A Celebration of the Earth

cardinals on post

The Kissing Cardinals, Mr. and Mrs. feeding each other in a sweet courtship ritual.

A few years ago I answered the questions on a “What’s Your Footprint?” test on a website that gave points or demerits in accordance with how choices you made in your lifestyle affected the earth and I ended up with a negative footprint. How is that? Is it mounded up instead of impressed into the soil as footprints tend to be? No, it just meant I was below the minimum level of points for their scale. And it would have been even lower if they had listened to me about the scoring for use of a dishwasher*.

Well, big whoop for me—it’s not by any intentional virtue, though I have always tried to learn more and be careful about how much energy I used in daily activities. It began as a combination of selfishness and economic necessity, choosing what I could afford to buy and do and not wanting to simply fall in step with what I thought was a lot of wasted time and money. I was intrigued by how people managed in the days before modern conveniences and actually wanted to drop off the grid for a while to learn to live without these things, really, like, off in the woods somewhere, but not forever or even for very long, then pick and choose the ones I wanted and stay with them.

I never went all the way to the end with that, always living in a pretty conventional space but I really did examine all the things in my life and discarded what was not right for me and embraced what was. By coincidence I chose to do things that were also earthy-friendly.

I’ve gardened for 25 years, all but my first year by organic standards, and for many of those years as a vegetarian raised nearly all the food I ate, preserving what was extra for non-gardening months. I saved seeds, started my own plants from those seeds, composted everything compostable from my household including my waste paper from desk and studio and even my dryer lint.

That’s a lot of work, not composting dryer lint but gardening that intensively, and it’s not for everyone but those who love it and actively choose to do it. I really don’t know how the human race advanced when until this century people had to work so hard just to grow enough food to stay alive, and if they didn’t manage to do so they would simply die. Those are pretty high stakes, and I can see why, when modern chemicals promised and delivered growing crops with less work and less risk of loss, everyone jumped on it.

But we often don’t learn the risks of things until we’ve been actively involved in them for some time, like the effects of chemical fertilizers and pesticides on soil and air and water and human health. When Rachel Carson wroteSilent Spring we had already been involved in use of agricultural chemicals at an increasing level for nearly two decades if we count testing and use during WWII. Rachel Carson, among others, could see the risks developing even at that early date, but others still saw rampant hunger in this country and around the world that these “modern” growing methods could alleviate, while, of course, others saw lots of money; in short, a lot of interests were at stake, and still are.

Many of the issues that determine how the earth is used and left for others are this big, involving most of the planet, like drilling for oil, clearing rain forests, implementing alternative energy resources, and seem way too big for individuals to have any impact if they either try to influence one way or the other, or simply go their own way and make other choices.

But everyday choices do make a huge difference, and simply because some issues are really too big for us as individuals to have much impact today, we don’t often realize that even a small act can much later have a bigger impact than expected, and can make change in ways we never intended. This weekend a friend hosted a “Rainbarrel Workshop” wherein people can learn not only how to make a rainbarrel but why they would want to go to the trouble. I gave him the materials I had researched and written and illustrated into an informational package the year after our community suffered a devastating flash flood, a flood that may have been mitigated though not eliminated if stormwater had been better managed.

What can a rainbarrel do?

  • One inch of rain over one square foot of roof yields about 0.62 gallons of water, though the average roof send only about 80% of the water that falls on it into the downspouts, the rest splashing off or even evaporating.
  • Multiplying by 0.8, one square foot of roof for a one inch rain gives 0.5 gallons.
  • One hundred square feet of roof (10’ x 10’) yields 50 gallons of water in a one inch rain.
  • One thousand square feet of roof (20’ x 50’) yields 500 gallons of water in a one inch rain.

So if you have one or more rainbarrels that catch your rainwater and keep it out of local streams and waterways, you are saving that many gallons of rainwater from overburdening your local system during high water events. If your neighbors also have rainbarrels your neighborhood is potentially saving thousands of gallons of stormwater.

Plus, you can use those gallons of water to wash your car or water your garden, saving on your utilities.

And when we host rainbarrel workshops usually about two dozen people attend, learn all these facts and spread them on, plus they met other like-minded people they otherwise wouldn’t have, and a community is formed.

Yes, maintaining a rain barrel, being careful about what you use on your lawn, turning off the water while you brush your teeth, combining trips in the car or sharing rides and myriad other choices you make do cause change, in you and in your environment.

But no one person can do it all. I drove a 35 mile round trip to work for ten years, all by myself on the highway instead of carpooling or trying to find public transportation or moving closer to where I worked while I was living off my little back yard. And I hate to think of what I’ve done to the earth in terms of cat litter over the years I’ve been rescuing cats and living with about nine at once for most of that time.

