusters, often spending the winter under leaf litter, rocks, downed wood, or other debris. If they get into your house in autumn as temperatures plummet, please don’t kill them. Since they need cool temperatures and moisture during the winter (which our homes lack), gently place them back outside under fallen leaves. In hard to reach places (like ceilings) I suggest fastening a piece of lightweight fabric (perhaps a lightweight sock or piece of nylon stocking) onto the end of a vacuum cleaner hose with a rubber band, so that an inch or two of fabric protrudes into the hose. Then, with the power turned down as low as possible, quickly suck them into the fabric, gently remove the fabric with the beetles, and release them under a pile of leaves outdoors. To help prevent future interlopers, caulk cracks and crevices around doors and windows and repair any damaged siding that’s allowing them to get in.

Ladybird beetle larvae are long and flat and are usually covered with little spines, spots and stripes, and resemble tiny alligators. Though sometimes erroneously mistaken for pests, they are completely harmless to humans. Usually found in or near aphid colonies, they feed voraciously on insects for several weeks, then pupate on leaves. Some species produce several generations per year, while others have only one. During the summer, all stages may be seen.

How to Acquire
The best way to get these hungry predators into your garden is not to purchase them, but to provide native habitat and not use any insecticides. The food that they need comes from native plants that naturally attract insect herbivores. In my yard I notice Cycloneda polita (pictured) feeding on lupine (Lupinus spp.), western bleeding heart (Dicentra formosa), fleabane (Erigeron spp.), honeysuckle vines (Lonicera ciliosa and L. hispidula), and this year for the first time, aspen trees (which are also attracting birds like bushtits and kinglets who love to eat aphids).Western blood-red ladybird beetle

Don’t buy them
In the early 1900’s, literally tons of Asian beetles were collected and shipped to agricultural fields. Tragically, over half died during shipments and most of the rest quickly dispersed before the wretched experiment finally ended. Today, ladybird beetles are again popular, but beware the ramifications. According to Judy and Peter Haggard, authors of “Insects of the Pacific Northwest” (Timber Press, 2006), the commercial exploitation of ladybird beetles involves collecting them while they are hibernating, which can be devastating to their populations. “Those innocent-looking mesh bags … in the local garden shop actually represent a cruel and unconscionable practice: Ladybird beetles sold in retail stores are usually exposed to high temperatures, low humidity, and no food for weeks. Even if they survive until bought and released, they are often so weakened, they die soon after being released.” And the ones who do survive usually quickly disperse to areas other than your yard. Bottom line: Don’t purchase them.

To add to the destruction, beetles sold commercially are usually not native species and, as such, are a serious threat to native insect species, including native lady beetles. According to the Oregon Department of Agriculture, “Even species native to North America but collected outside of Oregon should not be released because they may carry diseases and parasites not found in Oregon.”

 

© Eileen M. Stark 2016

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Be a Voice for Portland’s Trees!

Ponderosa pine

Portland is losing a great many valuable trees due to rampant development. After much public outrage and several committee and commission meetings/hearings later, Portland City Council will at last address the issue (temporarily) on Thursday, March 3, 2016. For more background info, please see this post.

Over the past couple of months, staff from the Bureau of Parks and Recreation and from the Bureau of Development Services developed proposals intended as tree preservation “stop-gap” measures until Portland’s entire tree code (Title 11) can be fully examined and reformed. Their proposals were then considered by the Planning and Sustainability Commission (PSC) and the Urban Forestry Commission (UFC). Subsequently, the PSC and the UFC each made separate recommendations to City Council. The initial staff proposals, the recommendations by the PSC and the UFC, and a table comparing those proposals and recommendations are available here. The UFC proposal appears to be the most reasonable and fair.

More recently, Commissioners Amanda Fritz and Dan Saltzman put together their own proposal (Fritz/Saltzman Proposal). Unfortunately, it’s possible that the council members will consider passing the Fritz/Saltzman proposal as is, even though it contains a number of weaknesses, such as exemptions for lots less than 5,000 sq. ft., exemptions for trees growing on city, commercial, and industrial properties, and a requirement that neighborhood notice be given only for trees greater than 36 inches (which are few). Their proposal essentially requires no real preservation.

Please offer testimony at the March 3 City Council meeting at 2 PM (Council Chambers at City Hall, 1221 SW 4th Ave). If that’s not possible, please email your comments (before March 3) to CCTestimony@portlandoregon.gov (or mail to 1221 SW 4th Ave., Room 130, Portland 97204).  It’s best to put the following suggested talking points into your own words.

♦ Portland’s urban forest is dwindling, with large, valuable trees being replaced by species (mostly nonnative) that are small in form and benefits. There are very few huge trees in the city, and it’s important to note that many species (even highly beneficial native ones) do not grow to a large diameter (or they are extremely slow-growing, as in the case of Oregon white oak). Removing young trees will eventually result in a lack of mature trees that are so aesthetically and ecologically appealing. The Urban Forestry Commission’s recommendations state that “… roughly no more than 2% of trees currently standing in Portland would benefit from [the Parks or BDS proposals]. The PSC proposal would affect ~4% of all trees currently being permitted for removal as tallied by BDS in August 2015.”

♦ The threshold for very large trees should be no more than 30 inches DBH (diameter at breast height).

♦ Mitigation is not preservation—it merely puts a price on trees and does not protect them. For those with enough money, it’s a weak and ineffectual disincentive. True preservation prohibits tree destruction and requires developers to protect and build around existing trees. To be most effective, mitigation should be based on size, but also species (especially native species), via inch-for-inch replacement for trees 20 inches or greater (with no cap on total fee). For smaller trees, the old fee-in-lieu of preservation should be updated with Urban Forestry’s current and actual costs of labor and materials for planting a tree and providing it with 2 years of care.

♦ Amendments should not include an exemption for lots less than 5,000 sq. ft. since valuable, healthy trees certainly do exist on small lots. The UFC considers it “a significant loophole that is likely to allow significant unregulated and unmitigated removal of significant trees during development … [and] recommends that these provisions apply to lots 3,000 sq. ft. and larger.”

♦ Amendments should apply to trees on private property, but also street trees and trees on city, commercial, and industrial land. Wildlife in need of trees to survive doesn’t care what type of land trees live on!

♦ At least 30 days notice should be given to neighbors and neighborhood associations for all trees greater than 20 inches DBH. Furthermore, Type II reviews should be implemented whenever there are plans to destroy significant trees.

♦ Amendments should only be temporary and be in effect for no more than 3 years.

♦ A complete and comprehensive overhaul of Title 11 is essential following implementation of a temporary stop-gap measure. It should be funded and undertaken ASAP.

© 2016 Eileen M. Stark

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Gifts of the Oregon White Oak (Quercus garryana) aka Garry Oak

Quercus garryana at Ridgefield NWR


Spring still seems out of reach
, so while we’re awaiting balmier days, let’s take a moment to appreciate some of nature’s subtle, yet generous gifts. We owe everything to the natural world and even modest contact with it refreshes and offers solace. While contemplating the obvious things that nature provides—food, water, clean air—it’s easy to overlook the little (and not so little) things.

Plants, the primary producers on this planet, belong to irreplaceable, intricate, ancient ecosystems, within which they support and depend on other species—both flora and fauna— to survive. I like to think of it as everlasting give and take. This post honors one of my favorite Pacific Northwest natives whose gifts are mammoth. Quercus garryana, commonly called Oregon white oak (or “Garry oak” by those in British Columbia and Washington), is a slow-growing, very long-lived, majestic, deciduous tree that, with time, grows beautifully gnarly. As a keystone species, oak trees are vibrant communities in themselves, and support more life-forms than any other trees in North America.

Wildlife hotspot
Late last fall, while strolling along a trail at Jackson Bottom Wetlands Preserve (just west of Portland), I was awestruck by the amount of life attracted to the broad canopy of just a single mature Oregon white oak: Visible and audible were multiple white-breasted nuthatches, black-capped chickadees, downy woodpeckers, and red-breasted sapsuckers, all busily going about their foraging business with such enthusiasm that all I could do was look upwards, my mouth agape. The birds weren’t seeking the tree’s highly nutritious acorns, which sustain many other birds, as well as insects, mammals, and reptiles—they were consuming a tasty assortment of insect herbivores, which oak trees are particularly adept at generating. Studies show that the genus Quercus hosts more caterpillars and other insect life than any other genus in the northern hemisphere. This proficiency is especially important during breeding season, when the vast majority of landbirds consume and feed their young highly nutritious insects or their larvae, and other arthropods such as spiders—not seeds or fruit. Other studies show a higher diversity of bird species in oak forests than in nearby conifer forests (although pine forests are quite exceptional as well).

Like other native keystone tree species, Oregon white oak peacefully regulates ecosystem processes like nutrient cycling and energy flow, which provides benefits to wildlife (and the rest of us) that seem endless. Besides the obvious shade, beauty, and exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide that these trees offer (trees really are the best carbon sink), inconspicuous flowers—which typically bloom in late spring—provide for pollinators like native bees, while the buds of forthcoming rounded, deeply lobed leaves play host to the larvae of gray hairstreak, Lorquin’s admiral, echo blue, California sister, and propertius duskywing butterflies. Speaking of leaves, it typically retains dead leaves on its branches until spring, a process known as marcescense. (It’s believed that marcescense, which is more common on young trees, may serve to protect new buds on branches by discouraging browsing animals from grazing. There’s also speculation that marcescent leaves help oaks create a nutrient-rich mulch when the trees need it most —in springtime. But no one knows for sure.)

In addition, cover, perches, and nesting habitat go to birds such as woodpeckers and vireos, as well as native squirrels. Oaks’ acorns sustain squirrels and other mammals, as well as many bird species. Fallen leaves, which might provide habitat for arthropods, amphibians and reptiles, slowly break down into a rich leaf mold that supports soil-dwelling invertebrates and numerous fungi that allow neighboring plants to thrive. Sugars and carbon are provided for mycorrhizal fungi, which reciprocate with nutrients for growing plants and contribute to the soil carbon pool. Intact bark creates microhabitat for mosses, as well as lichens that supply food, shelter, and nesting material, while loose bark and twigs contribute to nest building as well as browse for deer, which in turn feed carnivores like cougars.

And as oaks deteriorate with advanced age (which can be 500 years), they continue to deliver. Dead trees can last many years as snags, which provide food, nesting material, and housing to cavity nesters like owls, kestrels, woodpeckers and chickadees, as well as bats who may roost in old holes or under loose bark.

How it grows
Elevation, climate, soil, and water persuade Oregon white oak to vary immensely in habit and size. While it thrives in cool, coastal areas and near the edges of streams and wetlands where it tolerates seasonal flooding, it also flourishes in droughty inland sites where it may grow both individually and in groves on low hills surrounded by grasslands. When it occurs on gravelly sites or rocky slopes with thin soils, it often has a shrub-like or scrubby habit. Along the blustery Columbia River Gorge, where it grows with little rainfall and atop hundreds of feet of layered basalt, harshly battered trees grow gnarled but hang on thanks to a very extensive and strong root system. As seedlings, this oak’s root mass may be ten times as large as the aboveground growth.

Within the richer, deeper, riparian soils amongst tapestries of dazzling wildflowers and grasses in the Georgia Basin-Puget Trough-Willamette Valley ecoregion of British Columbia, Washington and Oregon, it acts as a keystone structure, typically growing a very broad canopy, and reaching heights 100+ feet over hundreds of years. Gigantic root systems may grow two or three times wider than the canopy. The ecoregion includes savannas (grassland with trees scattered at least 100 feet apart), upland prairies (another type of grassland), wet prairies, and shady oak woodlands with a continuous or semi-open canopy. I’ll call them, collectively, prairie-oak ecosystems.

Endangered ecosystems
To really appreciate an oak, it’s helpful to know something about its unique ecosystems that once provided some of the richest habitat in the world. The historic range of Q. garryana stretches from low elevations of southwestern British Columbia (including Vancouver Island and nearby smaller islands) to California. In Washington, it occurs mainly west of the Cascades on Puget Sound islands and in the Puget Trough, and east along the Columbia River. In Oregon, it is indigenous to the Willamette, Rogue River and Umpqua Valleys, and within the Klamath Mountains.  

When pioneers and naturalists encountered prairie-oak ecosystems, they found a breathtakingly beautiful and rich mosaic of plant and animal life. Journals of early Oregonians described massive prairies with five-mile-wide dense forests of ash, alder, willow, and cottonwood that skirted meandering rivers within floodplains. Marshes and sloughs developed during high water periods but often dried out by late summer. At higher elevations within these forest corridors were oak and associated trees. Above the floodplains were upland prairies, filled with herbaceous plants and grasses that could tolerate the parched soil of summer, as well as winter wet. Oak woodlands stood on low hills above the valley floors, surrounded by grasslands, also known as savanna.

But the landscape was not untouched or pristine. Aboriginal peoples managed parts of the ecosystems following the last glacial period, frequently using prescribed burning to boost edible plant productivity, aid the hunting of wildlife, limit the growth of conifers, and facilitate travel, particularly in the northern parts of the oak’s range. Harvesting of plants such as camas (Camassia spp.) and chocolate lily (Fritillaria affinis) also caused soil disturbance, but their eco-cultural manipulations pale greatly compared to what came later.

Since Euro-American settlement, as much as 99 percent of the original prairie-oak communities that were present in parts of the Pacific Northwest have been lost and many rare species dependent on them are at risk of extinction. Extensive destruction and fragmentation began with settlement in the 1850s, with clearing, plowing, livestock grazing, wildfire suppression, and cutting of trees for firewood and manufacturing. Prairie wetlands bejeweled with wildflowers were drained and ditched. Later, subsidies to ranchers encouraged more destructive grazing, while urban sprawl and agricultural use—fueled by human population increase—intensified. Invasion of nonnative species, and the encroachment of shade tolerant and faster growing species—that proliferate with fire suppression—outcompeted oaks and decimated additional native flora and fauna. Prairie-oak ecosystems and associated systems still continue to disappear at human hands, and isolation of the tiny remaining fragments prevents the migration of wildlife and healthy genetic material from one area to another. Other detrimental factors include diseases and parasites, climate change, and the loss of wildlife that cache acorns and perform other essential functions.  

Conservation
Despite continual destruction, there is a renewed and growing appreciation for the diversity and beauty of these habitats, motivated by recognition that we are responsible for what’s been destroyed, an admiration for the interconnected wild species the habitat supports, and a reverence for an iconic, magnificent tree. Intervention has become intensive, and collaborations and partnerships—along with private landowners, who are key partners—are working to reverse the downward trend with preservation, restoration, and management tools, although “a major restoration challenge is restoring wet prairie habitat to a level at which it can maintain resistance to invasive species,” according to the Institute for Applied Ecology.

Regeneration of oak seedlings is essential, but is often difficult. Acorns look tough, but they are viable for only about a year and may be subject to parasitism, weather extremes, and genetic isolation. Consequently, just a small percentage become trees. Two independent studies determined that oak seedlings do best when caged, but protection from other deterrents—drought, competing plants, and rodents—is important, depending on location.

