Thursday, September 02, 2010

Enjoying a wildlife friendly home landscape

Enjoying a wildlife friendly home landscape

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Over the years, Beth Chato has traveled to see birds all over the globe, and she has a life list of some 2,000 species to prove it. But she also takes great pleasure in watching birds and other wildlife at home.

Here, for example, is how she described the activity in her yard in a post to birdnotes, the email discussion list of Champaign County birders, back on August 7th: My cardinal flower and my nectar feeder are buzzing with hummingbirds. A gang of young cardinals is sunbathing and snacking on my sunflower seed. A very tame catbird keeps an eye on me if I am outside. At least three pair of goldfinch go through a lot of niger seed. A busy family of house wrens and one of Carolina wrens patrol the bushes for insects. Mourning doves, house sparrows, and house finches clean up below the feeder. Yesterday I had my first fall warbler, an American redstart. I almost forgot the resident robins.

If you didn’t know better, you might think Chato was describing the activity on a roomy spread somewhere out in the country. But she and her husband, John, have lived in the same home on a standard city lot in west Urbana for forty years. The richness of activity in their yard demonstrates what’s possible when people maintain landscapes with wildlife in mind.

Chato provides food for birds via all of the usual methods. She puts out a nectar feeder for hummingbirds in late April, when the ruby-throats return, and keeps it filled into November, on the chance a western species rare to our area might find it during migration. She also maintains the seed feeders alluded to in her email, including a tube filled with niger for the finches, and a squirrel-proof hanging feeder with a standard blend of seed for cardinals, sparrows and the like. During the winter she brings downy woodpeckers and nuthatches into view with a suet feeder.

These food sources complement the food Chato provides by means of the plants she grows in her yard, where only a portion in the center—about a third of the total area—is kept in turf grass. Cardinal flower and other native perennials, mist flower, brown-eyed Susan, and woodland phlox among them, are sources of nectar and pollen that help sustain insects, and they flourish without the use of fertilizers or pesticides. A rich mix of taller vegetation, including shrubs, such as grey dogwood, and a black cherry tree provide further food for wildlife, as well as places for birds to perch and nest.

When Chato wants to bring hard-to-see songbirds down from the treetops for a closer look, she attaches her garden hose to a mister, which creates a fine spray they can’t seem to resist, especially during dry spells.Two other fixtures in the yard provide wildlife more constant access to water, a repurposed concrete laundry sink, which is set in the ground to make a small pond, a decorative fountain powered by a solar panel on the roof of the garage.

A human visitor at the Chatos might wonder why they leave a small dead tree standing near their patio, or why they keep a heap of sticks in a corner obscured by shrubs. But the purpose is obvious to hummingbirds, which like a bare branch to rest on, and to white-throated sparrows, which in winter take refuge from the weather and predators in the brush pile.

If you are interested in tips on improving your own yard as wildlife habitat, check out the “Garden for Wildlife” pages at the National Wildlife Federation’s Web site. The Chato’s yard is certified through the program—maybe yours could be, too.