Live on the Wild Side Give Nature a Hand

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Adult monarch on clematis, Granby, Conn.

The monarch butterfly is in trouble. As one of the most recognizable butterfly species in North America, it has become the poster child for many other species whose numbers are declining. Habitat loss has occurred throughout the monarch’s flying range and pesticide use can destroy the milkweed that monarchs need to survive.

The bog turtle is also facing challenges. Federally listed as a threatened species in 1997, it is the smallest North American turtle at only four inches long. Its preferred habitat, referred to as a fen, is a freshwater, bog-like wetland with grassy spots giving access to an open canopy for basking in the sunlight. Threats to this littlest turtle include illegal collection, road traffic and destruction of wetland habitat due to new neighborhoods and roadways.

In total, 14 different mammals are on Connecticut’s endangered, threatened and special concern species list, eight of which are bats. Over 50 birds are on the list, including the barn owl, red headed woodpecker and purple martin (Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, last updated Jan. 11, 2017).

Many of us feel understandably helpless when faced with disheartening statistics. The problems seem too big, too all-encompassing, for us to imagine taking any meaningful action. But—hold on—there IS action one can take: something that will engage all the senses and that will be a source of pride; a venture possible whether you live in an apartment, a condo or house; whether you are an 8th grader or have a doctorate in physics or whether you are able-bodied or in a wheelchair.

Create a Certified Wildlife Habitat ®

The National Wildlife Federation (NWF), founded in 1936 during Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency, is America’s largest wildlife conservation and education organization. NWF established the Wildlife Habitat program in 1973 to encourage homeowners to manage their gardens and yards as nurturing habitats for wildlife. Although initially focused on the single-family-home backyard, the NWF’s overarching program known as Gardening for Wildlife is applicable wherever nature-loving persons choose to take action. Any place where a wildlife-friendly environment is created can be recognized as a Certified Wildlife Habitat by NWF. From little to big, habitat possibilities can include a balcony, a container garden, porch, yard, local park, urban rooftop, schoolyard, place of worship or corporate landscape.

Becoming certified is as simple as providing four habitat components (food, water, cover and places to raise young) and practicing sustainable garden techniques such as eliminating pesticides, conserving water and planting native species. The one-page Certified Wildlife Habitat Application ($20 fee) is available in each issue of National Wildlife magazine or can be completed online at Perks: you receive a personalized certificate and a one-year subscription to National Wildlife Magazine.

Dragonfly and verbena bonariensis, Granby, Conn.

My interest in backyard habitats has led to three certifications: first in Marietta, Ga., then in Norwich, Conn., and, most recently, in Granby upon my move here a year ago. Also, when I was employed at a high school in Marietta, Ga., a team of students and faculty interested in wildlife and ecology joined with me to develop and establish a Certified Schoolyard Habitat on the school’s campus.

Black swallowtail butterfly and lantana, Marietta, Ga.

Getting started

Try looking at the terrain around your home from an animal’s point of view.

Is there a dying tree in the corner of your yard that you were thinking of removing? The knotholes could provide a perfect home for a family of chickadees, or a colony of honeybees. Is there a pile of brush that isn’t very attractive? It could be tidied up just a bit and continue to provide just the protection a mother rabbit needs to safely bear and raise her young. If you aren’t lucky enough to have a stream on your property, you can gift your yard with a birdbath or provide water by filling a shallow dish with water and placing it near existing shrubbery.

Don’t clean up all your leaves this spring. Leave a portion of so-called leaf litter: it serves as a source of nesting materials and as a foraging space for birds, small mammals and carnivorous insects. It also can be a hiding place for small birds and animals—be a hero and offer leafy protection from hawks and turkey buzzards cruising around looking for a tasty morsel. Perks: less raking; reduced air and noise pollution from gas-powered leaf blowers. (Opt for an electric blower if you must have one.)

Visit other gardens (, join one of the several garden clubs in the area, shop at nurseries and farm stores. Learn about the importance of natives, choose plants that attract pollinators, and those which provide berries for the birds. Include host plants for butterflies and provide cover for all creatures from predators and severe weather. Cover includes not only densely bunched shrubs and conifers, but also hollow logs, stonewalls and rock piles.