Regional conservation groups include the Garry Oak Ecosystems Recovery Team and the Cascadia Prairie-Oak Partnership.

Try it at home
While the maintenance of only fragments of a past ecosystem is a poor alternative to former richness, if you live in the ecoregion (or other impoverished oak-dominated ecosystem) and want to help, choose this native tree. Even a single isolated tree can be a critical habitat structure on the landscape. It’s the only oak native to Washington and western Canada, and the dominant one in Oregon (black oak—Quercus kelloggii—is another beautiful and valuable large tree that occurs from Lane County, Oregon, south to Baja, at low to high elevations).

An Oregon white oak tree needs a mostly sunny, well-drained site that can accommodate its eventual size aboveground (25-50 feet wide, depending on spacing) and enormous root systems described above. Those grown on poor, dry, rocky sites will grow quite a bit smaller and have a shrubby habit. When planting more than one, space trees 20 to 60 feet apart, using the closest spacing only in dry, rocky terrain. It may be most helpful to visit a nearby natural area and then try to mimic nature’s arrangement.

To maintain genetic integrity, always choose trees or seeds that originated from trees close to your location and from similar terrain. For best results, plant dormant saplings in late fall after rains begin. After watering, apply about three inches of an organic mulch to reduce evaporation and keep weeds (that can steal water and nutrients) down. I prefer low-nitrogen leaf compost, spread out to the tree’s drip line and kept at least a foot from the trunk to prevent rot. Oaks do not need rich soil, so don’t apply synthetic or organic fertilizer because most North American trees don’t need fertilizer and may even respond adversely to it. And don’t use those watering bags that only water at the base of the trunk and may promote rot

Though this species is drought tolerant, provide ample summer water, deeply and infrequently until established. During the first summer I like to water roughly every five days with about 10 gallons of water that’s applied so that it sinks in slowly. During the second and third summers, water once a week, 10-15 gallons, being sure to water out to the root zone (drip line) and beyond—root spread can be more than twice that of the crown. If severe heat and prolonged droughts appear to be stressing a young tree, provide more water. After the first few years it may do fine on its own, but do water it (deeply) if it appears to be drought stressed. Keep the area well weeded and don’t stake trees unless they are in very windy areas—they’ll grow much stronger if left unsupported. Keep in mind that soil compaction, hardscape, lawns and irrigation systems around water-sensitive oaks are a major cause of their decline in residential areasHere is more info on how to plant Oregon white oak.

Grab a partner
As with other native species, oaks will function best when grown within a habitat and community type that consists of plants that evolved together and need the same conditions. Figuring out which community occurs in your area requires a walk in a nearby natural area where species, as well as nature’s organization, can be learned. Some associate trees that might thrive with your oak include Oregon ash (Fraxinus latifolia) on moist sites, and madrone (Arbutus menziesii) on drier sites, and Pacific ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa subsp. Benthamiana). For shrubs, consider california hazelnut (Corylus cornuta var. californica), osoberry (Oemleria Aquilegia formosacerasiformis), serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia), snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus), oceanspray (Holodiscus discolor), red-twig dogwood (Cornus sericea), and tall Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium), depending on your location. Sword ferns (Polystichum munitum), orange or pink honeysuckle (Lonicera ciliosa or L. hispidula), fescues (Festuca spp.), and many wildflowers, including allium (Allium cernuum), camas (Camassia spp.), meadow checker mallow (Sidalcea campestris), western columbine (Aquilegia formosa, pictured right), and shooting star (Dodecathon spp.) associate in different parts of its range.

To find out which habitat type and plant communities would likely have grown in your area, check out this Ecoregional Assessment, or query your county’s soil and water conservation district or native plant society chapter. The following publications may also be helpful:
~ Georgia Basin: Garry Oak Ecosystems Recovery Team
~ Puget Trough: Prairie Landowner Guide for Western Washington 
~ Willamette Valley: A Landowner’s Guide for Restoring and Managing Oregon White Oak Habitats

 

© 2017 Eileen M. Stark

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Improve Portland’s Tree Code to Save Important Trees


Western red cedar (Thuja plicata)

PLEASE NOTE: This post includes updates …

Portland is generally a pretty progressive city, and it’s one of the reasons that many of us choose to live here. Another reason is its natural beauty, much of which is supplied by trees. But today, no tree—even if it’s huge, healthy, native, and majestic—is safe anywhere in the city due to currently out-of-control development rules that favor developers and their bottom line. In times like these, with human-induced climate change poised to wreak havoc on the earth as we know it, tree preservation ought to be paramount.

Portland’s relatively new tree code (Title 11) has proved to be inadequate in that it currently does not require that any tree in a development situation be preserved. The code currently allows for the removal of 2/3 of a property’s trees, with just 1/3 retained. However, for a measly $1200 (maximum) “fee in lieu of preservation” per tree, a developer can destroy the third if they’re in his way, no questions asked. Moreover, properties less than 5,000 square feet and commercial/industrial zones are completely exempt from the code.

According to city records, tree removal permits for demolition and new construction during one month—August 2015—revealed that only 13 of 53 trees that were greater than 24 inches DBH (trunk diameter at breast height) were spared the chainsaw. Several of the trees destroyed during that month were greater than 42 inches DBH. Granted, one month is a small sample and not an average, but the point is that we cannot afford to lose any more quality trees. Portland’s tree canopy is shrinking: More trees are being removed than added, and the ones that are being planted are mainly those that grow to a small stature and are nonnative (read: poor ecological function).


 

(UPDATED Feb. 21, 2016) Speak up for voiceless trees and wildlife!

Two proposals—one from Urban Forestry’s office and one from the Bureau of Development Services­—were reviewed by the Planning and Sustainability Commission (January 12) and by the Urban Forestry Commission (January 21). Both proposals sought protections only for trees greater than 48 or 50 inches DBH and are lax in other ways. The two commissions made their own recommendations to City Council.

The PSC rejected both proposals and crafted their own motion. Their recommendation includes a reduction of the proposed 48 or 50-inch threshold to 36 inches, and a 30-day notice to neighbors and neighborhood associations (both steps in the right direction). Note: PSC member Mike Houck advocated for 20 inches. More details on PSC’s motion can be found here.

The Urban Forestry Commission also created their own recommendations, which stand out as the most reasonable and fair.

Commissioners Fritz and Salzman have come up with their own proposal and will present it to to City Council on March 3, 2016, at 2:00 PM (City Hall, 1221 SW 4th Ave.). Their proposal is weak in a number of ways.

Portland City Council will take public testimony on stop-gap tree preservation in development situations at the meeting noted above. If you can’t make it, please send in your comments to the council and Mayor Hales.


Trees over 48 inches DBH are extremely rare in Portland. In Wilshire Park, which is home
tree swallow nestto 346 trees (most of them mature Douglas-firs), we found that only two measured 48 inches DBH or just slightly greater. Under either proposal and if these trees were in development situations, only two of those 346 trees would be safe!

Large, mature trees are extremely important to wildlife for food and shelter, and they provide myriad other environmental benefits and, as such, ought to be protected. But we also need to recognize that we will have much fewer large trees in the future if developers are allowed to remove smaller trees that are in their way now.

Follow the Plan

The 2035 Portland Comprehensive Plan clearly states, “potential adverse impacts of development must be well understood and avoided where practicable. These policies also call for an evaluation of design alternatives to minimize negative impacts, and the use of mitigation approaches that fully mitigate unavoidable impacts.” It also recommends preserving Pacific Northwest native trees.

Title 11 does not provide incentive to keep trees, nor does it require consideration of design alternatives. A paltry “fee in lieu” cannot possibly fully mitigate the loss of ecologically and aesthetically significant trees that are part of our neighborhoods and region, and whose loss permanently impacts people and devastates wildlife. We must first seek to avoid, then minimize, and then—and only as a last resort—mitigate.

Mitigation as a last resort

When healthy, mature, life-giving trees are eliminated, it’s impossible to replicate their benefits. How can we possibly compensate for the sudden loss of something irreplaceable? What happens to dwindling, exhausted birds during their death-defying migrations who counted on certain trees as stopover habitat (places to take cover, rest, and feed)? Or those who need the trees to breed?

Planting a few sapling trees cannot supply the lost cover and food for wildlife any more than they can supply the shade, oxygen, and carbon sequestration provided by a mature tree. The graph at the end of the OAC’s recommendations shows how terribly long it takes for young replacement trees to begin to supply benefits (and some never will). Plus, the replacements are often smaller species and/or planted off site, possibly miles away, so the benefit to local wildlife is nonexistent.

All trees are not created equal

Preserving the towering, big-canopy trees that supply the most environmental and public health benefits (like cleaner air and water) makes perfect sense, but we also need to look at species as well as diameter. While large trees—especially conifers—are immensely important for wildlife, shade, and storm water mitigation, studies have concluded that certain tree types are enormously supportive of native insect herbivores, which provide essential food for wild species like birds.

But many valuable native trees do not grow large. In fact, some only grow to 20 inches DBH at maturity, at most. And others are so slow growing that even at age 50 they would not have the girth that would be considered “large.” Native oaks support the most insect herbivores (over 540 species of butterfly and moth, alone), but oaks—especially our beloved Oregon white oak (Quercus garryana)—mature at a slow rate and to reach even 30 inches DBH could take well over 100 years (depending on conditions)! Other highly productive and beautiful Willamette Valley native species, such as madrone (Arbutus menziesii), wild cherry (genus Prunus), and willow (genus Salix), do not grow to a large diameter.

We also need to consider the repercussions of removing trees that are, for example, preventing erosion on hillsides, providing a windbreak, or protecting nearby vegetation.

What do other progressive cities do?

Some cities have adopted regulations that could serve as a model for Portland. Vancouver, B.C. requires that all new houses be built on existing footprints; they do not allow a modest house to be destroyed and replaced with a 3,000 or 4,000 square foot home that no one needs and does not contribute to urban density. Lake Oswego requires  “Removal of the tree will not have a significant negative impact on erosion, soil stability, flow of surface waters, protection of adjacent trees, or existing windbreaks” and “Removal of the tree will not have a significant negative impact on the character, aesthetics, or property values of the neighborhood. The City may grant an exception to this criterion when alternatives to the tree removal have been considered and no reasonable alternative exists to allow the property to be used as permitted in the zone. In making this determination, the City may consider alternative site plans or placement of structures or alternate landscaping designs that would lessen the impact on trees, so long as the alternatives continue to comply with other provisions of the Lake Oswego Code.”

How you can help

If you believe that Title 11’s lack of protection for trees and its wholly inadequate mitigation provisions need to be changed, I encourage you to offer comments or simply show your support at either of the above mentioned meetings. I attended and testified at several of the OAC meetings this past fall and I can tell you that they do listen and consider sensible comments. My suggestion that the value of small and/or slow-growing native trees be considered in their recommendations did make it into their memorandum.

If you can’t make the meetings you may send written comments (with your name and address) via email to: trees@PortlandOregon.gov

Some suggested comments:

♦ Remove the Title 11 exemptions for small lots and commercial and industrial land

♦ Avoid destruction by requiring design alternatives to cutting

♦ Require a site review process with public involvement for trees greater than 20 inches DBH

♦ Require a mandatory posting/public notice and notification to neighborhood associations of least 30 days before any tree greater than 20 inches DBH is destroyed

♦ Consider tree species, giving special consideration to the superior ecological value of Willamette Valley native trees, no matter their eventual size

♦ Use mitigation as a last resort, adding an inch-for-inch protocol, at least $300 per inch for healthy trees greater than 20 inches DBH, and $500 per inch for native species, and changing the 1/3 preservation rule to apply to preservation of caliper inches of trees on site, not just number of trees on site.

♦ Apply these improvements to both private and public trees

♦ Instigate a thorough examination and repair of Title 11 following this emergency measure

© 2016 Eileen M. Stark

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Killer Windows: How to Help Stop Bird Collisions

Varied thrush


When I read a recent post
from my local wildlife rehab center announcing that they’ve been caring for four varied thrushes in their facility—all injured by window collisions—it got me thinking. This winter I’ve seen just one of these gorgeous birds in our yard. Might others have been victims of window collisions? I certainly hope not, but the rehab center reportedly takes in several hundred window victims each year, and it’s not hard to imagine that countless others die out of sight, often slowly and painfully. Certain species—such as thrushes, cedar waxwings, warblers and woodpeckers—are more likely to fly into reflective glass, and migratory species are also at high risk, as well as birds like herons and owls. According to Audubon Society of Portland, “Whether the species is rare or common, young or old, resident or migratory, most birds are at risk of collision-related injury or death.”

Studies conclude that the more glass on a structure, the greater the chance of mortality, and windows that reflect vegetation create more risk.

Photo courtesy Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Photo courtesy Cornell Lab of Ornithology

A billion deaths a year
Contrary to popular belief, it’s not unusual for birds to collide with windows. In fact, ornithologists say that bird fatality by collision with manmade structures is second only to habitat loss that’s brought on by agriculture, industrial forestry, urban development, invasive species, and climate change. The number of deaths due to window strikes is appalling: An estimated one billion birds die each year from encounters with reflective surfaces in North America! Birds who don’t die quickly from injury may suffer slow, painful deaths or become easy prey for predators. Many bird species, such as the elusive varied thrush, are already in steep decline, and deaths by collision only exacerbate the problem. And it’s getting worse—as urban areas grow, the quantity and size of obstacles increase and natural habitats degrade. Stopover habitat for migratory birds is getting smaller and smaller and more fragmented as humans encroach on what used to be grassland, wetland, shoreline, and the like.

Large urban buildings may be the most notorious killers, but any unobstructed, reflective window can kill and large rural structures are the most problematic: A study in Biological Conservation confirmed that rural buildings are worse than urban skyscrapers because they happen to be right where birds forage. The authors surveyed 40 college campuses across the continent and discovered that sites with abundant shrubs and trees in a 160-foot radius were the deadliest. Furthermore, since many birds travel along undeveloped migration routes, well lit towns and office parks they come across have a greater chance of distracting them. There is also speculation that there may be an innate behavioral difference among rural and city bird populations, with urban birds possibly having learned to avoid windows and other structures following a few non-fatal crashes. Rural birds would lack that training, which could make them more vulnerable. This would explain why thrushes and woodpeckers would be some of the most vulnerable species, since they adapted to forest environments.

What they see
Birds don’t see window glass and shiny or mirrored office buildings like we do. They see a reflection of trees, shrubs, and sky that appears to be a clear path, and consequently fly into it. tree reflection in windowMoreover, some fruit-eating species may get intoxicated by eating fermented berries and are more likely to hit windows while flying drunk.

Or, birds may see through clear glass (such as two corner windows perpendicular to each other, a solarium, or a bus shelter) and are deceived into flying right through as they try to get to vegetative cover that they see beyond the glass. Reportedly, this can also happen if indoor plants are situated right next to windows.