So do you choose to drive a distance to purchase organic produce or do you save the fossil fuels and visit a local grocery where produce might be grown with various amounts of chemicals? Do you choose to use wind-powered energy when you’re reading that thousands of migrating birds and bats are killed by wind turbines, or maybe they’re not? And information keeps changing?

In the end, it’s more about being aware and making choices than it is about following rules. Make an informed choice, and do what you can. We all leave a footprint of some sort, but we can wisely choose where we step and how heavily we walk.

I’m happy to pass along the things I’ve researched and learned over the years in my features Your Backyard Wildlife Habitat and Living Green With Pets. In my “other life” outside of writing about and painting and photographing and doting on my cats, I am a Master Gardener and it’s been my pleasure to work with a number of environmental organizations for years in writing and illustrating newsletters, brochures, websites, advertisements and other professional communications.

*About that dishwasher: the test claimed that the most modern dishwashers were more efficient than filling a sink with water to wash and rinse your dishes so the energy and water used by the dishwasher and the residue left by the soap you used left a smaller footprint than washing in the sink. I commented that I’ve seen people use more water to rinse their dishes before they even went in the dishwasher than I used to wash and rinse, but they didn’t go for that. I didn’t get any extra points for looking out the window and singing to myself while I washed by hand instead of watching TV or engaging in some other activity that might use utilities generated by fossil fuels and creating pollution either. Darn.

————————————

All images and text used on this site are copyrighted to Bernadette E. Kazmarski unless otherwise noted and may not be used in any way without my written permission. Please ask if you are interested in purchasing one as a print, or to use in a print or internet publication.


Your Backyard Wildlife Habitat: Begin in Spring to Control Fleas

photo of yard in spring with bench under trees

The woodland garden in spring.

Fleas, like most other insects, live everywhere around us and it’s how we manage our surroundings that helps to control their populations. Like managing mosquitoes, for instance, by eliminating still pools of water where they can breed, you can also manage the flea population around your yard without the use of toxic chemical so that fleas can’t set up a happy colony where they are ready and waiting when your pet comes outside—or even when you come outside and carry them in

Spring is the prime time to get ahead of them, so take spring cleaning in your yard as seriously as in your home and begin early. By initiating or modifying a few of the ways you care for your landscape you can eliminate nesting and breeding spaces and welcome their predators, an effect that can last all through the warm months of summer and fall.

Where Do Fleas Come From?

Fleas begin in the great outdoors, even in the nicest yard, and don’t think that simply because you don’t let your pet outside, or it’s only outside for a short while, that fleas won’t find them. Fleas are tiny and can hop amazing distances to get to a warm body for their blood meal, they can ride in on your own body though they don’t generally feed on humans, and encountering another animal that has fleas either on a walk outdoors or even at the veterinarian’s office can infest your pet without it ever setting a paw in the back yard.

But fleas are slow to wake up in the spring and are a snack for a number of predator insects. These two facts of their life cycle help you to get ahead of them.

photo of two cats in the grass

Cookie and Namir relax in the yard.

Integrated Pest Management

I’ve always taken one or more of my cats into my back yard, so I’ve always included fleas in my pest management. Adult fleas are very particular about moisture and temperature, but flea eggs can live through a lot of punishment and still hatch and carry on the next generation so they need to be managed from year to year, not just for the summer.

Aside from the dangers of insecticide toxicity, using an insecticide generally kills off all the insects in an area, not just the ones you are targeting. Where fleas are concerned, an insecticide just kills the adult fleas which are only about 10% of the total flea population. There may be some residual left to kill the eggs and larvae as they mature into adults, but with unpredictable weather it’s often washed away before it does any good.

cat in grass

Namir in the backyard.

Pest insects have adapted to reproduce more quickly than their prey so the fleas will return long before their predators return, resulting in a more serious infestation than before. Without any predators you really need to keep applying the chemical, but all you do is knock down the numbers, never winning the game, and often completely kill off all predators, and not just those of fleas, while building up toxic levels in your soil which run off into local waterways, affecting more wildlife than you ever intended.

It’s obvious that species have been kept in balance for millennia by some means outside of human controls. I am a Master Gardener and began years ago to start my own plants, identify seedlings, diagnose pests and diseases and build soil. I manage my little yard as a wildlife habitat, friendly to all native species as well as the plants I choose to grow and have always called on the forces of nature to manage the populations as an ecosystem, allowing it to find its own balance, and this has worked for managing fleas as well as other insect pests in my lawn, vegetable garden, flower beds and natural areas.

The two basic steps in managing any pest that outgrows its controls is to find out where it lives and destroy that habitat to any extent possible, and then find its natural predators and encourage them to inhabit and flourish, forever if possible.

cat looking into wooded area

Mom has a lot of work to do!

