The Wild Bunch

Giving back to nature: Some gardeners are sharing their back yards with birds, frogs and other creatures that need a safe haven.

November 11, 2001|By Susan Reimer | Susan Reimer,SUN COLUMNIST

Sharon Dick's backyard isn't much bigger than a playground sandbox, but every inch of it is dedicated to feeding her tenants: a couple of thousand frogs, maybe a million bees, plus enough drop-in birds, butterflies and bats to challenge the best census taker.

"I don't think of it as a garden," said the Lutherville naturalist. "I think of it more as a pantry."

There are bird feeders in evidence, certainly. But less obvious is the food masquerading as flowers, shrubs and trees.

There is milkweed for the migrating monarch butterflies. The desiccated coneflowers provide thistle for the goldfinches. The dogwood berries and the grapes are for birds, squirrels and raccoons still foraging before winter. In the spring, there are solar-powered lights to attract insects for the frogs and hundreds of daffodils to feed the bees.

"We owe it to the critters," she said over tea and cakes at her dining room table.

This is the time of year when Dick's backyard soup kitchen is quiet. The frogs are sleeping in the underground hibernation area that she has dug and furnished for them below the frost line. The fish have taken to the bottom of the largest of her seven ponds, most of which are no bigger than a cookie sheet. The bees, or rather their larvae, are dormant and stored in the hundreds of nesting tubes she provides for them. Most of the birds and butterflies have migrated.

Oddly, this is the time of year when it occurs to the rest of us to put a little food out for the birds. Homeowners in the United States and Canada use more than a billion pounds of bird feed each year.

We think of it as a way to support the birds during the harsh months when natural food is in short supply. And we enjoy watching them from the warmth of our kitchen windows.

In fact, birdseed provides less than a fourth of a bird's total diet, to say nothing of the bees, butterflies and bats, which don't eat it at all.

What winter does provide is the time to plan to do more for the little lives that man has so disrupted. That's where backyard habitats come in.

"The main idea was to give people something they could do in their own lives -- literally in their own back yards -- to benefit wildlife," says David Mizejewski, manager of the National Wildlife Federation's backyard habitat program.

Dick has been a member of the National Wildlife Federation's Backyard Wildlife Habitat program since 1991. She provides the four essential requirements for survival -- food, water, cover and places to raise young -- for many of the delicate creatures that humans have run off or poisoned: birds, bats, butterflies, bees and frogs.

She is even happy to feed the squirrels, rabbits and chipmunks. In the summer, the window at the far end of her dining room will be completely covered with the Mason Blue bees and Japanese Horn-faced bees she cultivates.

In return, they pollinate the living daylights out of a nearby dogwood tree, providing drifts of white blooms for her and bushels of berries for the birds.

"It is almost heartbreaking to see the impact of development. To give back a little yard is the least we can do for all the work they do," she said. "Restoring habitat is the single most important thing humans can do for wildlife."

Since the National Wildlife Federation began the backyard sanctuary program in 1973, more than 30,000 homeowners have taken the modest steps to restore habitat for wildlife and received sanctuary certification.

Recently, schools, business and entire communities have also earned sanctuary status. So have residents of retirement homes and townhouses, and apartment dwellers who don't have room for much more than a butterfly container garden on their balconies.

"People seem to start with bird feeders. Then they plant a few flowers. And they go from there," said Mizejewski. "This is something that you can do with any amount of money or with any amount of space."

Susan Yonkers has a lot of space to work with not far from Sharon Dick's backyard.

While Dick's property is a study in space-saving detail and a testament to all that can be done in a small suburban tract yard, Yonkers' yard is a sweeping 2 1/2 acres, thickly shaded with beech, oak and tulip poplars. Although it is a "young" garden (only about four years of planning and planting), it is already an official backyard wildlife sanctuary, complete with a NWF sign.

Having heard Dick speak to a garden club, Yonkers is deep into discipleship. Already well-read about horticulture, she is working to become as familiar with birds as she is with plants.

"I am determined to clear out all the invasive plants," she said during a crisp morning walk through her gardens. "If you let them go, they push all the native plants out. If that happens, you are limiting the menus and the birds will die off."

She doesn't use a gasoline-powered lawn mower or weed-whacker because, she says, they pollute more than a car.

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