“Birds Love Messy Winter Yards!”

Most people don’t like to entertain the word “Messy” or even be associated with “Messy,” but if we are wildlife activists and dedicated conservationists, we might need to rethink that term. It turns out that the survival and reproductive success in the spring for birds and mammals that we enjoy and love, are largely dependent upon the conditions of their winter habitat. It is crucial that all wildlife be able to forage during the winter on seed-heads, shriveled fruits, dried plants, insects (that feed on dead and decaying plant life), fungi and bacteria, and what better place to do that than in a messy, unkept yard! Maybe it’s time to put down the garden tools and go easy on yard work this winter. If you’ve had a garden in your yard, that is a bonus to wildlife. Gardens are alive, no matter what time of year. Whether resident or migrating, finches, sparrows, chickadees, buntings, blue-jays, nuthatches, blackbirds and grosbeaks will be stopping by an unkept garden, and the messier the better. Bird feeders that are kept full and clean are nice and a little extra, but a messy yard or garden provides the opportunity for more natural foraging. Insect eating birds or mammals will discover a smorgasbord in the “galls” of plants, which are bulbous swellings created by insects, such as beetles, flies or wasps, who move in to lay eggs and allow the eggs to incubate until spring. That is unless a hungry woodpecker or mammal finds the plump larvae first and makes a hearty meal out of them! This is a glorious and nutritious find during a bleak winter, which is a great reason to leave our yards messy. Bees also use messy yards to provide habitat and protection during the winter. Piles of dried leaves, decomposing logs or cavities in hollowed out sticks or fallen limbs attract a variety of bees for overwintering. Bees might be accompanied by butterflies who will be encouraged to overwinter as well, if they are offered thick mounds of leaf litter or other cavities to crawl in to weather the cold and harsh elements presented during winter. If butterfly presence is not convincing enough, hundreds of other critters can overwinter in gardens; assassin bugs, praying mantises, lace wings, wolf spiders, minute pirate bugs, damsel bugs, ground beetles and ladybugs. All these insects and arachnids are beneficial to birds as a food source which means that, as a gardener, you benefit from having them around. Most birds are predators because many eat insects, as well as, seeds. American Robins, Brown Thrashers, Eastern Towhees, Crows and White-throated Sparrows routinely flip leaves over in search of food. Leaf cover improves their odds of finding protein-rich invertebrates such as beetles, earthworms and millipedes, which seek shelter under the security of leaves. So, birds are taking out insect pests that, if left unchecked, could become problematic in flower and vegetable gardens in the spring. Also, leaving layers of leaf litter for animals, such as opossums to burrow under in the winter, allows them to get a jump-start on minimizing pesky insect infestations in the spring and summer. Let’s see, how do we encourage messiness in our yards? Here are a few tips; put down the rake and leave your leaves in your yard (in mounds or as a blanket because leaves will rot, enrich the soil and provide places for bugs and birds to forage), create patches of habitat for critters such as salamanders, snails, worms and toads with leaf litter, allow dried flower heads to remain standing (save the seeds and refrain from snipping the stems of perennial flowers. Coneflowers , Black-Eyed Susans , and other native wildflowers provide an excellent source of winter calories for birds), don’t mow your grass as often (allow it to be a little taller), build brush piles with fallen branches rather than remove them which will serve to shelter birds, as well as other beneficial wildlife, from bad weather and predators, do not use chemicals in your yard for they will render the space uninhabitable for birds and other critters (besides, native grasses, shrubs, trees and flowering plants don’t need chemical fertilizers. Grass clippings and mulched leaf litter provide plenty of plant nutrition), leave snags on your property and just delay the whole garden clean-up until spring. Now, if mammals are more your focus, be assured that squirrels, rabbits, raccoons, opossums, deer and others will also enjoy the end of season bounty in the form of dried seeds, unharvested vegetables, or the hardy leaves left widespread for them. So, a messy yard can be a very good thing when you consider the food and shelter it offers birds and other visiting critters during cold winter months. Don’t forget the bonus of a spent garden that will provide nourishment at all levels of the food chain. Besides helping our wildlife survive in our messy yards, we need to focus on continuing the growing awareness of the value of supporting native biodiversity. What is truly beautiful? You decide; is it a clean, tidy yard or the amazing birds and other wildlife that pass through your property or take up residency within your view? That’s what I thought, too! Let’s be okay with feeling a little lazy and celebrate the abundance of activity and beauty that can emerge from a messy yard!

 

best always,

Linda Bergman-Althouse

author of “SAVE THEM ALL

Birds Go Buggy!