Flea Habitats

Fleas live in moist, shady areas in the yard, in the thatch in your lawn, debris piles, leaf litter, cord wood stacks and even under your deck or porch unless it’s completely dry. They’ve often overwintered in these areas and with the moisture of spring eggs start hatching as soon as it’s warm enough and shady after trees and shrubs have leafed out, about when temperatures rise above 60 degrees at night or 70 degrees during the day.

two cats in spring garden

My two seniors join me outdoors to supervise my gardening.

Spring Cleaning

One of the first things I do in spring, way before fleas hatch, is clear off all the debris in the yard and toss it in the compost pile, which as the materials break down heats up to a point that kills any eggs or seeds within it. I leave native plants standing for wildlife through the winter, but in spring it’s all taken down, even mowed if possible, then raked in order to remove possible pest habitat (including plant diseases which may have overwintered). If you don’t have a compost pile you can throw the material away in a bag, but just don’t keep it around, piled in a corner, or it can become a breeding ground for everything that laid eggs in it last year. This helps immensely with reducing the initial populations and you’ve also destroyed a lot of eggs and habitat for many insect pests.

This also helps to delay the onset of fleas in your yard, but they’re going to start hatching some time regardless of chemical or organic controls, so be prepared with methods to manage flea populations through their life cycle.

gray kitty under bush

My neighbor's kitty visits.

Manage Areas Fleas Prefer

To start with, try to minimize or eliminate damp and densely shaded areas in your yard—underneath a shrub, for instance, often a favorite place for pets to hang out on hot days because it’s cooler and the soil is a little damp. It’s absolutely flea heaven, especially if you’ve either left the leaf litter from last year or added some decorative bark or wood chip mulch. This one area can support three stages of the flea: eggs can be laid here, the larvae can live on organic matter, and they can build their cocoons here as well, hatching into adult fleas that feed on your kitty taking a nap in the shade.

photo of bird bath in garden

The bird bath in the shade garden.

My yard tends to be very damp and I also have a slug problem (that’s an understatement), and for years I’ve sprinkled diatomaceous earth (DE)in all the moist shady areas for the slugs that feast all night, also taking care of a good many fleas. This product is not soil at all but the shells of diatoms, tiny sea creatures, crushed to a fine powder. Sea shells are actually formed of minerals and while the powder looks like dust it is actually very tiny, very sharp particles that cut into the exoskeleton of the flea, causing it to dehydrate and die. It does the same thing to slugs, but other creatures, from earthworms to birds, simply digest it with no ill effect, and it’s completely a physical effect with no chemical effect at all.

Diatomaceous earth has a short-term effect outdoors, though, because it mixes with soil and other organic matter, diluting its effect, and is washed away by rain or even heavy dew, but generally sprinkling it weekly in damp shady areas through the summer is a good plan. Just make sure it’s the DE intended for gardening use NOT pool use because this has chemicals added, and wear a mask when you sprinkle it because prolonged inhalation can cause some respiratory discomfort.

At one time I used pyrethrum-based products to control fleas and other insect pests indoors and out, and while pyrethrins break down quickly in sunlight and are diluted by water, tests later showed that if they are not in conditions that break them down they can build up in soil and in the home, and can be toxic to some flora and fauna outdoors, and children and pets indoors. Many organic gardeners quit using them, though they are still sold for outdoor treatment as well as specifically flea control products. I have included a link to the CDC report at the end of this article.

spider on flower

"Daddy Long Legs" are flea predators.

Modify Your Lawn

Also manage your yard, especially your lawn, to encourage flea predators. You can apply beneficial nematodes to damp and shady areas as well as the DE, especially where you can’t change the conditions by trimming shrubs or cleaning up debris such as a bed of heavy ground cover like ivy or pachysandra, or where you’ve landscaped with mulch, sand, gravel or small stones. You may need to reapply every year or two; this was my experience, but they definitely keep populations down while they persist.

Natural Predators

You can also encourage the flea’s natural predators to come and live in your lawn and garden. Insect predators include ants, spiders and ground beetles, other species include amphibians such as toads and salamanders, reptiles such as garter snakes, and even birds that feed on the ground.

Hmmm… you don’t like spiders and snakes, and everything else sounds like something you don’t want anywhere near your house, except maybe the birds? Trust me, they are much more interested in their natural diet than they are in you, and unless you go looking you’d never know they’re there—except that you’d have fewer fleas and other pest insects generally.

tortoiseshell cat in forget me nots

Cookie in forget-me-nots

Welcome them by managing your lawn in a way that might be different from the typical grass-only buzz cut, incorporating native plants and herbs and allowing your lawn to grow a little taller. My lawn is only about half grass, while the rest is a mixture of short native plants and ground covers, plus opportunistic peppermint, pennyroyal and marjoram escaped from my herb gardens and the seedlings for next year’s forget-me-nots, daisies and other biennials and spring ephemerals. This diversity of flora encourages a diversity of fauna and eliminates large areas of one type of habitat so nothing has a chance to overpopulate.