You’ll begin to see more birds, butterflies and hummingbirds, maybe a skunk, rabbit, turtle or a pest-eating toad. Your experiences and growing expertise will provide lively fodder for conversation. You’ll be living out one of my father’s oft-quoted mottos—originally coined by Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the Scout Movement: “Try to leave this world a little better than you found it…”

Eastern cottontail rabbit, Marietta, Ga.

A basic concept: pollinators

Pollinators are bees, butterflies, hummingbirds, and other animals that feed from flowers, transferring pollen in the process. By moving pollen from one part of the flower (the male anther) to another part (the female stigma) fertilization takes place. Only fertilized plants can make fruit and/or seeds. Other pollinators include flies, birds, beetles and ants. Bats and moths take over pollination on the night shift, seeking fragrant night bloomers in white or pale colors. Without pollinators, the human race and earth’s ecosystems would not survive. Over 80 percent of the world’s flowering plants require a pollinator to reproduce.

Natives, yes; exotics, no

A native plant is one that occurs naturally in a particular habitat, ecosystem or region without human introduction. It is well adapted to that region’s soil, moisture and weather conditions. The general consensus is that only plants occurring naturally in North America prior to the arrival of European settlement are considered native. It is pretty safe to conclude that any plants with names such as European buckthorn, Japanese barberry, Russian olive and Norway maple are not natives.

Native wildlife species have evolved to depend on the food from plants that are native to their ecosystem, making native plants crucial for your garden visitors. In addition, landscaping with native plants will save time and money since they are adapted to a region’s soil and moisture conditions and thus consume less water and, once established, are low maintenance.

It is important to make the distinction that non-native plants are not necessarily harmful. Non-natives are fundamental to our lifestyle. Most of our food crops, such as potatoes and wheat, are not native to the United States. But when a plant is moved from its native habitat, it becomes a so-called exotic, or alien, species in the new area. Many exotics become invasive, spread aggressively, and can potentially displace their native neighbors. Common invasives include purple loosestrife, Japanese honeysuckle, Kudzu (nicknamed “the plant that ate the south”) and English Ivy. Establish a new gardening habit: buy natives.

Native bees, our pollinator heroes

Native bees (as opposed to non-native honeybees) are the most important group of animal pollinators. (Yes, bees are considered both insects and animals. All insects are aptly named animals; anything that’s not a plant, fungus, bacterium, virus or protist is an animal too.) Native bees include so-called social bees (e.g. the bumblebee) that live in colonies and solitary bees (bees who live alone). The latter group includes the mason bee, squash bee, green sweat bees and mining bees.

Four ways to support native bees:

  • Add a new garden bed filled with native blooming plants.
  • Don’t use insecticides. Avoid in particular neonicotinoids, systemic insecticides that are absorbed by plants and cannot be washed off, and have been linked to bee decline.
  • Fill a birdbath with large pebbles and pour water to the halfway point. The pebbles provide landing places from which to safely get a drink. Both birds and bees can drown if water is too deep: a good guideline would be no deeper than two inches in the middle. Dump the water every few days—periodically scrub algae off with nine parts water, one-part vinegar—and replace with fresh.
  • Offer nesting places, such as a Mason Bee House ($19.95 from Gardener’s Supply Company). Referred to as a pollinating powerhouse, one mason bee can do the work of 100 honeybees. The males do not have a stinger, and the females will only sting if trapped or squeezed, making this bee an ideal neighbor for a home garden.

    Mason bee house

Attract butterflies to your garden

In Norwich I started a an eight-foot-long butterfly garden in 2000 which eventually grew to 40 feet long and six feet wide by 2015. Such a garden initiated on a manageable small scale makes a satisfying first project. Lists of butterfly-friendly perennials and annuals are readily available in books, online and at your favorite nursery. My mainstays include verbena bonariensis, lantana, several milkweed species, bee balm, Joe Pye weed, rudbeckia, cosmos and cleome. When choosing, think white, pink, purple, yellow and orange, colors deemed most attractive to butterflies. Provide a mix of flowering plants that blossom from early spring through late fall.