Some species (such as robins and bushtits) see their reflection during breeding season, view it as an intruder to their territory, and actually attack the glass—I’ve seen it happen. This territorial behavior can be intense, but they usually aren’t seriously injured (unlike the other situations). These territorial strikes can also happen at car windows.

How you can help
Because windows are everywhere, it’s easy to think that the problem is too overwhelming to do anything about. But any bird-friendly change you make to your property’s windows can help. Especially if your good intentions attract birds to your yard—with feeders and/or native plants—or you’ve noticed birds hitting your windows, it ought to be compulsory.

Bird strikes often follow a pattern, with the same windows repeatedly struck. If you have a lot of windows, take some time to identify which windows are problematic, paying attention to bird attractants like food, water, and cover. Look at your windows from a bird’s point of view. 

Most of the following remedies work either by blocking reflective glass or making it visible to birds by giving them visual cues. Sheer curtains and blinds closed part way may help cut down on reflection, but they don’t fully eliminate it, so don’t rely on interior remedies. Silhouettes placed on the inside of windows do not work because birds still see the reflection.

DIY suggestions:
♦  Locate all bird feeders and bird baths at least 30 feet from windows, a distance that allows birds to see that windows are part of a house. Or, keep them very close—within 2 feet—to reduce the chance of high impact collisions. If that doesn’t help, either add additional protections or remove the feeders or baths altogether.
♦  If any of your windows have a clear view through your house to another window, create an obstruction (such as curtains) that blocks what may appear to birds to be a flight path.
♦  Keep taut window screens on year round if you have them, or consider adding them. Screens block reflections considerably and soften any impact. Keeping your windows dirty may also help!
♦ Make your own “zen wind curtains,” which are practical and effective and don’t look the least bit odd.
♦ Apply patterns (a few inches apart) with soap on the outside of windows—use stencils found at craft stores, or make your own. The patterns can be wiped off and redone when necessary. They are very inexpensive but may may be impractical for windows that receive rain or are hard to reach.
♦ For birds who fight with their reflection, simply hang a cloth or apply some masking tape to the area for a few days to break the bird of the habit.
♦ Be sure that blinds, shades and/or shutters are in place and closed to reduce nighttime light that attracts and confuses birds.

Products for purchase:
♦ Decals that reflect ultra-violet wavelengths of light—which birds can see but we can’t—are applied to the outside of windows. Follow manufacturers instructions for adequate coverage (aim for 80%), generally a few inches apart. Some examples include Window Alert (pictured) and BirdTape,  which provide a stoplight for birds. In direct sunlight, decals will need to be replaced more often than in shade, so be sure to keep track of when you put them up. If you have a lot of windows to cover, BirdTape is more economical and may last longer. UV decals placed on outside of window
♦ Films like CollidEscape, that appear opaque to birds but transparent to you, are applied to the outside of windows.
♦ Feather Friendly adhesive dots are applied on the exterior of windows in a “frit” pattern.
♦ External awnings or sun shades help minimize both reflection and transparency.

Architectural solutions:
Planning on remodeling or building a new home? Are you an architect or developer? The Resource Guide for Bird-Friendly Building Design is a comprehensive publication that offers excellent info and workable solutions for reducing collisions in commercial areas as well as residential. Also check out the American Bird Conservancy’s Bird-Friendly Building Design and the City of Toronto’s Bird-Friendly Best Practices: Glass. All are well worth a read.

Other important recommendations:
At night, turn off lights in office buildings (all levels), especially during spring and fall migrations. At home, pull your shades or draw draperies, and install motion censors on outdoor lighting, rather than leaving lights on at night. All of this prevents disorientation of migratory birds traveling at night and cuts down on other negative effects of artificial light pollution.


If you find a bird on the ground near a window: Slowly and gently cover and catch the bird with a lightweight, soft cloth and carefully place it in a small box (such as a shoebox) that has air holes and is lined with a soft cloth or paper towels rolled into a doughnut shape to keep the bird upright. Handle the bird as little as possible and keep the box securely closed. Do not give food or water. Place the box in a quiet, dark, and pleasantly warm place, away from other animals, noise, and children. If the bird has an obvious injury like a cracked bill or dangling wing, transport it immediately (in the darkened box ) to a licensed wildlife rehabilitator—broken bones need attention quickly. If there are no obvious injuries, quietly check on the bird several times over one to two hours—outside and away from human activity and buildings in case the bird can fly—but don’t touch it. If the bird develops swollen eyes or becomes unresponsive during the hour, quickly transport it to a wildlife rehabilitator. If the bird seems alert and can stand on its own, place the box in a quiet spot and open it. Move away, remain still and out of sight, and wait. If s/he doesn’t fly away within 5 or 10 minutes, carefully and quietly take the bird to a wildlife rehabilitator. Remember that, other than transporting a bird to a rehabilitator, it is illegal to handle migratory birds without a license.


 

© 2015 Eileen M. Stark

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Manage Stormwater at Home for Clean Rivers and Habitat

rainwater mitigation with trees

It’s another one of those exceptionally rainy days (with more to follow) and I don’t want to do laundry or even take a bath. Why? A few days ago the city’s sewers overflowed into the river, and I’d rather not add more water to an already overtaxed system that results in raw sewage killing and polluting the habitat of wild species downstream. It’s not just the abundance of rain that’s the problem: It’s our infrastructure.

Generally, the unaltered earth is perfectly capable of soaking up or directing the moisture that nature doles out to natural waterways or floodplains, and seasonal flooding is normal and natural. But our urban and suburban environments, with their ubiquitous, impermeable roads, walkways, roofs, and parking lots—as well as shortage of erosion-controlling plants—cause runoff that carries soil and toxic pollutants like oil, fertilizers, and pesticides during heavy rains. In older parts of cities, pipes and tunnels that take away domestic and industrial waste combine with water collected from surface runoff. Under normal (not too wet) circumstances, the sewage and runoff is diverted to sewage treatment plants. But when too much storm water or snowmelt can’t soak in, it overwhelms the system, creating combined sewage overflows (CSOs) that cause raw sewage and other pollutants to spill into rivers, lakes, or coastal waters. People may be told not to have contact with the water, but wildlife has no choice and suffers silently. Eventually, polluted sediment builds up in waterways, increasing water temperature and turbidity and lowering oxygen levels, resulting in deaths.

In Portland, where I live, the city is investing in stormwater management projects that (sort of) mimic nature, in an attempt to mitigate stormwater at its sources. There is a plethora of work going on and CSOs are reportedly decreasing in frequency, but even one is too many.

How to help keep water clean

We can help manage and reduce stormwater pollution and overflows, starting at home. Here are some tips; some will have immediate effect, while others will take some time and effort:

Protect existing conifer trees and plant new ones (preferably native species that historically grew in your area). A mature evergreen tree can intercept more than 4,000 gallons of rainwater each permeable hardscapeyear, quite a bit more than deciduous trees. They also provide habitat, beauty, shade and cooling and help stabilize soil. Don’t prune out lower limbs unless it’s absolutely necessary.

Renovate or construct new walkways, driveways, and patios with permeable paving, rather than concrete or asphalt.

Disconnect your home’s downspouts when feasible and install rain gardens or swales in landscaped areas. They help prevent flooding by allowing water that falls on your roof to slowly infiltrate into the ground, lessening the burden on sewer systems when it is most important. Simply disconnecting spouts and allowing water to run down a driveway or walkway and into the street defeats the purpose. Additional rain garden guides: here and here.

swale from disconnected downspout Use only organic fertilizers when necessary (excess can be washed into waterways), and don’t use pesticides.

Grow native plants that help control erosion. Some examples (that naturally occur in many parts of the Pacific Northwest) include vine maple (Acer circinatum), madrone (Arbutus menzeisii), Oregon white oak (Quercus garryana), oceanspray (Holodiscus discolor), serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia), salal (Gaultheria shallon), nootka rose (Rosa nutkana), sword fern (Polystichum  munitum), kinnikinnick (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi), and inside-out flower (Vancouveria hexandra). Choose plants that will fit your light, soil, and moisture conditions.

 Employ rain barrels to collect rainwater runoff from building roofs for irrigation during dry weather (if you can’t disconnect a downspout).

Conserve water simply by taking very short showers, never letting the faucet run unnecessarily, and fixing any leaks (just as you would during droughts!).

Collect “graywater” and use it onsite to reduce sewage discharges year round. Beware: this takes some ingenuity and planning!

 Never dispose of chemicals (like anti-freeze) by pouring it on the ground or into storm drains. Even drops of oil that seem relatively contained in your driveway can easily be swept into local waterways by rain. If you get an automotive oil leak, catch the oil in a pan and get it fixed ASAP.


© 2015 Eileen M. Stark

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Best Early Spring-Flowering Shrubs for Pacific Northwest Pollinators

Ribes sanguineum

Plan ahead for hungry native pollinators who need early-flowering plants like red-flowering currant to survive.

 

April showers may bring May flowers, but what about providing forage for hungry pollinators that need food earlier in the year? To provide large amounts of nectar and pollen in late winter and early spring for emerging bees as well as hummingbirds and other pollinators, to help you endure the gray winter skies and store carbon, and to get the most bang from your buck, add early-flowering native shrubs to your garden. Get new shrubs in the ground preferably in autumn—so the plants benefit from winter rains, and to ensure that you have the early part of a continuous succession of flowers covered.

Here are five early-flowering shrubs (plus one shrubby tree that’s pollinated by wind), listed in order of size from largest to smallest, that naturally occur in large areas of the Pacific Northwest region west of the Cascades. They grow in sun to partial shade, are fairly easy to find at native plant nurseries (as well as nurseries that don’t focus on natives), and are quite easy to grow, provided they are kept adequately moist until they are established (2 to 5 years). All would do well planted in wide, unpruned hedgerows. When choosing any shrub, note its eventual width to be sure you have enough space for it to stretch its limbs and attain its natural form at maturity—and to eliminate future hack jobs by a pruner. 

Buy plants that are responsibly propagated from source material that originated as close as possible to your site. Using such “local genotypes” helps ensure that you get plants that are well adapted to your area and that genetic diversity—which helps plants (and animals) adapt to changing conditions—is preserved. Ask growers and nurseries about their sources.

Salix scoulerianaScouler’s willow (Salix scouleriana): A fast-growing deciduous shrub or small tree. Flowers are soft catkins, larger than horticultural “pussy willows,” and appear in early to mid-spring. Male and female flowers are on different plants, so grow both for seeds. Scouler willow is a larval host plant for several butterfly species. Does not tolerate full shade. Prefers moist soil. 20-30 feet tall by 10-15 feet wide at maturity. 

 

Oemleria cerasiformis

 

Osoberry (Oemleria cerasiformis): A large, arching deciduous shrub or small tree that blooms prolifically in late winter as leaves emerge. Tolerates clay soil well, but does best with some shade (nature places it in the dappled shade of tall trees). Plants are either male or female, so plant several to produce the fruit that birds need. 12-18 feet by 10-14 feet at maturity.

Amelanchier alnifolia

 

 

Serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia): A versatile, multibranched shrub with lovely white, fragrant flowers in mid to late spring. Bluish-green leaves turn gold to reddish in autumn. Larval host plant for several butterfly species. Needs well-drained soil with adequate organic matter. Tolerates full sun in cool areas. Doesn’t like competition, so plant other shrubs and perennials at least several feet away. 8-18 feet tall by 6-10 feet wide at maturity.


Red-flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum)
: An upright, deciduous shrub with nearly year-round appeal. Gorgeous, pendulous, lightly fragrant flower clusters (pictured, top) that bloom in early spring are followed by powder-blue berries. Leaves turn golden in late autumn. Larval host plant for butterfly larvae. Controls erosion. Can’t handle excessively wet soils, so be sure soil drains well and plant it away from rain gardens and other drainage areas.  7-10 feet tall by 6-9 feet wide at maturity. More info in this post


Mahonia aquifoliumTall Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium)
: A handsome, multitalented evergreen shrub with an upright growth habit. Bursts into flower brilliantly in early to mid-spring, for a long period. Tolerates acidic soils. Has somewhat prickly evergreen leaves, so site it where it won’t be brushed against frequently. 5-9 feet tall by 3-6 feet wide. Will spread slowly. More info in this post.

 

The earliest winter bloomer is the handsome beaked hazelnut (Corylus cornuta var. californica), a beautifully textured, large multistemmed woodland shrub or small tree that grows to 10-20 feet tall by 10-20 feet wide. It is pollinated by wind, not animals. More info here.

After planting
Add a few inches of organic matter as mulch around the shrub (but keep away from trunk) to insulate, keep weeds down, and add nutrients. Fallen leaves work well, as does weed-free compost. If you use wood chips, make sure they aren’t finely ground and/or fresh, and don’t dig them into soil—under-composted chips and bark can deplete soil of nitrogen during breakdown. Later on, simply allow fallen leaves to remain on soil to provide habitat and nutrients.

All of these shrubs are drought tolerant when established (although Scouler willow does best with supplemental summer water), but they will appreciate some irrigation in very hot situations. They should need little to no pruning if they’ve been sited to allow room for their growth.

If you already grow any of these shrubs, I’d love to hear what wild species you’ve seen attracted to them. Or how much they brighten your garden on drab winter days?


© 2015 Eileen M. Stark

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Autumn Leaves Benefit Your Garden in Countless Ways

 

leaves

 

Leaves offer great benefits to wildlife and your garden’s soil. Don’t throw them away!

In another post I extol the virtues of letting leaves do their thing. By that I mean allowing them to do what nature intended: Protect and enrich the soil, offer food for ground-feeding birds, provide a nursery for butterfly larvae/pupae and cover for overwintering queen bumblebees and other beneficial insects and microbes, afford animals like frogs and salamanders places to hunt and Varied thrush foraginghide, and myriad other ingenious things. Leaf litter breaks down with the help of mycorrhizal fungi that move carbon into soil, extract nutrients for plants and protect them from disease, lessen soil erosion, and play a very important role in storing the gigantic pool of carbon within soil.

I’m not sure how leaves got such a bad reputation—I constantly see and hear people blowing them and raking them not only from hardscape and lawn (which is understandable), but also from bare soil. I’m not sure what the aversion is, unless it’s another kind of “biophobia,” in this case a fear of organic materials. Another no-no is putting leaves in the trash, which ends up in landfills. The US EPA says that nationwide, 13 percent, or 33 million tons of municipal solid waste is from leaves and grass and tree/shrub trimmings. Here in Portland, as well as some other cities, there is curbside pickup for green waste for those who don’t compost, and the city picks up leaves from the streets of leafy neighborhoods every autumn to make leaf compost that residents can purchase for a modest fee. But using them in your yard is even better!