Because I have less grass, I only have to cut the lawn about once a month after May. The native plants have a predetermined growth habit, most of them staying below six inches, and after the spring flush of growth the grass grows much more slowly. I can cut it higher than two inches, the minimum height to encourage ants and spiders, the main predators of fleas. Cutting the grass taller and less often helps the predators develop habitat and do their job on the fleas.

I also feed birds year-round, and while I always credit them with keeping vegetable and flower pests under control, I know they also peck around through the grass eating fleas.

Even if you’ve done all this you can still expect a few fleas, but you’re suddenly totally infested—what else can it be?

groundhog in cage

My guy going off on vacation.

Wildlife

It’s that darned squirrel that hangs out on your deck, or the groundhog that’s burrowed underneath it—or the opossum that nested in your piled-up porch furniture until spring, or the little field mice and voles who sacrifice themselves to your cats in the basement.

I had sprinkled the house with diatomaceous earth, bathed and combed the cats regularly, washed everything washable, swept everywhere just about daily, removed throw rugs and pillows and such, tossed non-washable things into a hot dryer, and removed as much from my house as possible. This was all I needed to do for years and the flea population never reached an infestation.

But this year the fleas kept coming back, and increasing all the time. Where were they coming from?

I began to notice that when I walked out on my deck, my legs were immediately covered with fleas, a dozen or more at a time. Fleas don’t fly, they jump, and while they can jump far, in a situation like this you can move around and check the numbers of fleas that jump on your skin (or wear a pair of white socks so you can see them easier) to help pinpoint an area of infestation. I started stepping around the deck, knocking fleas off my legs into a cup of water, then stepping again to see where numbers seemed the worst.

black cat at door

Mimi at the door, before the infestation.

Most wild animals harbor a few fleas, and some species are typically infested. My squirrels spend about half their time scratching, and wild rabbits, chipmunks, gophers, mice and voles are also heavily infested with fleas. The squirrels hang out on my deck trying to get into the bird seed, the rabbits hop around near the basement door, and I always have a juvenile groundhog who excavates under my deck before I can trap it, chipmunks run around chirping everywhere, and field mice and voles really do show up in my basement.

And I really did have an opossum on my deck that winter. Being nocturnal, we didn’t cross paths though I saw her through the back door now and then. With the unusually heavy ice and snow I didn’t have the heart to encourage her to find another home, and I didn’t unpack all my deck furniture this year, so I have no idea how long she stayed.

It was the area right in front of the door—right over the groundhog den under the deck—and on one side of that unmoved pile of things for my deck. The groundhog had left my yard to eat someone else’s vegetable garden, but left the fleas behind. I began deconstructing the pile of porch furniture and found evidence of nesting, though not recent. In both places, a heck of a lot of fleas.

So this was the source of my infestation, right outside the door that I kept open for most of the summer, locking the screen door at night and when I was away. Fleas could hop in when I opened the door, and ride inside as I walked in and out the door. My basement door has a space at the bottom because the concrete walk just outside is lifted and the bottom of the door jammed against it, so I trimmed the door.

Normally every spring I clean off my deck, sweep, wash and apply water-based waterproofing to the wood, then move things back, but this spring’s schedule didn’t allow the time. Once I cleaned off the deck, swept and washed it as well as hosed down all the items that were there, the constant re-infestation stopped. Whew!

Some Resources for Chemical-Free Outdoor Flea Control

You can get ten pages of results or more in an internet search on flea control, diatomaceous earth, pyrethrins and so on, but I try to find studies or information from non-commercial sources to cite.

Yardener.com has a series of articles about dealing with fleas in your yard, and the article about preventing fleas in the future is especially informative—plus the site is a great resource for dealing with all sorts of pest problems in your yard.

http://yardener.com/YardenersPlantProblemSolver/DealingWithPestInsects/BitingInsects/Fleas/PreventingFleasNextYear

Even though this article is from 1986, it gives a brief history of the use of diatomaceous earth from a study project at McGill University that is still applicable today about the effects and usage of DE.

http://eap.mcgill.ca/publications/eap4.htm

CDC Report on pyrethrins and pyrethroids: http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/toxprofiles/tp155.pdf

If you’re interested in more information about Backyard Wildlife Habitats, please visit the Backyard Wildlife Habitat page on my site with articles on developing your habitat and articles showing the photos, paintings and sketches I’ve done that were inspired but my backyard.