WE are in the middle of Summer on the coast which means it’s time to go to the beach, have cookouts in the backyard, enjoy outdoor festivals, dabble in gardening and make all kinds of outside fun we’ve been chomping at the bit to do, but it also means dealing with lots of pesky bugs! Summer becomes very buggy for most of us, so we need all the help we can get to stave off menacing insects that annoy, frustrate or bite us! The nursery volunteers at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport are currently helping raise and staff the Army of birds we call insectivores who will eagerly and proactively keep those nasty bugs away from us! A great many birds eat a great many bugs; bugs that do harm to our plant life, as well as, annoy the crap out of us, but we should consider ourselves lucky that numerous birds come to our rescue as they feast on the great flood of insects and other cold-blooded vertebrates that become active during the summer months. Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Scarlet Tanagers, Warblers, and other “canopy” birds feed on caterpillars that eat the leaves of trees. As soon as tiny insects hatch, the bugs begin feeding on the tiny soft leaves as they begin opening, and migrating birds and eventually, our annual hatchlings that fledge or songbird “raise & releases” from the shelter, will arrive just in time to recognize those bugs as dinner! Birds feed on big caterpillars, beetles, grubs, and other medium and large insects and spiders they find near the ground. Blackbirds, bluebirds, sparrows, crows, wrens, and other birds get a lot of protein by hunting and catching these same bugs. Red-winged Blackbirds eat both seeds and insects. Some birds, such as swallows, swifts, nighthawks, flycatchers, some warblers, and Cedar Waxwings scoop up insects flying in the air. Swallows, swifts and nighthawks will fly for hours at a time to catch insects on the wing. Flycatchers, warblers, and waxwings flutter out from branches when they spot a succulent insect and gobble it up! (There, that’s a few mosquitoes or flies that will not be landing on you!) Chickadees, nuthatches, creepers, woodpeckers and the Black-and-white Warbler find insect eggs, larvae or pupae in the crevices of tree bark. Woodpeckers can hear bugs chewing within the wood and dig them out! Those insects can do major damage to our trees. We usually think of hummingbirds as miniature, buzzing birds we provide sugar water or nectar for in our window feeder, but the truth is Hummingbirds get most of their nutrition and proteins by picking tiny aphids and other chewing insects from the surfaces of flowers and leaves and by snatching very tiny flying insects such as gnats in midair. Some people feed hummingbirds and small fly-catching birds by setting out chunks of banana and melon in a small mesh bag because they notice the immediate interest hummingbirds show, but it’s really the tiny fruit flies that swarm the fruit that they really want. Some birds, called generalists, eat a wider variety of insects than others. The Yellow-Rumped Warbler is an example of a generalist. Watch out bug, whatever you are, YRWs will not discriminate, and they will eat you! The top songbird insectivores in our coastal North Carolina airspace who help humans de-bug immensely are the petite Chickadees and Carolina Wrens and medium-size birds; American Robins, Northern Mockingbirds, Purple Martins, Chimney Swifts and Flycatchers. The Chickadee’s favorite snacks are beetles and caterpillars, flies and wasps. Wrens prey on ants, millipedes, beetles and grasshoppers. Our American Robins eat a wide variety of insects but are usually noticed most when tugging earthworms out of the ground. Mockingbirds are quite territorial and aggressive when it comes to hunting and prey mostly on grasshoppers, beetles and tree ants. You may see Purple Martins zooming through the sky during early morning or at dusk. They feed mainly on flying insects and occasionally, fire ants. Also, high in the sky, you may hear the chattering of Chimney Swifts who are putting a huge dent in your mosquito population. A group of Swifts in your area will eat up to 12,000 mosquitoes, termites, flies and other insects every day. Although omnivores, Flycatchers and Brown Thrashers add a huge portion of flies, spiders, moths, beetles, caterpillars, grasshoppers, crickets, cicadas, sow bugs, bees and wasps to their diet that includes fruits, nuts and berries. If you have any of these birds nearby, you can be sure they are helping lessen the pest populations near you and your home. If you are a gardener, maintaining your garden won’t be as great a chore due to the natural and most perfect pest control you can ever have, insect-eating birds. These birds are of vital importance to our ecosystem and must be protected. Scientific research and resulting data show that the total biomass of wild bird-consumed insects amounts to between 400 and 500 million tons. Wow! On the average, individual birds consume more than 100 times their own body weight in bugs. That figure is amazing because it’s roughly equivalent to the weight of meat and fish consumed each year by humans. Many of our insect-eating bird species are declining or endangered due to habitat loss, widespread pesticide use, hunting, infrastructure mortality and predation by free-roaming cats. If we can not arrest the threats to these birds, the invaluable ecosystem services they provide will be lost forever. We need more near-natural forested areas for many songbird species, rather than tree plantations that only support a few species. It can be overwhelming to look at the global picture of this dilemma, but we each can do something where we are with what we have. Protect and value your backyard birds. The young songbird insectivores being raised at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter now, will be coming to help you soon and rid your yard of damaging and pesky bugs. Please, welcome and cheer on these little bug zappers!

best always,

Linda Bergman-Althouse

author of “Save Them All