How to do it: For areas like driveways, walks, sewer grates and drainage pathways, rake them up (but please don’t use noisy, polluting leaf blowers), and use them as follows:

Mulch your beds.Take raked leaves from hardscape and lawn and place them in your planted beds, a couple of inches thick to protect the soil and provide insulation from the cold (if you live in a very cold climate, add more). Keep them off of tree and shrub trunks and perennial crowns to prevent rot. Try to do your raking on a non-windy day and consider moistening them after you apply them if it’s a dry day. Don’t shred leaves before applying—it won’t help the wildlife described above.

If you must have lawn, leave small amounts of leaves on it and mulch them in situ. Use your mower to shred leaves on grass to improve lawn health by naturally fertilizing the soil. Freshly fallen leaves are high in minerals, and don’t kill soil organisms like synthetic fertilizers do.

Make leaf compost. Collect leaves to compost separately to make leaf compost (also known as leaf mold), a great soil conditioner. If you have a lot of space, simply round them up into piles and let nature break them down with fungus and microscopic creatures. Shredding large leaves will speed up the process. If space is lacking or you want more control, create round chicken wire enclosures and fill them with leaves. You can also dig large depressions and fill them with Homemade compostleaves. Keep piles moist (but not completely saturated) and add more leaves as they sink down. During excessively rainy periods, consider covering the pile. In a year or more (depending on the type of leaves used), after the leaves have broken down, you will have some very dark, crumbly humus to add to your veggie beds and other places that need high quality soil.

Add leaves to your mixed compost bins, heaps, or cages. In your mixed compost bin, add collected leaves—which are mostly carbon—to help balance the “greens” (compost should be roughly half “greens” and half “browns”). Consider storing extra leaves and adding them to your compost bin throughout future months.

Save some for spring. If you have a large amount of leaves, put some aside—or just take some from your leaf compost heap—to use as mulch next year. Mulch applied in spring, after the soil warms, helps maintain soil moisture and protects the soil from oxidation. Be sure to leave some soil bare though, because the majority of native bees nest in the ground and cannot get through thick layers of mulch.

One word of caution: Leaf compost generally makes the soil slightly more acidic. This won’t be a problem for most Pacific Northwest native species, which evolved in slightly acidic soil. But when using leaf compost in vegetable beds, test your soil’s pH—it may need a bit of lime to keep the soil neutral or slightly alkaline, which many cultivated vegetable plants need.

© 2015 Eileen M. Stark

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New Study: Non-native Plants Reduce Insect Diversity

Acer circinatum (vine maple)

Natives like vine maple (Acer circinatum), surpass nonnatives for restoring biodiversity


As if we need further proof
, a new study published recently in Ecology Letters demonstrates that native plants are much better at supporting local insects than nonnative species, and that nonnative plants are exacerbating biodiversity loss with their inability to support many insect herbivores.

The researchers planted test gardens with both native and nonnative tree species and collected data over a three-year period. They measured the insect herbivore species and communities that were using the plants, and compared native trees to nonnative trees of two types: Those with close native relatives in the region and those that had no close native relatives.

They found that nonnative trees with a native relative (in the PNW, think nonnative scarlet oak, which is related to the native Garry oak) host and support fewer species of insects than the native counterpart, and that few of them were unique to that species of tree. The result was even more striking with nonnative trees that had no native relative in the region (such as golden chain tree, a European species).

The study also found that young insects, which are most supportive of an ecosystem, were found on the native trees. Adult insects, on the other hand, may be found on plants, but for various reasons—to rest, to warm themselves, breed, etc.

Essentially, when the diversity of insect herbivores—which are the basis of the food web—plummet, so too do all the species that rely on them for food. If you’re not particularly fond of insects, think of them as baby food: In spring and early summer, when insect eggs are hatching and larvae are feeding, most birds are wholly dependent on insects to feed to their young, as well as to keep their own strength up. And most other wild species rely on insect herbivores in one way or another. Even predators like bobcats need native plants, since they feed on wildlife that need insects and/or native plants to survive. 

So, this is more evidence that natives are the answer for restoring biodiversity, while most nonnatives are problematic. When selecting plant material—even in an urban area—choose plants that help the environment and its community members. Go for the native oaks, pines, maples, willows, etc., with their plethora of insects. There’s almost always a native option!

 

© 2015 Eileen M. Stark

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Northwest Native Pollinator Plants for Late Summer to Fall

Late season pollinator plants

Scientists know that bees are dying for a variety of reasons—pesticides, habitat destruction, drought, climate change, nutrition deficit, air pollution, and so on, which makes us the obvious perpetrator. We can help give back to them (and other pollinators) by growing flowering native plants in our gardens (as well as noninvasive exotics that step in when a native plant isn’t available or feasible), with consecutive blooms from early spring till fall. To provide for many different types of pollinators—from long and short-tongued bumblebees to syrphid flies, hummingbirds, and beetles—offer a variety of flower shapes, colors, and sizes, with smaller plants in groups of at least three of the same species (like a big, obvious “Eat Here” sign). Fragrance is also important for attracting insects to flowers and guiding them to food within the flower, and aiding an insect’s ability to efficiently learn particular food sources.

Below are some native perennials and one shrub that offer food for pollinators from mid or late summer to fall in the Pacific Northwest, west of the Cascades. There are more candidates, but I chose these species because they naturally occur in fairly large parts of the region, are generally easy to grow, and are not too hard to find at nurseries (although you will likely have to call around for availability). I’ve listed them alphabetically with some very basic care guidelines. It’s best to plant them in the fall, just before or as the rain returns.

As always, plan ahead and choose species that fit your light, moisture, and soil conditions, but also choose those that are appropriate to the natural landscape—that is, look to nearby natural areas, and add flora that would likely have grown in your area historically, if possible. You can also check a species’ natural range (to county level) here, or check with your local native plant society chapter or county soil and water conservation district. No fertilizer is necessary and please don’t use any pesticides. Keep them adequately hydrated—by watering deeply and infrequently to promote deep roots—until they’re established (2 to 5 years). Enjoy!

Achillea millefolium var. occidentalis (Yarrow): Perennial. 1-3 feet tall x 1-3 feet wide. Sun to part sun. Not fussy about soil; moist or dry. Spreads by rhizomes or seed. Flat-topped clusters of white, fragrant flowers (pictured below) bloom through late summer. (Not to be confused with the Eurasian Achillea millefolium var. millefolium). Achillea millefolium var. occidentalis

Anaphalis margaritacea (Pearly everlasting): Perennial. 1-3 feet tall x 1-2 feet wide. Sun to part shade. Likes moist soil with good drainage, but can tolerate drought once established. Pure white flowers are often used in dried flower arrangements. Besides providing nectar, it is a host plant for painted lady and skipper butterflies.

Baccharis pilularis (Coyotebush): Evergreen or semi-evergreen shrub. 5-8 feet tall x 6-8 feet wide. Sun to part shade. Tolerates poor soils (but needs good drainage) and is drought tolerant. Flowers aren’t showy and are borne on separate male and female plants (male flowers creamy white; female pale green). Excellent wildlife habitat plant but is deer resistant.

048_Campanula rotundiflora sRGBCampanula rotundifolia (common harebell): Perennial. 1-2 feet tall x 1-2 feet wide. Sun to part shade. Moist to dry, well-drained soil, preferably with a good amount of organic matter. Spreads slowly by rhizomes or seed. Bell-shaped, bluish violet flowers typically bloom through late summer. (pictured left)

Gaillardia aristata (blanketflower): Perennial (short-lived). 1-3 feet tall x 1-3 feet wide. Sun to light shade. Tolerates a variety of well-drained soils; drought tolerant when established. Spreads by seed. Colorful yellow and reddish orange flowers bloom well into fall, especially when dead-headed. Deer resistant.

Solidago canadensis (Goldenrod): Perennial. 2-4 feet tall x 2-3 feet wide. Sun to part shade. Solidago canadensisTolerates wide range of soils; prefers moisture but tolerates drought when established. Spreads by rhizomes or seed. Bright gold, fragrant inflorescences typically bloom well into fall. (pictured right)

Symphyotrichum subspicatum (Douglas aster): Perennial. 2-3 feet tall x 2-3 feet wide. Sun to part shade. Does best in moist soil that is rich in organic matter. Spreads slowly by rhizomes and seed. Lavender-blue daisylike flowers bloom from mid summer until mid fall. (pictured below)

 

 

Douglas aster

 

 

© 2015 Eileen M. Stark

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Damselflies: Live Fast and Die Young

northern bluet

This bright and handsome damselfly, resting on a stem of a columbine plant in my garden, is a male Northern bluet (Enallagma annexum), one of 466 species of damselflies and dragonflies found in North America. They make up the two main subdivisions of a very distinctive group of insects known as Odonata (Greek for tooth), which refers to their powerful and sharply toothed jaws, adapted for biting and chewing their prey.

Damselflies can be distinguished from dragonflies by their smaller size and their position when at rest: Damselflies typically hold their bodies horizontally, with their tear drop-shaped wings neatly and elegantly folded together over their abdomen, while dragonflies generally hold their wings flatly, outstretched and perpendicular to their body.

I’ve wondered about the common names. Since “damsel” conjures up an image of a fair maiden—most likely in distress—I imagine that the damselfly was so named because it is more delicate looking than a dragonfly and isn’t as tough and strong a flyer. Plus, proverbial dragons kept damsels in their caves, didn’t they? But now we need to ask, why are dragonflies called what they are? According to a 1958 book by Eden Emanuel entitled Folklore of the Dragonfly, it’s theorized that the common name emerged due to an ancient Romanian folktale, in which the devil turned a beautiful horse ridden by a saint into a giant flying insect. The Romanians supposedly called this giant insect (when translated into English) “St. George’s Horse” or “Devil’s Horse.” Peasants probably considered the Devil’s Horse a giant fly, and it’s surmised that they started referring to it as “Devil’s Fly.” Emanuel concluded that the Romanian name for Devil’s Fly was erroneously translated into English as Dragon Fly and this then evolved into the present-day “dragonfly.”

Gradual Metamorphosis

The female Northern bluet is generally greenish-yellow or tan, with a black abdomen. She lays her eggs in submerged vegetation; upon hatching—typically late spring to early fall—the young nymphs (or naiads) are small and wingless, but fully functional, so they don’t go through larval or pupal stages like most other insects do. Nymphs spend their time (often years) underwater in bogs, lakes, ponds, or rivers, where they molt (shed their skin) about a dozen times while growing. Fierce predators of aquatic organisms, they hide in submerged vegetation and attack the larvae of smaller insects such as mosquitoes and mayflies. When they are about an inch long, they crawl out of the water onto rocks or grasses and such. After a brief sunbath, their skin splits down the back and they struggle to pull themselves out of their shabby old skin one last time. Voila! Metamorphosis complete, they are now all grown up and it’s time to inflate their new wings and abdomen and harden fresh legs, all of which likely takes a lot of energy. Adults generally live less than two weeks, breeding and feeding—just enough time to live fast and die young.

Like dragonflies, damselflies’ large, bulging eyes have thousands of honeycomb-shaped lenses that give them an ability to see in all directions and make them formidable predators of other insects. Adults are swift aerial hunters, typically preying on mosquitoes, small moths, and various flies. Fascinating research shows that Odonata don’t dive and turn in reaction to their prey’s movements—instead, they are able to predict those movements before they happen. But what goes around comes around: Both damselfly nymphs and adults are consumed by birds, frogs, fish, and, yes, dragonflies.  Northern bluet

Conservation

Dragonflies and damselflies go way back, pre-dating dinosaurs by at least 75 million years. Fossils of ancient ancestors dating roughly 300 million years ago were gigantic—the largest insects ever to live—with wingspans of about 30 inches! Northern bluets are somewhat common damselflies, often found near freshwater—streams, rivers, and other watery places (even human-made ponds)—but their dependence on it makes them very vulnerable.

All damselflies and dragonflies are good indicators of the diversity and health of aquatic ecosystems, their presence suggesting that a body of water is fairly unpolluted. Destruction or alteration of wetland habitats, pollution, and pesticides are the greatest threats to Odonata species worldwide. Without clean water they cannot breed, and without insect life they cannot eat. Needless to say, as long as humans continue to allow alteration of their habitat through climate chaos, there will likely be a severe threat to future populations.

On pleasant, sunny days I often notice dragonflies and damselflies patrolling my organic, “real” garden. Should these brainy little hunters find their way into yours, consider yourself very fortunate!

 

© 2015 Eileen M. Stark

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Drought’s No Fun for Wildlife, Either

Bushtits at gradually sloping birdbath

Here in the Pacific Northwest (as well as the interior Northwest, northern Rockies and northern California) we’re experiencing a hot and early summer. Nearly everything’s been premature—most trees leafed out several weeks before they typically do and herbaceous plants popped up ahead of time; those that flower were more than punctual. My raspberries and thimbleberries were three weeks early, and I’m picking apples now that usually ripen several weeks from now. Portland set a record for a dry June and will likely break another this week for the highest number of consecutive days over 90˚.

The winter was pleasantly mild and precipitation was paltry: Snowpack in Oregon was 11% of normal and Washington’s was 16%. If the current drought and dry heat makes us thirsty, we’re not alone. Nearly all of life’s processes require water in one form or another—it’s essential for everything from small insects to birds to bobcats. Of course, areas further south are much more drought stricken, with wildlife emaciated and dehydrated. Some say it will only worsen, due to climate change.IMG_6764

Drought causes many deadly, far-reaching effects for wildlife, including less food and cover, increased vulnerability to predators and diseases, competition with others of their kind, and more conflicts with people as they desperately search for food and water outside their normal range. Although some animals obtain moisture from their prey, they still depend on water in the environment to provide for those they need to eat. Tiny creatures may find enough in dew droplets, but many species require additional water to survive. Birds, for example, need water to drink of course, but also to bathe in to help keep their feathers clean and waterproof—essential for insulation and flight.

Dehydration is dangerous for everyone. If you want to help wild visitors in your yard, below are some quick, easy options. Artificial ponds can be a wonderful addition to larger gardens, but they aren’t quick and easy, so they’re not included here.

Scrub jay takes a drinkBirdbaths: Birdbaths that slope gradually are best because all sizes of visitors can wade in to a safe and comfortable depth. If you already have one that has steep sides, place some flat rocks on one side to create a shallow area. Site birdbaths in open areas, at least 10 feet from any hiding places were domesticated predators could lurk. Use hanging birdbaths whenever possible if predation is a problem in your yard. And keep them as clean as possible: Replace the water every day or two (this will also keep mosquitoes from breeding) and give them a good scrubbing every few weeks, but don’t use bleach.

Mud puddles: Most butterflies and moths (Lepidoptera), as well as some types of insects and birds, require moist soil or sand to obtain essential nutrients. Lepidoptera, for example, “sip” earthy cocktails that contain minerals such as salts which are essential for reproduction. Just the other day I saw a Western tiger swallowtail pressing his proboscis into the recently irrigated soil in a community garden plot. Male Lepidoptera give their significant others an extra little gift of minerals while mating which ensures that the largest number of eggs develop. In nature, this “mud puddling,” as it is called, is done at the edges of streams and other moist places. You can mimic this habitat by filling a large ceramic bowl with sand and burying it part way in your garden. Mix in some salt for males and place some round rocks (for landing and basking) around the edges. And don’t be too quick to pick up moist fallen fruit (like figs, should you have them)—some Lepidoptera species can’t resist such fermenting treats. More on feeding butterflies in a future post!