—————————————

All images and text used on this site are copyrighted to Bernadette E. Kazmarski unless otherwise noted and may not be used in any way without my written permission. Please ask if you are interested in purchasing one as a print, or to use in a print or internet publication.


Your Backyard Wildlife Habitat: Bringing it All Together with Design

photo of two cats in a garden

Namir and Cookie inspect my gardening.

I’m happily planning out this year’s garden and I would bet those of you who garden and manage a habitat in your backyard are as well, so it’s high time to consider design and layout for this and your backyard wildlife habitat for the coming hear…and remember those sweet summer mornings in the garden with my feline companions.

Design to include pest control

Ick. Slugs. Everywhere. And they weren’t drowning in my beer traps, they were having a pool party and getting the munchies later.

photo of section of backyard garden

The upper section of my garden at prime growing time...and prime slug time.

When I first established my vegetable and flower beds in this yard, I used a number of ingenious methods of “clearing” soil to save time, much of which involved newspapers or other waste papers (those wide computer printouts from the old dot-matrix printers, for instance) covered with straw or wood chips, which I could get for free by the truckload from a friend with a tree service business. This layering killed off the grass and softened up the soil for easier tilling or hand-turning, kept the soil moist in the heat of the summer, and also became a convenient way to set up paths between the beds and walking paths.

The second year, I used some of the same methods to mulch the beds around my plants, and added the brick patio and brick edging on my raised beds.

white cat in garden

Sally of the Garden, sleeping under the Brussels sprouts.

The third year, slugs ate all my seedlings as soon as they came up. I had created the perfect breeding ground for slugs in the damp soil under all that paper and bricks. I had to get rid of the slugs or trying to grow vegetables and flowers was senseless, but I liked my brick paths and mulching. With my feline garden patrol I certainly couldn’t spread slug bait all over my garden and flower beds.

Carrying an armload of my trusty copies of Rodale’s Organic Gardening and all the books I’d purchased over the years to learn the various techniques of raised beds and drip-irrigation and composting along with organic pest control out to the garden, I tried every trap in the book—in all the books.

None was effective, even in combination. I was spending way too much time trying to kill slugs. Perhaps I should just whack them with the big heavy gardening books. Time to look at an alternative.

At about this time, introducing or attracting predator species became a possibility for home gardeners. This was practiced on organic and some conventional farms, but an entire field is a little easier for predators to find and inhabit than a row of green beans in your backyard. So, we just had to work a little harder.

photo of vegetable garden with lawn

The larger part of my garden mulched with newspapers.

Now, what ate slugs, aside from people who called them escargot? Nope, ducks and chickens were out in my community, so it actually looked as if I needed some sort of amphibian or reptile. Well, that would go over big with the neighbors. The neighbor kids would think it was cool, though.

But I didn’t need a big amphibian or reptile, something inconspicuous would do the job. A garter snake! I studied the sort of habitat a garter snake would need but this was early in my backyard’s career, and I had very little groundcover that a garter snake would enjoy.

How about a toad? I have a friend who has a farm and one big puddle in their driveway produces legions of toads every year. We managed to catch two, and I let them go in the garden near one of the three the little toad abodes I had carefully prepared for them. I know that at least one stuck around because I saw it now and then, that year and the next, though it apparently didn’t use any of the abodes I had set up. I didn’t care because the number of slugs slowly decreased.

I also used a variety of methods related to me by long-time gardeners at my nearby Agway which included using copper to zap slugs—on researching I discovered that copper transmits through the slug’s slime and gives them a good zap, not killing them but certainly repelling them. A friend’s father had saved miles of copper wire which I used around small beds and surrounded certain plants with circles of pennies, both of which worked as long as the wire and pennies weren’t covered up with mulch or leaves.

Decide what you want in your habitat, and learn about it

honeybee on goldenrod

A honeybee on goldenrod in later summer.

This, again, was several years before I declared my backyard a wildlife habitat, but it was my first real lesson in working with the system. I hadn’t ever used chemicals, but I was out there trying to use human methods to trap or kill some overburdening pest and hadn’t had any major infestations. Here I had learned about how nature keeps things in balance, and after seeing how well it worked it became my first line of defense and, ultimately, what led to developing my habitat.

You may not be concerned with slug eradication, but you may want to attract Baltimore Orioles, or monarch butterflies, or bats to take care of your mosquito problem, and you always want to attract pollinators like honeybees. The steps to do that are to find out what the species needs and prefers, then to determine how you can add those features to your habitat.

Enhancing your habitat

Consider birds, the most obvious fauna of any habitat. Nesting birds will arrive in the spring, eat, build nests, raise families, eat some more, then migrate South to be replaced by migrating birds coming from farther North. Each group of birds has slightly different needs, as do birds while they are migrating. You may provide for all groups and not even know it.