Butterfly bushes are recognized as butterfly magnets. They make great visual anchors at the ends of gardens in general but particularly in butterfly gardens. Since my Granby property did not have one, my favorite butterfly bush cultivar Black Knight was planted last spring. Black Knight has deep purple-blue fragrant flowers in elongated clusters on arching branches to 10-feet tall. Like most butterfly bushes, it blooms from early summer to first frost and is attractive to butterflies, hummingbirds and bees.

Planting host plants for your butterfly caterpillars is a must. Females lay eggs only on plant species that their future offspring can eat. Without these plants the eggs will hatch but the caterpillars will starve or be poisoned. If you fancy monarchs, plant milkweeds. For black swallowtails, grow parsley or dill. Checkered skippers go for hollyhocks. If you are going to plant one host plant, why not add all four? Watch for the resulting caterpillars, then the chrysalises and finally the emerging butterflies that you can now consider your children.

Monarch caterpillar, Granby, Conn.

Hummingbirds, too

Flying consumes a great deal of a hummingbird’s energy. Wingbeats have been measured at 20-200 beats per second, giving it both the ability to hover in mid-air and to fly backwards. A large number of plant species depend for pollination on one or more of the 361 known species of hummingbird. Six species have been recorded in Connecticut, the Ruby-throated and Rufous being the most common. Choose from this list of six native plants that will provide nectar: eastern columbine, trumpet honeysuckle, fire pink, bee balm, trumpet creeper and cardinal flower.

Think red-yellow-orange and tubular-shaped flowers for hummers.

Checklist for creating a bird-friendly backyard

• Leave dead trees, standing or fallen, to provide nesting and foraging sites.

• Consider topping dead trees rather than removing the whole tree (if safety allows).

• Limit the size of your lawn for less mowing, less fertilizing, less watering and less pollution.

• Supply a source of water. Dripping or running water is a better attractant than still water.

• Provide and monitor nesting boxes of various sizes. My habitats have included a bat box, a number of bluebird boxes and a screech owl box.

• Cease pesticide use in your yard.

• Provide at least one clump of conifers (evergreens).

Snakes—live and let live, for the most part

Snake populations in Connecticut have declined because of habitat loss, mistaken identity, fear and road mortality. The two venomous snake species found in Connecticut, the timber rattlesnake and the northern copperhead, do not have widespread distributions. These two, along with the other 12 Connecticut snake species, are not aggressive and will only bite if threatened or handled.

Snakes maintain balance in the ecosystem where they serve as both predator and prey. They feed on harmful bugs, insects, frogs, toads, slugs, earthworms and small rodents but also serve as a food source for larger predators such as weasels, foxes, hawks and owls.

Refrain from killing a snake before you know what kind it is. Become educated about the snakes of Connecticut; after all, there are only 14 of them. A snake doesn’t ask much: a rock pile and/or brush pile will be appreciated.

Cut your lawn—in half

For over a century traditional American landscaping has focused on maintaining a perfectly manicured green lawn. Turf grasses offer near zero value to wildlife. Why not mark off a small area of existing lawn and prepare a garden bed. Here’s your chance to start a butterfly or hummingbird garden, or to plant a native tree or construct a small pond. Save the time and money normally spent on mowing and fertilizing; conserve water; reduce mower pollution. Contribute to quieter Saturday and Sunday mornings in your neighborhood.

Spring: The perfect time to start

Do you have a special place in your heart for toads or butterflies or birds or bats?

Maybe you aspire to seeing all six Connecticut hummers in your yard this year. Use your passion as a jumping off point and put out the welcome mat. Start small. Make a brush pile. Reduce lawn just a bit. Put up a nesting box for your favorite bird. Plant a conifer. Help a turtle cross the road. Remember that a wildlife habitat is where the wild things are; you may need to lower your “neat and tidy” expectations for your yard and gardens. Consider cleaning your house more often to assuage your discomfort. 

Eastern box turtle, Norwich, Conn.

May the following quote be an inspiration as you embark on any new venture—but especial good wishes to you if it’s a wildlife habitat.

I am only one.
But still I am one.

I cannot do everything, but still I can do something.

And because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.

—Edward Everett Hale (1822-1909)