Moist gravel for bugsPlates of moist gravel: Beneficial insects and other small arthropods will sometimes come to shallow birdbaths, but ground dwellers—like beetles—will appreciate a plate or pie pan filled with clean pebbles or gravel and water, and placed on the ground out of hot sunlight. Just be sure the water doesn’t rise above the gravel so that no one drowns.

It looks like we may be in for a very hot summer throughout most of the Northwest. Providing water in your garden will attract wild visitors and maybe even save lives.

 

© 2015 Eileen M. Stark

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Attract Butterflies with Northwest Native Plants and More

Red admiral butterfly

It’s so delightful when a lovely butterfly (is there any other kind?) floats into our yard. Each year, as soon as June rolls around, I catch glimpses of gorgeous Western tiger swallowtails and orangey Painted ladies flitting here and there, as well as the occasional Mourning Cloak in the vicinity of our octogenarian American elm tree, one of its host plants. This summer I’ve noticed, for the first time, a Red Admiral butterfly (Vanessa atalanta) gliding in now and then. This species is reportedly rather territorial and will stay in one area for days or even weeks, so I hope to see her again. She’s apparently attracted to the heat radiating from the rocks on the west-facing side of our veggie garden, as well as the white trellis that supports our cucumber plants, and this morning she surprised me by landing on the white shirt I was wearing. She was near some native wallflower (Erysimum capitatum) plants growing nearby, but I’m not certain she used them.

Red admirals aren’t very fussy about habitat, but for food they prefer sap from trees, fermented fruit, and bird droppings—yes, you read that right—from which they obtain nutrients, such as amino acids and salts that are necessary physiologically, behaviorally, and ecologically. Many butterfly species and some other insects consume droppings as well, and don’t get me started on the fascinating spider that masquerades as bird poop to hide from predators. Flower nectar is actually a second choice for red admirals, who only forage at flowers—such as aster, milkweed, penstemon, fireweed and wallflower—when sap, fruit, and droppings aren’t available.

Beyond food

But as you may know, butterflies need much more than food to survive and reproduce; they need to be protected during winter and also need “host” plants on which they can lay their eggs. These can’t be just any old plants; they need to be the kind that their larvae can feed on (as their ancestors have done for millennia) as they grow into pupa (chrysalis), that awkward metamorphic stage before adulthood. Some butterflies aren’t terribly picky and may be able to lay their eggs on four or five different plant species, but others, like monarchs and red admirals, can use only one species.

My butterfly reference tells me that red admirals lay their eggs only on plants of the nettle family (Urtica spp.), something I’ve never grown. Uh-oh. As I began pondering where the heck in my yard I could grow it, I suddenly remembered a wonderful nettle soup that I had at an equally wonderful villa on the west coast of Sweden some years back. It’s not only edible; it’s one of those “super foods” that are extremely rich in nutrients and purportedly very cleansing.

So now I’m on a mission to grow some native stinging nettle (Urtica dioica)—maybe a bit for us to eat, but mostly for the butterflies. It turns out that the Satyr comma butterfly also uses only nettle as a host plant, although they are reportedly rather rare in parts of their range and it’s highly unlikely I’ll ever see one in my urban yard. I prefer to grow it myself, so that the wild stuff in wilder places can be left to the butterflies. But first I’ll have to carefully figure out where to plant it … and buy some stinger-proof gloves. Or maybe I should just stick with providing for species that don’t need such outrageously prickly plants.

© 2015 Eileen M. Stark

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10 Great Northwest Native Pollinator Plants for Summer

Bombus vosnesenskii

In honor of National Pollinator Week, let’s zoom in on the bees and other hard-working pollinators whose lives are dictated by weather, season, and the availability of food, nesting habitat, and overwintering sites.

Nature has provided pollinators with unique ways of gathering nutritious pollen and nectar for their young, and they’re enthralling to watch. But bees and other pollinators are in terrible trouble worldwide due to our presence and actions. We can give back to them by growing flowering native plants in our gardens (as well as noninvasive exotics that are especially attractive to bees, like lavender and sunflower) with consecutive blooms from early spring till fall. But don’t forget to provide for them during all their life stages — not just their adult stage — by leaving the leaves, dead wood, and spent flower stalks to make sure they can get through the winter and have habitat to raise their young. And, no pesticides whatsoever!

If you’ve already included some native plants in your yard, you’re well on your way to providing for a wide variety of wildlife. Offering a variety of flower shapes, colors, and sizes, with smaller plants in groups of at least three of the same species (like a big, obvious “Eat” sign) will help provide for many different types of pollinators—from long and short-tongued bumblebees and syrphid flies to hummingbirdsbeetles and thrips. Below are some Pacific Northwest native herbaceous perennials and shrubs that offer food for pollinators from early to mid or late summer in the Pacific Northwest, west of the Cascades.

The list is just a sampling (read about others in my book or within my blog’s PNW native plant profiles), and the species were chosen because they naturally occur in large parts of the region, are generally easy to grow, aren’t too hard to find at native plant nurseries (although you may need to call around for availability), and attract their fair share of native pollinators. I’ve listed them alphabetically with some basic care guidelines. Fall planting is best, as winter rains begin. (If you’re reading this in springtime, don’t worry—you can plant now, but you’ll definitely need to keep an eye on their water needs during the first couple of summers, at the very least.)

As always, plan ahead and choose plants that fit your light, moisture, and soil conditions, but also choose those that are appropriate to the natural landscape—that is, look to nearby natural areas and add flora that likely would have grown in your area historically. You can also search for a species’ natural range (to county level) here, or check with your local native plant society chapter or county soil & water conservation district. Growing them with associated species that evolved alongside them in nature will help them thrive. No fertilizer is necessary (although a one-time addition of compost such as leaf compost to the soil will add some nutrients and improve soil structure), but do keep them adequately hydrated until they’re established (2 to 5 years). Enjoy!

◊ Achillea millefollium var. occidentals (Western yarrow): Perennial. 1-3 feet tall x 1-3 feet wide. Sun to part sun. Not fussy about soil; moist or dry (will spread faster with more moisture). Spreads by rhizomes and seed. Flat-topped clusters of white, fragrant flowers bloom nearly all summer. (Not to be confused with the Eurasian Achillea millefolium var. millefolium).

Asclepias speciosa or A. fascicularis or A. cordifolia (milkweed) : Perennial. 2-3 feet tall x 2-3 feet wide. Sun to part shade. Moist, well-drained soil, but can handle some drought when established. Rounded clusters of soft pink, fragrant flowers. Check out the Xerces Society’s info on milkweed of Oregon and of Washington. (A. fascicularis is pictured, right)Asclepias fascicularis

Campanula rotundifolia (common harebell): Perennial. 1-2 feet tall x 1-2 feet wide. Sun to part sun. Well-drained, moist to dryish soil. Spreads slowly by rhizomes or seed. Bell shaped, violet-blue blossoms.

Ceanothus velutinus (snowbrush): Fast growing evergreen shrub. 6-12 feet tall x 6-12 feet wide. Sun to part shade (intolerant of full shade). Rich or poor soil; very drought tolerant. Dense pyramidal clusters of tiny, fragrant white flowers. Occurs mainly at mid to high elevations; check natural occurrence, to county level, here.

Erigeron speciosus (showy fleabane): Perennial. 2 feet tall x 2 feet wide. Sun to part shade. Well-drained, moist to dry soil. Lovely and abundant daisy-like, bluish lavender blossoms go nearly all summer. (pictured below)

Erigeron speciosus

Holodiscus discolor (oceanspray, aka cream bush): Fast growing, very attractive deciduous shrub. 8-16 feet tall x 8-12 feet wide (larger on protected sites, smaller on windy, harsh sites). Sun to part shade (intolerant of full shade). Not fussy about soil; moist or dry. Drought tolerant when established. Lavish, feathery plumes of creamy-white flowers in early to mid-summer. Nice for hedgerows. Controls erosion.

 

Lupinus polyphyllus (large-leaved lupine): Perennial. 2-4 feet tall x 2-4 feet wide. Sun to part shade (intolerant of full shade). Moist soil preferred but will tolerate short dry periods. Tall spikes of bluish-purple, pea-like flowers. (pictured, right) Lupinus polyphyllus

Sedum spathulifolium or S. oreganum (stonecrop): Perennial. 1-4 inches tall; spreads slowly. Sun to part sun (afternoon shade is welcome). Well-draining, gritty, lean soil. Bright yellow star-shaped flowers. Nice for rock gardens. Not a ground cover for foot traffic. (S. spathulifolium pictured below)

Symphoricarpos albus (snowberry): Deciduous shrub. 4-6 feet tall x 4-6 feet wide. Sun to mostly shade. Moist or dry soils; tolerates heavy soils. Drought tolerant when established. Tiny, paired, pink, bell-shaped flowers. Eventually forms a thicket. Controls erosion.

Tiaralla trifoliata (foam flower): Perennial. 8-14 inches tall x 1-14 inches wide. Shade to part shade. Spreads very slowly by rhizomes or seed. Needs moist, well-draining soil rich in organic matter. Panicles of white to pale pink flowers bloom from late spring to late summer. More details here.

Sedum spathulifolium with syrphid fly

 

Copyright 2015 Eileen M. Stark

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Anna’s Hummingbird Babies: From Eggs to Empty Nest

Anna's hummingbird babies, around Day 19

As I wrote last month, we were extremely fortunate to have a little Anna’s hummingbird build her tiny nest — smaller than an espresso cup — in a rhododendron shrub, just steps from a window. In February, binoculars and camera in hand, we watched and photographed as she finished the intricately woven and structurally sound nest, anchored to a branch with strong and stretchy spider silk, and carefully and lovingly camouflaged with lichen. On February 20 it appeared that her beautiful nest was complete and incubation of two navy bean-sized eggs had begun. Mama hummingbirds typically sit on their eggs for 14 to 19 days.

About 18 days later, I saw her perched on the edge of her nest, apparently regurgitating a slurry of nectar from nearby native currant flowers and partially digested insects or spiders (high in protein) into her babies. I couldn’t actually see them at that point since the nest was about eight feet off the ground and they were so small. At this early stage she would feed both nestlings (hummingbirds almost always have two), fly off, and come back with more food within 60 seconds or so. After she and the nestlings had been fed adequately, she’d return and stay on the nest awhile since they were nearly naked and in dire need of warmth.

Later that week we saw her offspring for the first time, with their dinosauric heads and just the start of future feathers. Even at this age, still completely helpless and blind, their instincts are strong: They are able to keep their nest clean by wriggling their little bottoms toward the edge of the nest and squirting their poop outside of it.

Anna's hummingbird babies, around Day 7

Anna's hummingbird and one of her babies, around Day 7

 

Later, about ten days after hatching and when the nestlings’ barbs began to look like feathers, Mom no longer stayed on the nest — during the day, anyway — most likely because her babies now had the ability to regulate their own body temperature. I imagine she was also not too keen on having her underside poked by pointy bills!

Ann's hummingbird and her babies, around Day 12

Anna's hummingbird babies, around Day 13

 

We continued to watch her feed them, first pumping food up into her throat, then aiming her long bill into their gaping orange mouths and straight down their throats. She resembled a sewing machine needle as she repetitively pushed food into them, never spilling a drop. Ouch!

Anna's hummingbird feeding her babies, around Day 18

 

References state that Anna’s hummingbirds fledge within 18 to 28 days after hatching. On the morning of what I believe was Day 23, I watched one of them sit on the edge of the nest and flap his/her wings with such gusto that I thought the time had come. A rainstorm came and went, but they remained in the nest, sitting with their bills pointed directly upwards, nearly vertical; occasionally they’d shake off raindrops but maintained their pose. Brave and undaunted, they also endured fairly heavy wind and a short, but pounding, hail storm.

Anna's hummingbird babies, around Day 22

 

On what was probably Day 24, I saw one of them, for the first time, venture out of the nest and onto the branch right next to the nest. Even though the nest was designed to stretch as the nestlings grew, it was getting tight. Surely they are leaving now, I thought!

Anna's hummingbirds babies, around Day 23

 

They left the nest on Day 25. When they took off I was, disappointingly, in the shower at the time. Just before they left I noticed them preening their breast feathers meticulously, no doubt to make themselves more aerodynamic and ready themselves for life on the wing.

Anna's hummingbird babies, around Day 23

 

Mom feeds them for a week or so post fledging, so they are on their own by now. I still look for them in the garden and high in the trees, but it’s hard to say who’s who—fledglings’ bills and tails are shorter than adults’ and they have no red on their throats, but they may almost resemble female adults by now. Reportedly, the siblings may stay together until autumn, and then they separate for good. Have a good life, sweet babies!

Anna's hummingbird babies, around Day 20

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UPDATE: March 29, 2017
It’s been two years since I wrote the above post. This year a female Anna has again built a nest in the same shrub, although the nest is harder to see as it’s a little higher up and has more leaves partially blocking our view. I’ve watched the nest as best I can, and judging by what looked like pumping (feeding) movements, I believe at least one of her babies hatched on March 6. Photographing them has been very difficult due to the nest position, as well as the plague of unusually cold, wet weather. In the early part of March I watched her as she searched for insects everywhere in the yard and she spent more time away from her nestlings than the mom two years ago did. This made me wonder if she might be having trouble finding protein (in the form of little insects and spiders), which are essential for the babies’ development, as well as her health. Sugar water or flower nectar alone is completely inadequate.

After about 10 days had passed, I could just barely make out a beak in the nest reaching skyward toward Mama, ready with food. I never saw more than one mouth at a time, which I thought to be a little odd, and wondered if both eggs had hatched. At Day 12 my husband, Rick, managed to get some photos of Anna feeding them, and there is evidence of two mouths, although one is in poor focus and looks like it may not be fully open, even though Mama looked ready to deliver. I was relieved to know that there were two hatchlings, but I continued to see her feeding only one at a time; this worried me because two years ago both of her young were highly visible during each feeding (as the photos above show).

A week later, on March 25, Rick was again photographing the nest and grew concerned when he repeatedly saw her feeding only one baby. With his cell phone taped to a stick, he held it horizontally above the nest while Mom was away and managed to get a short video of the nest. I’m very sad to report that there was only one baby present; the other must have died from lack of protein due to the shortage of insects during the non-stop cold weather. I do not know if the mother, sensing that one was weak and knowing she couldn’t feed them both adequately, chose to stop feeding the weak one so that one would survive, or if the baby was too weak to gape and receive food and eventually died. It’s also slightly possible that the baby was stunted from the beginning (possibly due to too small a yolk). It’s impossible to say for sure, but regardless, it was heartbreaking for this animal lover to realize that someone starved to death right outside her house. I do accept that nature can be harsh—especially during the winter—and I’m glad that the baby didn’t die due to direct human disturbance, but this is just another reason to grow native plants that supply drastically more insects than non-native species.