They all need:

  • cover for protection from predators
  • sleeping areas
  • food for themselves as adults
  • a ready supply of fresh water
sparrows in shrub

Sparrows waiting in line.

You’ve got some brambly shrubs like climbing roses, viburnum and forsythia that provide cover and protection from predators, a spruce where plenty of birds can sleep at night, you put out seed in the winter and you keep your birdbath filled.

In addition, nesting birds, spring through late summer, need:

  • nesting materials appropriate for their species
  • food for their young during nesting time

You’ve left some grasses to grow a little taller, tossed out some old yarn and dog hair for nesting material, and you have loose soil in all your garden beds where parent birds can find goodies to feed their nestlings.

Migrating birds, late summer through early autumn, need:

  • easily accessible, high energy food
  • easily recognizable cover for resting overnight
birds and squirrel at feeder

Birds at feeder with Buddy.

You put out seed and suet in September keep your birdbath filled, and birds can spot that spruce a mile away.

Winter birds, which are migrating from further north, need:

  • easily accessible, high energy food
  • a ready supply of fresh water, even on freezing days
  • cover for protection from predators
  • protected sleeping areas

You keep your feeders filled all winter and also have suet, the dense shrubs are still in place and the spruce is still doing its job.

You are actually taking care of a habitat with all you’re doing now.

But you could generally enhance what you are doing by providing a variety of seeds in different feeders. Goldfinches like thistle seed, which is dispensed in a perforated bag or a feed with tiny little holes. Woodpeckers like the suet, but they love a mix of nuts in their seed and even some dried fruit. Press some peanut butter into the bark of a tree trunk for nuthatches. Chickadees, titmice and cardinals will stand in line for sunflower seeds.

house sparrows

House Sparrows at the winter bird bath.

Also, don’t underestimate the need for water, especially in the heat of summer and the freeze of winter. In my yard in winter, the “winter birdbath” gets as many visits as the feeders. I put my concrete and clay birdbaths away, but use heavy plastic dishes like the bottom dish for a large flower pot or even a foil cake pan and fill it with hot water in the morning. I may fill it again later in the day, too, but I have several dishes and simply bring in the frozen one in the morning and put out a new one. Plenty of birds drink, and sometimes just sit near it for warmth. You can also purchase birdbaths intended for winter use or coils or other devices that keep the water from freezing.

Bergamot flowers attract hummingbirds—and bees.

What about other species?

In the same way as the list above, choose your species and determine what its needs are in all seasons it would appear in your habitat. A few examples:

You practically stand on your head to get hummingbirds to visit your habitat. With their long slender beaks, hummingbirds can reach nectar in the bottom of a tube-shaped flower, but they will also eat from other flowers and are famously attracted to red, orange and pink flowers, such as geraniums and petunias. Consider planting some perennial phlox and adding hanging baskets of red petunias along with your hummingbird feeders.

photo of monarch butterfly on echinacea

Monarch and Echinacea © B.E. Kazmarski (this was not taken in my backyard)

You would celebrate the day a monarch butterfly visited your habitat, but you’ve never seen one though you see plenty of other butterflies. Monarchs center their diet around milkweed, feeding from the flowers, laying their eggs on the undersides of the leaves, and, later, eating the leaves in various life stages. You may not be able to grow milkweed in your back yard, but before milkweed blooms and after it is done blooming they will eat from plants that have clusters of small flowers such as lilac and butterfly bush  or composites such as Echinacea and black-eyed susan.

And the bats to take care of those mosquitoes? Try also attracting other night insects—keep a light on to attract moths and plant fragrant night-blooming plants such as evening primrose and heliotrope. The bats will find the abundance and variety of insects and move right in. They also have the same needs as birds and other animals in shelter and water. Bats are extremely sensitive to chemicals, so don’t use any in your yard, including fertilizers. And keep your cat inside.

photo of rose turtlehead

Rose Turtlehead, there's a bee inside the blossom © B.E. Kazmarski

And I finally got that garter snake to move in when I let the grass and a ground cover called purple-leaf wintercreeper grow all along the fence next to the slope that I’ve let grow wild, so if you want a little snake to eat slugs and catch lots of insects, lit some dense groundcover grow undisturbed.

Other enhancements

Generally, reduce your lawn to a minimum because it’s just not useful to wildlife—it doesn’t provide food or cover, and in fact leaves most species vulnerable. Surround your grassy area with groundcovers, flower beds, and shrubs so that wildlife can quickly take cover if need be, or manage your lawn so that it grows longer and includes native plants instead of just grass.

Put your food and water features near or even in the planted areas. Don’t put the bird feeder in the middle of a grassy yard because it will leave too many birds vulnerable to predators, though it will make it more difficult for the squirrel to get to it. Of course, you want to see all this wildlife that you’ve attracted to your habitat, so don’t hide it in the woods, either.

