Thursday, May 07, 2015

Landscaping for wildlife with native plants

Landscaping for wildlife with native plants

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On Saturday, the local land conservation group Grand Prairie Friends will conduct a sale of native prairie and woodland plants at Lincoln Square in Urbana. This sale represents the best opportunity of the year for residents of east central Illinois to get their hands on a wide assortment of native plants at very reasonable prices—and to support broader conservation efforts at the same time. The sale starts at 8:00 Saturday morning and runs until noon.

At last year’s sale, patrons were crazy for milkweed and nearly 1,400 milkweed seedlings were sold. Why all the milkweed?  It’s the only genus of plants on which the caterpillars of monarch butterflies feed and develop. Knowing that monarch populations are in trouble, people here and across the country are doing what they can to create monarch havens in their own back yards.

In this, I sense an opportunity.

That’s because I think people who are willing to plant milkweed for monarchs might also be persuaded to favor wildlife more generally as they decide what to plant in their yards. That is, they might also be persuaded to plant native shrubs, such as New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus) or buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis), instead of alien butterfly bushes, and to plant native oak and crabapple trees rather than their exotic cousins.

Unlike conservation efforts that take time to mature, landscaping with native plants can provide short-term gratification. (I found the first monarch caterpillar on the orange butterfly milkweed I planted last year after only eight weeks.) In addition, landscaping with native plants produces enduring good. My milkweed will come up again year after year and support generation after generation of monarchs, all with little or no effort on my part.

The impact of planting native shrubs and trees can be even greater. 

Consider a white oak tree planted in the right place. After keeping it watered for the first year or two, the person who plants it can walk away with some confidence the tree will outlive her, and perhaps her children. Over that time, the white oak will support the caterpillars of as many as 500 species of moths and butterflies, which, in turn, will serve as food for dozens of species of birds. Among those will be warblers, the tiny, quick, colorful favorites of birders. The warblers we see in east central Illinois, winter in Central and South America and then migrate to or through the Midwest in spring, and they depend entirely on insects for food.

My understanding of the importance of landscaping with native plants comes from Douglas Tallamy, currently professor and chair of the department of entomology and wildlife ecology at the University of Delaware at Newark. In the book, Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants, he explains that we’re mistaken to think we can support healthy wildlife populations by means of the relatively small amounts of public land set aside for that purpose.

“As far as our wildlife is concerned,” he writes, “we have shrunk the continental United States to 1/20th its original size.” A straightforward ecological calculation tells us that little fragment will support only 5% of the species that were found here when Europeans first arrived.

Thus it is not just helpful but necessary to begin remaking our urban and suburban landscapes with native plants if we hope to slow current trends toward extinction in wildlife.

Print resources

Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants by Douglas W. Tallamy, Timber Press.

“Native Plants in the Home Landscape for the Upper Midwest.” Keith Gerard Nowakowski. University of Illinois Extension.

Some further sources for native plants

Possibility Place Nursery

Prairie Moon Nursery

Midwest Agriculture and Restoration Services
They will be selling a selection of prairie plants at the Tuesday farmer’s market in Champaign beginning on May 12.

Friday, May 01, 2015

Embrace your inner birder and enjoy spring migration in Illinois

Embrace your inner birder and enjoy spring migration in Illinois

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Have you noticed friends or coworkers looking a little sleep-deprived lately? Perhaps these same people complain of a sore neck, and look past you into the trees while you’re talking. You may be encountering birders caught up in the excitement of spring migration.

Sure, a variety of birds have been migrating through central Illinois since February. During the late winter and early spring something like 240 species of birds belonging to 39 families pass this way.
But for most birders, the highlight of spring is songbird migration, and that becomes most intense over the next few of weeks.

[Photos by author: hooded warbler, black and white warbler; summer tanager.]

There are great numbers of birds and a great variety of species represented in this wave, hundreds of thousands of individuals belonging to more than 120 species. The most dazzling among them are members of a family of birds known as warblers, which are incredibly colorful little birds that average only about a third of an ounce in weight. Although they are small, warblers migrate long distances, from wintering ranges in Mexico, Central, and South America to breeding areas in the U.S. and Canada.

As they move north, warblers feed on insects, especially the caterpillars, bees and wasps that populate the crowns of trees as they flower and leaf out. (This habit of the birds accounts for a condition that afflicts birders known as “warbler neck.” That’s the pain you experience when you spend too much time looking up.)

Although 20 species of warblers breed in Illinois, only 7 of those nest in Champaign County. Most individuals of the 37 warbler species that occur in the state during spring are just passing through on their way further north. 

Ironically, the highly fragmented nature of the central Illinois landscape creates great opportunities for warbler watching. Migrating birds that need trees to feed in when they stop are concentrated in urban areas and the isolated woodlands that remain here.

It seems almost foolish to try to describe in words the vivid beauty that prompts birders to get out before sunrise day after day. Some warblers are all about color. The blackburnian warbler’s throat and head, for instance, exhibit such a bright combination of orange and yellow that it looks to be on fire. And the cerulean warbler—well, if you’ve only experienced “cerulean” as the color of a crayon, you’ve got to see this bird. Other warblers are about patterns. The aptly named black and white warbler, for example, makes up for its lack of color in the same way a zebra does, by sporting stripes so bold they appear to be painted.

If you’re new to birding, or just interested in getting out with people who share your enthusiasm, you might want to check out the Sunday morning bird walks hosted by the Champaign County Audubon Society at Busey Woods and Crystal Lake Park in Urbana. Walks start out from the parking lot of the Anita Purves Nature center at 7:30 a.m. and last until about 9:00--although certain people hang out much later when the birding is good.

You may also want to add to your calendar the 7th Annual Bird Migration Festival, which is scheduled to take place on Saturday, May 16th. This family friendly event will be held at the Interpretive Center at the Homer Lake Forest Preserve and include opportunities to see both wild and captive birds up close. More information about the Migration Festival is available at the website of the Champaign County ForestPreserve District.