As I write this, the brave little baby that’s endured the cold still sits alone in the tiny nest that should be filled with a brother or sister. Mom no longer stays on the nest, but she still feeds him/her about every 20-30 minutes. Waiting is the hardest part … waiting for the day that s/he feels strong enough to take to the air and discover the world. I hope I get to see that flight, and I hope it’s on a warm, sunny day.

The baby fledged the very next day, which was a fairly warm, dry one. The following day, curiosity got the best of us. Using a ladder, we inspected the abandoned nest since our nosing around wouldn’t distress anyone. Sure enough, there—at the bottom of the little nursery—was the baby who had died, a dried up little body barely an inch long. Since then I’ve noticed a smallish single hummer in my yard on occasion, and once, while I was walking around the back yard with my little cat in my arms, we stopped to watch this particular bird feeding at blueberry blossoms. S/he grew very interested and circled around us, just 18 inches away from our faces! 

Anna’s hummingbirds typically have 2 or 3 broods per year, and there is another Anna’s hummingbird nest now in a neighbor’s small tree close to a stairway that leads to our back yard. I can’t be sure, but I think it is the mama who nested in our yard, doing her best to raise another couple of healthy chicks.   —ES

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ANOTHER UPDATE: February 18, 2018
New nest! Maybe I ought to just write a fresh post—this seems to be turning into a hummingbird diary!

It’s one year later and the new nest is in my neighbor’s magnolia tree just above their fence on the property line. Rick noticed it on February 10 and thought she might still be constructing it, but on closer inspection it appeared to be finished. The next day, when Mom was off feeding, he put his phone on a stick to take a short video above the nest, and there they were: Two gleaming white eggs that resemble tiny mint candies. Perhaps the mild winter weather we’d been experiencing (with daytime temperatures around 60ºF!) encouraged this early endeavor, but Anna’s often nest very early in California, their historic home.

There had been a nest in the same tree the previous summer, but it was very difficult to view as the tree was fully leafed out. This new nest is in the open due to leaflessness and proximity (near the end of a branch, just above our driveway and recycling bins), so we’ve got a good view. But the sight is bittersweet right now (Feb. 18): Though magnolia flower buds are developing, they provide absolutely no protection for Mom and her nest. Cold, wintery weather is back and I imagine she’s fairly miserable. But I have to remind myself that she’s a tough, stoic little bird, she has the ability to go into torpor at night to conserve heat, and her eggs have not yet hatched. I’m hoping they will stay inside their little life support systems until later this week, when the temperatures will be a bit higher and insects will likely be easier for Mom to find.

February 19: She made it through a cold, snowy night and she’s still on the eggs. The red-flowering currant shrubs haven’t started blooming, so my sugar water feeders are well-stocked and are put outside soon after sunrise (to prevent freezing). Since we don’t know when the eggs were laid, they could hatch anytime between now and the end of the month.

Anna snow

One snowy morning …

 

February 20: Watching from my driveway, I now see her feeding someone, so at least one has hatched. But we’re in the middle of a winter storm that’s brought snow, and temps that will dip into the 20s tonight. I worry because insects and itsy-bitsy spiders are not plentiful when it’s so cold and the most common cause of nestling mortality is lack of protein (as we painfully learned last year). Hopefully Mom will persevere and be able to get both of them fat and sassy. Will keep you posted!

February 23: The nestlings are now at Day 3, and as far as I can tell, they’re doing well. Mom is definitely away from the nest longer than the first time I watched a hummer nest (as much as 7 minutes), but she comes back every couple of minutes during her forages to make sure no predators are near the nest. Standing on a ladder, I can now partially see the babies’ heads as they are fed.
Day 3

 

 
 

March 1: Sadly, my fear has been realized: One of the babies has died. For the past couple of days I’d only been able to see her feed one nestling; yesterday we took a video with a phone taped to a stick and it’s clear that there is now just one alive. Sigh. Anna’s hummingbirds’ historical range is from Baja to San Francisco but they’ve expanded their range north reportedly due to artificial feeders and the planting of nonnatives that bloom when natives have finished. Unfortunately the expansion sometimes has deadly consequences.

The remaining baby looks okay. It’s still quite cold but will warm up a bit soon. The red-flowering currant blossoms should be opening any day now and insects should be easier to find.

March 7: It’s warmed up a bit and the baby is definitely growing. Today his/her eyes are open! Though it’s not very warm, Mom is staying off the nest during the day, but she’s on at night since it’s so cold and the little one hasn’t a sibling to snuggle with.  Day 14 or 15

 

March 8: Today is very windy and rainy but Mom is on the nest most of the time. This weekend will be much better for Baby: warmer, dry, and sunny—just what’s needed.

March 16: Major growth is happening, but I think this baby will be on the nest for another week or more. This is Day 23, a day when many hummers are able to fledge, but since this baby had such a rough start in life, s/he will likely need much more time in the nest. The nights have been quite cold but feathers are filling in.
Day 24

March 23: Baby’s feathers are really filling in and s/he looks softer, rounder. Yesterday, after preening (or perhaps biting at parasites) Baby stretched his/her wings and was almost able to lift off the nest! At nightfall, Baby had to endure a hail storm and I think it rained through most of the night … if only s/he wasn’t stuck in that nest and could find some evergreen shelter during this nasty weather, as older birds do! I keep hoping for some warm spring weather. Even though Baby is now 30 days old, the bill and feathers need to grow more and I estimate that it will be 3 to 4 days before fledging.
Day 30
Day 30

March 25: My heart is heavy with grief today. The stoic little baby who lost his sibling and tolerated so much harsh weather is dead. I believe he died on Friday night during some nasty cold rain and hail. Saturday I saw him hunkered down in the nest to keep warm, or so I thought … while taking photos today I found him in the same position and not moving. What a terrible little life he had, unable to leave the nest during what must have been a nightmare to him. It’s also possible that something happened to Mom, but I suspect the former, since nest mortality is high. We’ll never know. I buried his tiny little body with a sprig of red-flowering currant flowers, something he would have loved. R.I.P sweet little one.

[Addendum: It is two months later, and for the first time I’ve witnessed the feeding of a baby who had apparently left the nest that day. Tiny little “peeps” were heard coming from our fig tree, but I couldn’t locate the baby until Mom swooped in to feed. After Baby was fed she left, but returned about 20 minutes later when the call for food resumed. This went on for the rest of the day, with Baby in the same tree. The same peeps were heard for many days afterwards, but in different trees. Apparently this baby’s sibling also must have died (hummers typically lay two eggs), but s/he looks strong and healthy.]


© 2018 Eileen M. Stark

 
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Ban Neonicotinoids in Portland

painted lady butterfly

The most widely used pesticides in the world, neonicotinoids (often called neonics) are a highly toxic, pervasive, relatively new class of insecticide. Following massive bee die-offs from neonic applications in the U.S. and Canada, last year Eugene became the first U.S. city to ban the use of neonics from city property. Similar bans in Seattle, Sacramento, and Spokane quickly trailed, and now Portland’s City Council is considering comparable—and crucial—affirmative policy at the local level, since higher government continually fails to offer protection from this growing environmental threat. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided last year to phase out neonics in its wildlife refuges, making it the first federal agency to restrict neonics, but the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has yet to act.

Hundreds of studies indicate that neonics are wreaking environmental havoc: They not only disastrously kill or debilitate native bees, honeybees, and other pollinators like butterflies and moths, but also other ecosystem members such as birds, aquatic species, and mammals. Neonics are systemic, taken up through a plant’s vascular system and exuded in the pollen and nectar. Even miniscule amounts adversely affect central nervous and immune systems, cumulatively and irreversibly. If a victim such as a bumblebee isn’t killed outright, its failed immune system will succumb to ostensibly “natural” parasites and pathogens like Bombus bifarius on Aster foliaceusfungal, viral or bacterial infections. Birds—the majority of which consume and feed their young insects—may be poisoned directly or go hungry due to a lack of insect biomass; scientists predict widespread reproductive dysfunction in birds due to neonic exposure.

Since neonics are water soluble, they are very prone to runoff and groundwater infiltration where they accumulate and persist for any years. Aquatic contamination has reached toxic levels in some areas and is expected to cause serious and far-reaching impacts on aquatic food chains.

The cumulative, persistent, and irreversible nature of neonics ought to raise some serious red flags. Human children may also be at risk to this neurotoxic class of pesticides due to their developing bodies and immune systems and tendency to be exposed to problematic substances while playing outdoors.

What we can do

We can voice our support for the proposed ordinance—which also recommends that local retailers label plants, seeds, and products containing neonics—by contacting Portland’s mayor and commissioners by March 31. Personally, I’d love to see this ban go further, as would Commissioner Amanda Fritz, but a ban on city property is a good first step.

We can also take action at home by eliminating pesticides and growing beautiful wildlife-friendly gardens. Besides chemicals, another major threat to wildlife is the lack of natural foraging areas. In our own yards we can attract and feed pollinators by including a variety of nonhybridized—preferably native—plants that will collectively flower from early spring through fall. Native plants that naturally occur in our region are best for all indigenous fauna because they supply the food and shelter that wild species require to survive and they need no synthetic pesticides or fertilizers.

 

© 2015 Eileen M. Stark

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Hummingbirds Nest in Native Gardens

Photo © Richard P. Weber 2015

As I looked through our living room window about two weeks ago, I caught sight of a female Anna’s hummingbird as she zipped by and landed on a tall rhododendron shrub ten feet away. As my eyes focused, I realized this was no ordinary perch: It was a nest, barely the size of a demitasse cup, that was apparently in the final stages of construction.

This exciting revelation reminds me of why I garden: For life! I had known, of course, judging by the number of hummingbirds feeding in our area and their relatively small territories (males defend about a quarter of an acre) that they must raise their families close by, but I had never actually seen a nest in our yard and I never went searching for one, for fear of causing disturbance.

Without delay, my husband began to document her nest building, keeping out of her flight path and with a powerful camera lens. The first photos show a nest perhaps an inch tall; less than a week later she had clearly added on more material to its height. Through binoculars and over several more days I Anna's hummingbirdoccasionally watched as she molded the nest by pinching materials — plant fibers like moss, bark, bits of leaves bud scales, and lichen, as well as feathers or fur, all held together by spider (or caterpillar) silk — between her bill, chin region, and chest while rotating her body. The interior was stomped on by her impossibly tiny feet. Nature’s silk is strong, sticky and stretchy (able to stretch up to 40 percent of its length without breaking), and helps make a nest that is flexible, expandable, and able to accommodate rapidly growing babies. The latest photos show that extra lichens were added as a finishing touch for camouflage (although I like to think that she added them as a charming decoration as well!).

One day I realized she was spending almost all of her time on the nest, leaving only for 20 to 60 seconds to grab a bite to eat. Incubation had begun! For the past 14 days she’s been patiently incubating her two eggs, which should hatch in as little as a day or two (incubation periods range from 14 to 19 days for these hummingbirds). MAJOR UPDATE: Baby pictures are here!

Hungry mouths
Anna’s hummingbirds eat nectar from many flowering plants, including native cascara and black hawthorn trees, currant, gooseberry, and manzanita shrubs, and many introduced species as well. Our little Anna’s timing was impeccable: Ribes sanguiniumShe chose to place her nest within 20 feet of two native red-flowering currant shrubs that had just begun to bloom. Besides currants, other native early bloomers important to these solitary birds include osoberry and Oregon grape. Later on they’ll be attracted to the flowers of native huckleberries, ceanothus, twinberry, serviceberry, elderberry and salal shrubs, honeysuckle vines, and perennials like camas, goatsbeard, delphinium, alumroot, penstemon, nodding onion, campanula, fawn lily, tiger lily, columbine, monkey flower, and milkweed. But Anna’s reportedly eat more protein-rich animal matter than other hummingbirds, consuming a wide array of small insects and spiders, plucked mid-air or from spider webs, crevices, or from trees and shrubs; native plants supply drastically more animal matter than non-native plants. Their young must be feed such foods; they cannot develop and grow solely on nectar. Occasionally hummers will also lap up tree sap leaking out from holes made by woodpeckers, and I’ve seen them sip the sweet juices leaking from overly ripe figs.

A Little History
Anna’s Hummingbird (Calypte anna) was named after a 19th century Italian duchess, Anna De Belle Massena, by René Primevère Lesson, a French surgeon, naturalist, ornithologist, and herpetologist. Such an appropriately aristocratic name for a sparkling little bird!

Historically a Pacific slope species that overwintered from San Francisco to Baja California, Anna’s are now fairly common year round in urban and suburban settings as far north as British Columbia, as well as wilder places such as open woodlands, chaparral, coastal scrub, and oak savannas. Since the change in range was relatively recent—only since the 1970s—and not a result of evolution, it is believed to have resulted from folks in the northern areas leaving artificial sugar water feeders up year round.

Conservation
While Anna’s hummingbirds are not considered endangered or threatened and can survive fairly comfortably in marginally developed areas, they are susceptible to many threats, including habitat loss, pesticides, predation, window collisions, harsh winter weather, and sugar feeders that have gone bad (it only takes a day or so in the right conditions!). Natural flower nectar is greatly superior to white sugar/water mixtures because it supplies micronutrients and spoilage is never a concern.

Because these birds (and other species) eat a large quantity of insects, don’t use insect traps and pesticides that lessen the amount of forage available for them. Spider webs, which hummingbirds collect food from and use as nesting material, should be left intact whenever possible.


© 2015 Eileen M. Stark

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Love in the Trees, Chickadee Style

Black-capped chickadee

It’s nearly Valentine’s Day, so here’s a bit about the love life of a little bird  — the black-capped chickadee — who is such a joy to have around. Let’s start late in the year, when black-capped chickadees typically spend their time in flocks.

Birds of a Feather
Flock formation typically starts in autumn, although it may begin earlier at high elevations or more northerly latitudes. Anywhere from two to eighteen birds may make up a flock in a territory of more than a dozen acres, with six to ten members most likely. Flocks contain adult birds who bred the previous season, “floaters” (those who didn’t get lucky or belong to more than one flock), and young chickadees born that year who’ve immigrated from other areas (to keep the gene pool diverse). Members feed together by day and roost together at night (but individually—chickadees don’t like to snuggle), but all is not calm and congenial.

Exceptionally complex social behavior occurs in winter chickadee flocks. Each member falls into a linear pecking order, with higher-ranking individuals surviving better than those ranked lower. Birds at the top of the hierarchy get the best of everything—the most nutritious food, the safest cover, the finest breeding sites. The order has a purpose: To ensure that the strongest birds can breed in ample territory that provides enough food for their young to survive and thrive. Flock members keep in touch with each other using various calls, so that no one’s left behind.