Consider a pond so that ground-dwelling species can drink as well, and you can include some fish and water plants.

photo of cooper's hawk on brush pile

Cooper's Hawk on Brush Pile, I heard little bird scufflings in the pile when I took this photo... © B.E. Kazmarski

And minimize and eliminate your use of chemicals. Chemical smells mask the smells of food sources for wildlife, and those that come in contact with it will absorb it through their skin, paws, claws or even mouth and nose. My grass is only about half grass because I let grow whatever wants to, but it’s always green because the plants are hardy. I’ve also discovered that all the residents in my habitat keep each other in balance and I’ve only had to use traps and soap sprays on the things that grow in pots on my deck.

Set up a brush pile or two in your yard as well. I use the trimmings from my roses and other shrubs, just piling them in corners for the rabbits and other small mammals to hide underneath, and even the birds take cover when the Cooper’s hawk swoops in.

Try to stick with natives

close-up photo of fleabane

Fleabane © B.E. Kazmarski

Why native plants? We humans forget that every species on earth is not as adaptable as we are. Most species recognize only certain plants and insects as home and as food, but they aren’t able to make the judgment that other similar things may suffice if what they know isn’t available. Planting native species of flowers, shrubs and trees welcomes the species that are native to your area.

This doesn’t mean that non-natives are bad, only that they may not be recognized by all species as viable habitat. I have two huge forsythias directly under or near feeders, and they are constantly inhabited by the most adaptable birds—sparrows, jays, cardinals, chickadees—but I never see the oriole in them in the summer, or the woodpecker or blue bird. I often see them in the climbing roses and the mulberry and dogwood trees, however.

photo of raspberries

Every year it's a race for the raspberries © B.E. Kazmarski

Good for wildlife, safe for your pets

Most of us are owned by companion animals, and they share this habitat as well, to some extent. Not all natives are safe for your pets, though, so this will narrow your list a bit.

But only a bit. Remember that foliage isn’t only for cover and nesting, it’s also for eating, and berry bushes and plants are universally loved by birds and all other wildlife, and perfectly safe for pets—if you don’t mind a few thorns on your raspberry and blackberry canes. Highbush blueberries are about the best you can do, followed by cranberry, huckleberry and a host of other local berries that grow in dense forms with not thorns.

Other shrubs providing food (to the birds, not you) and cover are most viburnums, native hawthorne and native juniper, all perfectly safe for pets and recognized by most species as home.

photo of pink climbing roses

Pink Rose Bower © B.E. Kazmarski

And good old roses, not the hybrids but your grandparents’ fragrant climbing tea roses, provide a dense cover for birds and other wildlife as well as food because many species visit the flower and birds eat the rose hips in the fall as they migrate.

For trees, most species of fruit trees have some toxicity about the bark or the fruit, but I haven’t seen a pear tree on any list, and various dogwoods are native all over the country. I have two mulberry trees and I had heard somewhere that it’s considered the “tree of life” because everything can eat from it, and indeed I’ve seen everything from goldfinches to the groundhog eating in the tree.

photo of dogwood branch

Dogwood © B.E. Kazmarski

And for non-native species that most wildlife can live with, that old-fashioned forsythia and lilac can’t be beat. The species of spirea we use for landscaping aren’t really native to this continent, like bridal-wreath spirea, but they provide cover and are absolutely beautiful in full bloom. I have a variegated-leaf wiegela that small birds love, and hummingbirds visit the trumpet-shaped flowers.

But remember, a dog chasing your wildlife will not encourage it to stay, but most people don’t leave their dogs out all day long and the birds and bees learn to take off when they year the dog, returning when the dog disappears.

And it would be completely unfair to let a cat or two loose in your habitat. In photos of my habitat you’ll see one or two of my cats now and then, but they only go out with me, under my supervision—or rather, I’m under their supervision, but either way, they tend to stick with me, then I take them back inside. I can see what my neighbor’s cats do to my habitat, like little Mimi before I took her in.

A great online resource

photo of house with trees

The southwest corner of my yard with the silver maple, 60-foot spruce, river birch and dogwood (and my pink Escort)

An overall resource for finding native species and answering a lot of questions is www.eNature.com. This will give you a start in finding your local native species of flora and fauna, though it’s not as specific as I’d like it to be.

And am amazing resource in finding indoor and outdoor plants that are toxic to dogs, cats and horses is on the ASPCA website at http://www.aspca.org/pet-care/poison-control/ under both “17 Common Poisonous Plants” and a hugely comprehensive list of over 400 plant species in “Toxic and Non-toxic Plants”, which even has photos.

Good luck with your habitat

Get out that graph paper or that garden design program and take these long cold nights to dream of your summer garden!