If you watch closely, you may see evidence of dominance relationships. Unlike many other birds, chickadees keep their distance from one another and that distance is maintained by faint threats. For example, a dominant bird may fluff out his cap feathers or all of his feathers to try to intimidate a subordinate bird. Or he may go further and utter a short but fierce call. If the subordinate bird doesn’t fly off he may lean away or quiver his feathers (like a baby bird asking for food) to ward off further offensive behavior.

Rank is determined by several factors:
◊ Gender: Males tend to rank higher than females, although this changes during breeding season.
◊ Age: Veterans usually overrule very young birds.
◊ Timing: Birds who join a flock late in the season tend to tumble to the bottom of the hierarchy.

Matchmaker, Matchmaker
Studies have found that male-female pairs within flocks are matched in their rank status—that is, a high-ranking male is paired with a high-ranking female, a not-quite-so-popular male is paired with a not-quite-so-popular female, etc. Remind you a little of high school?

But wait—pairs within flocks? Doesn’t the pairing-off begin just before breeding season (in the spring)? You’d think so, but black-capped chickadees are way ahead of us. Researchers have found that most flocks are initially made up of equal numbers of males and females, each of which spend more time associating with a certain member of the opposite sex than all the other members of the flock (in other words, they’re engaged!). Even the youngest flock members reportedly pair off, and it’s the female who decides which male will win her affection, as is the case in most of the animal kingdom. If a bird’s mate dies during the winter, however, mate selection is put off until springtime.

The Newlywed Game
Chickadee couples begin casually house hunting before the winter flock breaks up, even as early as mid-winter (depending on the weather). As spring approaches, their search becomes earnest and they compete — often fiercely — with others for a smaller spring/summer territory within the larger winter territory. Around this time the male begins to catch food and present it to his companion and their first “fee-bee” songs are sung, which helps couples claim their territory.

Photo © Richard P. Weber

Chickadees are cavity nesters: They nest in cavities like holes in dead or dying trees (snags), rotted knotholes in living trees, or previously used woodpecker holes. When natural sites are scarce they may use a hole in the ground or an artificial nest box, as they do in my backyard. Artificial nest boxes are not as good as nests in real trees because they are poorly insulated, but it they’re kept clean and are sited appropriately they may be better than nothing, especially in areas like mine that typically don’t get terribly cold or hot in springtime and don’t have many snags.

Chickadees prefer to create their own nests by digging out pieces of wood and then discarding the debris elsewhere to discourage predators who may view a pile of telltale wood chips as a ticket to a potential dinner. Both Mr. and Ms. Chickadee explore their territory for nest sites and reportedly it’s common for several to be partially excavated before a decision is made. A power struggle often follows, culminating in presentations with much fanfare and bickering.

After the site is decided on (usually by the female), both members of the pair excavate the hole and bring in nest material, but, according to my reference, it is the female who builds the actual nest and my personal observations corroborate this. Using strips of bark, moss, and other coarse material, she quietly creates a cup-shaped nest. It is then lined with soft material such as mammal fur (she uses my “fur dispenser” — a clean suet container filled with fur donated by especially soft cats — that I put out for them and other birds when I see signs of nest-building. Note: If you choose to do this, never offer fur that’s been treated with chemicals like flea treatments). At this point the dedicated male is still sweetly feeding her, but it will be during Gathering mossthe next phase of their relationship—the egg-laying period—when she will need him the most. Egg laying is immensely draining on a female’s energy reserves and her partner’s support is essential for her health, as well as that of their young. She needs to eat frequently, and during this time I sometimes see the male come near the nest and perch, singing a soft fee-bee song. She then flies to him, utters a tiny, high-pitched begging call and does a little wing-quiver. Dad then feeds her and she returns to her incubation duties in the nest. Sometimes he simply feeds her at the nest box’s entrance. If he’s not around, she may take matters into her own wings and forage briefly for herself. 

For the past seven years we’ve put up our clean, chickadee-appropropriate nest box every March and it’s been utilized every year but one (and that was due to an overzealous downy woodpecker who enlarged the entrance hole but later decided not to use it; by then the chickadee pair had found another spot). To mimic a natural nest and help attract the birds to it, we add about an inch of coarse wood shavings in the bottom of the box and watch the expectant parents excavate the box for a couple of days. Then Mom brings in loads of moss and finally cat fur to make a soft, cozy nest for her babies. The entire project takes a few days to a week.

Black-capped chickadee feeding his mate

On average, chickadees lay six eggs (we’ve had four to eight) and incubation usually begins the day before the last egg is laid, so that all but one hatch on the same day. During their 12-day incubation, Mom is fed often by Dad, either directly at the nest entrance or outside on a perch, following his soft call to her.

After the eggs hatch, the young are completely helpless, nearly naked and entirely dependent on their mother for warmth. Bringing home the food (mostly caterpillars) is Dad’s job for the first few days, and it’s intense, since each baby needs to eat several times an hour during the day. Later on, the female also forages for her babies. According to my reference, the mother begins providing food around day twelve, but this is not accurate; I’ve seen both the male and female bringing food to the nestlings at day five or six; possibly this is due to the warmer temperatures in our region (as opposed to the eastern US, where spring comes later). Both parents efficiently remove poop sacs from the nest to keep it clean and drop them away from the nest to deter predators.

Want to help these endearing couples?
Black-capped chickadees are usually found at forest edges, and they need native, mature trees—both deciduous species in which to forage for insects and build nests, and coniferous types for cover and winter food. If you don’t have mature native trees and shrubs in your area, there’s no better time to plant than now! And while natural cavities are best for nesting, consider supplying a nest box for them if you don’t have snags around. Site it in a partly sunny situation (morning sunlight is optimal) and put about an inch of coarse wood shavings in the bottom. The entrance hole diameter should be 1⅛ inches (to keep out house sparrows), without a perch, and faced away from prevailing winds. One box per acre or two is plenty, since they need a large territory in which to find adequate food, although high quality habitats will support more breeding pairs. Be sure to clean the box after each breeding season is over. I like to take it apart, scrub inside surfaces with hot soapy water, rinse well, and then set those surfaces in direct sun for a day or two. We store our box indoors during the fall and winter and put it up again in March to prolong its life and prevent mold growth.

Besides trees, provide clean water and, if your native plants are young, food during winter—chickadees are fond of unsalted peanuts, black-oiled sunflower seed, and suet, which is high in fat (they love my vegan peanut butter-coconut oil-sunflower seed concoction), but they also consume berries, insects, and spiders found on shrubs and trees. Spring through fall, though, nearly all of their diet and their babies’ diet is animal—such as insects, their larva, and spiders. It can take as much as 9,000 bits of food to successfully rear their nestlings, and native plants are best at providing it. Try to grow at least 70 percent locally native plants. 

♥♥♥

Reference: Smith, Susan M. 1997. Black-capped Chickadee. Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg, PA.

© 2015 Eileen M. Stark

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Winter Light, Winter Life

Tualatin NWR

Do you long for spring? Fantasize about those warm summer evenings when the sun stays up past nine o’clock? Deny that winter has yet to officially start? Realize you’re eating dinner and curling under the bed covers earlier than just a month ago?

I’ve got it bad. Yesterday I found myself inspecting shrub and tree branches for next year’s growth and scanning the ground for the first spring bulbs. But here’s some good news: The days are beginning to lengthen again. Sure, we’re talking just minutes gained each day following the solstice, but it’s a start and I’ll gladly take every extra moment of daylight!

Winter is often thought of as a time of slumber—not just for us to catch a few extra winks, but also for the garden. While the cold, short days do tend to reduce some of the obvious vivacity of nature (especially in far northern, frozen latitudes), even in midwinter and beneath snow scientists have found that the soil thrives with living, breathing, developing microbes, some of which can freeze without harm. In the Pacific Northwest, our gardens are anything but sleepy. Amidst the amazing hubbub of microbial activity that helps provide a growth surge in springtime, plants’ roots are slowly developing in preparation for the demands of next year.

But since most people lack a keen interest in soil science, it’s the above ground doings that grab our attention. The “architectural” plants and other elements that remain standing all winter create the “bones” of the landscape, although texture, color, and movement enhance the view as well. I especially like to add such interest to areas that are frequently viewed, such as near an entryway or outside a cozy window seat. Wildlife appeal is also vital.

Native coniferous trees like cedar, fir, and pine are popular because they’re always green and provide framework and privacy, but what may be most captivating is the texture of their foliage—especially lovely holding onto snow, however fleeting that may be in our neck o’ the woods. Broadleaf evergreen trees like Pacific madrone (Arbutus menziesii) and shrubs, including the glossy-leaved Gaultheria shallon (salal)evergreen huckleberry (Vaccinium ovatum), Oregon grape (Mahonia spp.), and salal (Gautheria shallon, pictured right), along with winter-blooming silk tassel bush (Garrya elliptica and G. fremontii), provide interest in all seasons. In sunny ground level situations, kinnikinnick (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) carpets the soil and cascades over rock walls with its attractive evergreen leaves and red fruits that persist into fall and beyond. In shade, the heart-shaped and often evergreen leaves of ground-hugging wild ginger (Asarum caudatum) usually inspire smiles.

Blechnum spicant (deer fern)Intricately divided fronds of the lovely deer fern (Blechnum spicant) hang around all winter, while  licorice fern (Polypodium glycyrrhiza), a charming summer-deciduous type, is often found growing lushly amongst mosses and dead wood or rocks. Speaking of deciduous, some shrubs just can’t wait until spring to bloom—like the wind-pollinated California hazelnut (Corylus cornuta var. californica) that flowers in January. Others—osoberry (Oemleria cerasiformis) and red-flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum) in particular—bloom at the cusp of spring.

Plants with colorful twigs or bark can steal attention, too, especially when planted en masse. Cornus sericea and other “red twig” dogwoods have an almost fiery bark that stands out, particularly against pale or very dark backgrounds, and the gorgeous burnt-orange bark of madrone trees (Arbutus menzeisii) peels to reveal smooth, olive-colored trunks and branches, and not just in winter. Snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus) gleams with its white, berrylike drupes, and wild roses, including Rosa pisocarpa and R. nutkana, produce strikingly red rosehips.Arbutus menziesii (madrone)

Elements of movement can be an enjoyable part of the winter landscape, too. Popular plants that provide a rustling motion as winter winds blow include grasses, such as Festuca idahoensis and Deschampsia cespitosa, which look best planted in swathes, and western sword ferns (Polystichum munitum) with their tall, tough fronds. While they are great accents any time of the year, grasses and evergreen ferns might be most impressive during the humdrum days of winter when they also provide structure and intriguing texture.

Needless to say, the best way to liven up the landscape is to encourage the presence of birds and other wildlife in the garden, and the best way to do that is with native plants that naturally occur in your region. To supply food and shelter from rain and cold, think evergreen trees such as western red cedar, western or mountain hemlock, Douglas-fir, or wax-myrtle. Allow seed heads to remain on perennials to provide food for birds (unless self-sowing poses a problem). Be sure to check plants’ needs before incorporating them into your yard or plan. And be sure to let fallen leaves stay on bare soil and downed wood stay put in order to protect the soil, supply cover for overwintering little creatures and food for ground-feeding birds.

_MG_2133 sRGBWhoever said that winter landscapes are drab and lifeless didn’t consider the possibilities. With a little ingenuity and planning, your garden can be a winter wonderland—in spite of short days.

Happy winter solstice!

© 2014 Eileen M. Stark

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City Birds, Country Birds: Who Lives Longest?

American robin (juvenile) © 2014 Richard P. Weber

A study published recently in the journal Ecology reveals that some birds actually might live longer in urban or suburban settings, which ought to persuade those of us living in such areas to continue or strengthen our welcome of wild species in our yards.

Researchers used data collected over a 12-year period by “citizen scientists” to determine whether some species fared better in rural areas vs. much more heavily populated ones in the vicinity of Washington D.C./Maryland. Some native birds, like American crows, and nonnative species such as rock doves and house sparrows have long been known to flourish in urban areas. But for most bird species, the extensive loss of natural habitat and the increase of human disturbance generally cause profoundly negative effects on their lives.

In this study, four species coped better than their more sensitive country cousins. Gray catbirds (rarely found west of the Cascades) and northern cardinals (found mainly in the eastern half of the US) were found to live longer in urban areas than rural, whereas American robins and song sparrows apparently live longer in suburban spaces than rural. Three other east coast species studied showed no difference in longevity in the various habitats.

The study’s authors acknowledge that further study is necessary. For one thing, longevity doesn’t necessarily mean that the birds are successfully breeding and are without stresses; the study didn’t investigate the fecundity of the birds (reproduction often declines due to constant city noise and the acoustics of human-made hard surfaces, both of which make it difficult for birds to communicate), and the birds they studied are those that have adapted, to some extent, to the presence of people and our machines, impermeable surfaces, and lights. Needless to say, the multitude of species that need quiet, undisturbed habitat, or have very specific needs can’t be studied in populated areas since they typically wouldn’t be found there.

Nonetheless, the results show that some species are more adaptive to our presence than others (such as the varied thrush that requires dark, peaceful, mature forests in which to breed). Although urban and suburban areas generally host more predators (dogs, cats, and raptors attracted to bird feeders), roads and vehicles, noise, reflective glass, and chemicals, the more adaptive birds may respond well to backyard bird feeders, artificial nest boxes, dead wood, and water sources, and the renewed interest in growing native plants in our yards. It’s highly likely that they are also able to live longer because most of their natural predators have been driven away or killed off.


© 2014 Eileen M. Stark

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Reflecting on What Makes a Garden “Real”

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American gardens are generally a mix of styles borrowed from other countries and cultures, many of which developed over centuries. Just a few that we’ve adapted: The romantic English cottage garden, the traditional Japanese garden, and the formal French parterre. This borrowing isn’t unlike our diets—I eat mostly ethnic or ethnically influenced foods for a variety of reasons, most of which revolve around flavor, nutrition, and ingredients that are plant-based. Ethnic cuisine can be wonderful, especially when locally grown ingredients bring it all home.

But landscaping with borrowed styles and plants typically results in gardens that are decidedly unauthentic and typically do little to support life. What’s lacking is a relationship to local history, geology, ecology, and a sense of place (more on the latter in the book). When we use mainly local ingredients (that is, native plants and other elements), though, even exotic or ‘period’ designs can be ecologically functional and feel like home.

Creating gardens that are enmeshed in their native surroundings, use indigenous materials, and reflect the natural world, then, are real. They are beautiful, but not just for the sake of mere decoration, and unlike period gardens, they are designed to play a crucial role within the landscape. Their loveliness is functional, so that every species in the intricately webbed ecosystem has a good chance of being able to do what it’s supposed to do. Insects, for example, must be everywhere—to eat the foliage of plants that they share an evolutionary history with and subsequently provide for those higher on the food chain, to pollinate flowers, and to do countless other jobs.

The functional beauty that’s found in nature’s intimate connections can be in your yard, too. Even “average” backyards are host to amazing numbers of species, but when we add native plants, biodiversity skyrockets: Studies show that native species support 29 times the wildlife that exotic species do. Of course, some nonnative species do support some wildlife (in limited ways), so I don’t recommend removing all noninvasive exotics that currently support wild species or provide food for you, or furnish an emotional connection.

Whether you’re ready to create new beds, replace dead or dying plants, or make over your entire yard, choose plants that belong in your area. Instead of a maple from Asia, consider the lovely PNW native maples—vine maple (Acer circinatum), Douglas maple (Acer glabrum var. douglasii), and big-leaf maple (Acer macrophyllum). Thinking about new shrubs? Look for natives that look similar to ones you admire but come from a faraway place; for example, choose Western mock orange (Philadelphus lewisii) over P. coronarius or P. virginalis (my book has many other suggestions for native plants that resemble common, exotic garden plants). When adding ground cover, choose an assortment of native ground hugging plants that would be found together in nature. Essentially, choose plants that have evolved together and grow together in natural communities—known as “associated species.” If the conditions (light, soil, moisture) suit them, they are your best bet because they offer wildlife what they need, nurture each other, and increase the chance that they will thrive in your yard.

Finally, when purchasing native plants, buy those propagated from source material that originated as close as possible to your site. Using such “local genotypes”  helps ensure that you get plants that are well adapted to your area and preserves the genetic diversity that helps plants (and animals) adapt to changing conditions. Ask growers and nurseries about their sources if you’re unsure.

And although many cultivars—with a range of flower color, leaf attributes, size, etc.—have been developed, it’s best to choose true species or varieties found in nature. 

A garden’s propensity for diversity draws in both gardeners and visitors, generates appreciation and awe for natural processes, and furthers our collective ecological knowledge. In a hazelnut shell, “real” gardens stay true to the character, time, and culture of a place.

© 2014  Eileen M. Stark

 

A Date with a Varied Thrush

Varied thrush

Male Varied thrush perched in red-twig dogwood 


It’s unmistakably autumn
when the strikingly beautiful Varied thrush begins appearing in Pacific Northwest yards, parks, and natural areas. That’s varied, as in Ixoreus naevius, though I’ve also seen various other thrushes—Swainson’s and Hermit—feeding in residential areas from time to time. The scientific name given to this robin-sized bird comes from the Greek ixos, which means “mistletoe,” and oros for “mountain” and the Latin naevius, which translates to “spotted or varied.” If my math is correct, that adds up to “varied berry-loving mountain bird,” or some such.

Since reading the State of the Birds report I’ve felt a twinge of anxiety about whether or not I’d see them this year, as I have each fall and winter since I began creating our “real” garden. Sadly, the Varied thrush is one of dozens of species included on the list of “Common Birds in Steep Decline” that have lost more than half of their global populations within the past 40 years. But just a few days ago I spotted a female rummaging on the ground through the fallen leaves that blanket our yard’s soil, as if she had forgotten where she put her keys: She’d grab a dry leaf in her bill, toss it aside as she hopped backwards, and then search the ground. She was looking for dinner, of course, and apparently found some tasty morsels in the form of insects, slugs, or other arthropods who were hoping to get through the winter under protective leaf “litter.” Varied thrushes also eat fruit and nuts (primarily acorns) during winter and I wondered when she’d return to find the rose hips, patiently dangling off my clustered wild rose (Rosa pisocarpa), as she (or her cousin) had done last year. Apples are also reportedly a favorite food in fall.

Male varied thrush rummages through fallen leaves.

A male Varied thrush rummages through fallen leaves to find food.

Most thrushes wear earthy colors on purpose—so they can be difficult to spot—but this species can be especially tough to see since their gorgeous plumage is reminiscent of dappled sunlight or pumpkin-colored leaves on a forest floor. And they’re timid and wary of people, so you may be more likely to hear one than to see one. But hearing their call in the woods rarely helps locate one, since their ethereal, somewhat mournful voice seems to pervade a peaceful forest. Let’s honor their need to be left alone—sometimes it’s enough just to hear them to be struck by their beauty.

Birds of a feather
Fall through winter, Varied thrushes gather together in flocks, collectively known as a hermitage—a fitting description considering their obligation to be concealed. In the city they act slightly bolder than in quiet forests, coming to within about 15 feet of the house to feed, as well as perch and survey in leafless trees. Their range encompasses the boreal forests of Alaska and the Yukon, southward along the west coast to California, as well as east to Alberta, Idaho, and western Montana. National Geographic records their winter range as “coastal Alaska to southern California and parts of northern Rockies,” but judging by this enthusiastic news account, sightings in southern California may be somewhat rare.

Varied thrush female or immature

Female and immature Varied thrushes look similar.

During the remainder of the year these birds retreat to mature, misty, hushed forests that are dominated by tall conifers and lush ferns, and dine on mostly insects and other arthropods. Many migrate north as the days lengthen. In spring, the female creates her nest in streamside shrubs or conifers, typically 5 to 15 feet above ground. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the nest resembles a robin’s nest: “The female gathers nest material and weaves an outer layer of fir, hemlock, spruce, or alder twigs. She adds a middle layer with rotten wood, moss, mud, or decomposing grass, which hardens into a dense cup about 4 inches across and 2 inches deep. Finally, she lines the cup with fine grasses, soft dead leaves, and fine moss, and drapes pieces of green moss over the rim and outside of the nest.” Two to six eggs, blue with speckles, are laid and incubated by Mom but the hatchlings are tended by both (monogamous) parents; they fledge in about two weeks. They are fed arthropods, as are the majority of land birds. Two broods are produced when possible.

Since these birds thrive in old growth forests, logging is having a profoundly negative impact on their numbers, as will climate change. Window strikes are also responsible for many deaths. Want to help them and see them in your yard?

♦ During fall, winter, and early spring, don’t remove the leaves, twigs, bark, and other dead wood that have fallen from trees onto the soil.

♦ If your yard was historically forest, grow the trees that likely once grew there to provide food and roosting or nesting sites. In coastal B.C., Washington and Oregon, choose Sitka spruce (near the coast), Douglas-fir, western hemlock or western redcedar; in northwestern California choose coastal redwood, Sitka spruce, and red alder.

♦ Thrushes are mainly insectivorous, so add additional “associate” native plants that would naturally grow with the trees to supply extra helpings of native insects and other arthropods.

♦ Include native plants that produce fruits, nuts, or seeds to provide additional forage. Depending on your location, madrone, cascara, garry oak, wild rose, huckleberry, elderberry, honeysuckle, salal, thimbleberry, and dogwood might be good choices.

♦ Be sure birds can see your window glass, not a reflection of the sky. Check out these tips to help birds avoid reflective glass.


© 2014 Eileen M. Stark

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Help Hummingbirds Survive the Cold

Anna's hummingbird
Baby, it’s cold out there!

Lesser goldfinches, chickadees, flickers, juncos and song sparrows frequent my feeders and let’s not forget the Anna’s hummingbirds I feed with sugar nectar. Of course it’s not nearly as nutritious as real flower nectar, but it gets them through these frigid days and nights. Eating a lot of food is absolutely essential to get them through icy cold weather, so try my plant-based suet recipe for other birds).

Although adult hummingbirds are able to go into a state of torpor when it gets really cold, lowering their body temperature and metabolic rate so that it takes less energy to keep warm, they are still vulnerable to the elements, and young are even more so. Providing nectar could make the difference between life and death for these adorable flying jewels.

TIP: Remember to take your hummingbird feeders in after nightfall and then put them back outside in the morning at first light to make sure they wake up to a liquid breakfast, not a frozen mass of crystals. When daytime temperatures get below freezing the hummers will also appreciate it if you take their feeder in occasionally during the day, too, when possible, to thaw it out. If you have an extra feeder, rotate them so there’s always some nectar available. Feeders hung next to houses tend to stay a bit warmer than those out in the open.

TIP: Use a ratio of 1 part granulated sugar to 4 parts water (do not decrease the water content more than to 3 parts—doing so could cause birds to dehydrate, possibly leading to death). Always keep feeders clean (but never use bleach) and change nectar every 4-5 days, more often when the weather warms or if the feeder is in direct sunlight.

TIP: Choose feeders that are easy to clean, without nooks and crannies that can harbor pathogens. My favorite: HummZinger feeders.

TIP: If there’s a porch light near your hummer feeder, turn it on temporarily as the light wanes in the afternoon—it could give the birds a little extra time to feed before they retire for the night. But then turn it off to cut down on light pollution.

TIP: After the weather warms, take away the feeder and supply nutritious flowering native plants instead. In the Pacific Northwest, consider cascara trees, red-flowering currant, Oregon grape, and huckleberry shrubs, native honeysuckle vines, and perennials like western columbine, penstemon, and goldenrod. And remember that Anna’s hummingbirds eat a lot of insects and must feed them to their young.

© 2014 Eileen M. Stark

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Cedar Waxwing Flocks are Back!

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I had planned to write a different post today, but quickly changed my mind when I caught sight of 100 to 200 cedar waxwings in my Portland yard. Last fall a huge flock was attracted to our two fig trees that were laden with ripening fruit well out of our reach. This year only one fig tree is fruiting, but there’s still a mass of succulent food for their hungry mouths. These birds also love berries and I photographed them on a red-flowering currant shrub (Ribes sanguineum) and Cascade Oregon grape (Mahonia nervosa), two of many PNW native species that support these birds. Situated near our front door, the currant shrub stops people in their tracks while it’s flowering in March, and now it’s a waxwing magnet. I watched as they eagerly picked off the berries and swallowed them whole (pictured, above).

Cedar waxwings are exquisitely beautiful birds—sleek, with silky, shiny, colorful feathers that softly blend together like watercolors. Adults have a somewhat droopy, ragged crest and a debonair black mask, outlined in white, which makes them so alluring and exciting—as in, where have you been all my life? Males have black chins and throats, whereas females’ are slightly duller and juveniles’ are streaked. Tail tips are usually yellow, wider in males and narrower in females and juveniles. In my photo you can just barely make out little reddish, waxy tips on the wing feathers, hence the common name. The function of the secretion is not fully known, although it is likely important in courtship. So dashing!

The Bohemian waxwing is similar but slightly larger, and has grayish feathers on breast and belly, instead of a soft yellow. They also have white and yellow wing patches, which cedar waxwings lack. According to Seattle Audubon Society, Bohemians are a northern species that migrate down to Washington in winter. The cedar waxwings we see are likely year round residents who travel around in search of food. Both species are monogamous and breed in open, wet areas with dead or downed wood, or in woodlands with mature conifers.

Exceptionally gregarious, these birds are often seen in large flocks, especially in autumn. You may hear them before you see them, with their very high-pitched, whistle-like trills. They mainly eat sweet fruit and even feed it to their young after a few days of insectivorous cuisine (like the majority of land birds who feed their babies insects). During breeding season waxwings need more protein and show their expert insect-catching abilities in mid-air, often over water. Insects that live on plants, like scale, are also on their menu. For medium sized, fairly stocky birds (about seven inches in length), they are quite acrobatic and can even hover in place to grab a bit of fruit when a perch isn’t handy.

Waxwings aren’t suffering from habitat loss quite as much as most species, since they can eat increasingly common exotic fruits. However, they “are vulnerable to window collisions as well as being struck by cars as the birds feed on fruiting trees along roadsides,” says the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. But native plants are best for the vast majority of wild species, so to attract waxwings to your Pacific Northwest yard, grow indigenous trees and shrubs that produce small fruits, including serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia), madrone (Arbutus menziesii), dogwood (Cornus spp.), western juniper (Juniperus occidentalis), black hawthorn (Crataegus douglasii), honeysuckle (Lonicera ciliosa and L. involucrata), mountain ash (Sorbus sitchensis and S. scopulina), and strawberries (Frageria spp.). Keep your eyes and ears open and look for them in parks, forest edges, open woodlands, and gardens—these beautiful birds could visit your yard, too!

Reference

© 2014 Eileen M. Stark

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Leaving Room for Wild Ones

It’s about as beautiful a fall day in Portland as you can get. I’d love to be hiking, bird watching, or sowing seeds for future plants, but it won’t be long before the book will be released. What on earth inspired me to write a book? Limelight? Prestige? Rolls of royalties? Ha!    IMG_3164 sRGB copy

What motivated me was the earth, or more precisely, my love of it. Edward O. Wilson, the eminent evolutionary biologist and the authority on ants (and my hero), coined the term “biophilia” for our innate affinity for the rest of living organisms. Besides having a bad case of it, I am unabashedly horrified at the extent to which the natural world has been plowed under by our unrelenting reorganization of nature to suit our tastes.

Urban/suburban sprawl, invasive plants, toxins, climate change, and Big Ag (by far the biggest waste of land is the 41 percent of the lower 48 states given to livestock ranchers) all contribute to our precarious environmental condition. Many remnant natural areas are isolated, degraded ecosystem fragments that struggle to support continually decreasing levels of biodiversity. We are the only species that has such an uncanny knack for completely destroying habitat that is essential for other species to live—we take and take, without giving back. But we humanimals are a flexible lot, compared to most species known as specialists that live in narrow habitatNative forest, Vancouver Islands and often have precise dietary needs. When environmental conditions change, generalists like us are usually able to adapt (at least so far), but specialists often become victims who silently go extinct: They can’t simply move on, quickly change their diet, or “reinvent” themselves.

Humans have the ability to conserve, restore, and give back to the earth some of what we’ve taken. I’m heartened by some thrilling restoration and preservation work going on that interlocks and connects broken landscapes—unbroken corridors are essential for wildlife caught in our anthropocentric time.

Aptly named, regional conservation partnerships — coalitions of small land trusts and the like — work to preserve and protect mosaics of public as well as private land (by buying up parcels or securing easements, basically paying landowners to protect the present and future) and connecting them by wild corridors. The Wildlands Network is one such organization that is working on four “wildways” in North America; the Pacific Wildway is closest to home, running from Alaska to Baja.

It is these gigantic projects that make the biggest splash ecologically. But small, conventionally landscaped areas are often stagnant ecosystems that add to our overall environmental debt. So my mission is to make it easier for people in the Pacific Northwest to turn their traditional yards into spaces that benefit dwindling biodiversity, to help people garden with nature in mind. Many books tell us why we need to move away from “typical” landscapes that are dominated by nonnative ornamental plants and lawn composed of exotic grasses—both of which offer few ecological benefits. But few tell how to do it, and in our region (from southern B.C. to southern Oregon, west of the Cascades).

Ecologically functional gardening is some of the best conservation work you can do. Supporting environmental groups and campaigns is wonderful, but with this you know exactly where your money goes. You can do a little or a lot. And with some patience and a bit of honest labor, the benefits will gradually be observable right outside your window. I invite you to join me on the front line (or in your back yard or side yard, or even parking strip!) to help sustain native fauna and flora, the backbone of ecosystems.

© 2014 Eileen M. Stark

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