About the art and photos used in these articles and on this blog

All the images used in this blog are mine, many from my own backyard. For years I’ve been documenting the flora and fauna here in photography and art, just for my own purposes. All of the images are also available as prints and notecards, some of which I have printed and sell regularly, but I can custom print any image on my site. If you see something you’d like, check my Marketplace blog to see if it’s a recent offering, the Marketplace on my website, which outlines everything I sell as merchandise, or e-mail me if you don’t find it in either place. Please also respect that these images and this information are copyrighted to me and may not be used without my consent, but please ask if you are interested in using something and feel free to link to my articles.

Identifying the fauna in your habitat

Next will be information on looking for and identifying the living creatures in your habitat.

Read the other articles in this series:

Previous:

An Introduction to Backyard Wildlife Habitats

What’s in Your Backyard? The First Step in Planning Your Backyard Wildlife Habitat

What Else is in Your Backyard: The Fauna That Fill It

Bringing it All Together: Enhancing and Developing Your Habitat

Also read about my art, photography, poetry and prose inspired by my backyard wildlife habitat:

Art Inspired by My Backyard Wildlife Habitat

Photography Inspired by My Backyard Wildlife Habitat

Poetry Inspired by My Backyard Wildlife Habitat

Prose Inspired by My Backyard Wildlife Habitat

______________________________

All images used on this site are copyrighted to Bernadette E. Kazmarski unless otherwise noted and may not be used without my written permission. Please ask if you are interested in purchasing one as a print, or to use in a print or internet publication.


Your Backyard Wildlife Habitat: What Else is In Your Backyard, The Fauna That Fill It

bunny profile in spring garden

Bunny in the spring yard.

This is the third in a series of four articles about considering your backyard wildlife habitat.

One lovely August morning I was harvesting tomatoes in my vegetable garden. The air was pleasantly warm and the garden was still dewy as I crept along, crouching between the tall beefsteaks, picking the newly-ripened tomatoes at the bottom of each plant.

I reached around the base of one plant to get to a tomato in the back and felt a tickly spiderweb on the back of my hand, pulled my hand back and saw A HUGE BLACK AND YELLOW SPIDER RUNNING UP MY ARM!

I jumped up and shrieked, tossing the spider off my right arm into the air, and holding tightly to the basket of precious tomatoes I vaulted a row of Romas in 30” cages from a standstill and ran out into the middle of the yard where nothing could get me, slapping at my arm and shaking myself.

Most of what lives in your backyard you will never see, or never notice, unless you go poking around into their protected little habitats, and it’s there for a reason. Even though I pictured something that had legs as long as railroad crossing bars, it was just a common garden spider, and perfectly harmless to me—but deadly to most of the tiny flying insect pests that might decide to munch on my tomatoes. I hope it didn’t mind being relocated in such an ingracious way.

bee on leek flower

Bee on leek flower.

Finding your residents

Birds are obvious, and are often the reason people consider backyard wildlife habitats, and butterflies have become very popular now that people have realized they can actually attract them with specific plants.

Wild rabbits are generally welcome, squirrels can’t be avoided, and the most dedicated even put up with groundhogs, raccoons, opossums, deer and plenty of other species depending on where you live (you can tell I’m in the northeast) as long as they aren’t predators and don’t pose danger to humans or other animals.
The story continues, keep reading…


Your Backyard Wildlife Habitat: Helping Avian Friends in Snowy Weather

three cardinals in snow branches

Three Cardinals

Clean off those branches, put out some seed and suet if you can, and don’t forget the all-important water!

I’d be remiss if I didn’t keep Cat TV up and running, even in cold and snowy weather! Not only does birdwatching provide my cats with healthy entertainment and environmental enrichment, it provides it for me too—and welcoming birds to my yard helps in myriad other ways of balancing the habitat and pest control.

birds at birdbath with snow

Winter Water for Birds

I first published this during the 2010 Snowmageddon and aside from the photos above, taken just yesterday, all photos are from February 2010; I’m really glad we haven’t gotten that kind of snowfall—yet.

Even if you don’t have a heavy snowfall, snow and ice hamper the ability to forage for any wild creature but birds have it especially difficult. Heavy snow fills the shrubs and brushy areas they use for cover, their little feet can be caught up in ice and landing on the ground just isn’t safe. They can quickly become exhausted just trying to find a place to perch, and if all their food sources are covered by heavy snow their little lives are actually in danger. Birds need to balance filling their bellies with their ability to fly, so “eating like a bird” entails eating just enough, and eating constantly, so they don’t weigh their little bodies down.

Here are a few things you can do for your backyard visitors once you get yourself shoveled out.

Heavy snowfall

photo of heavy snow on picnic table

Wonderland © B.E. Kazmarski

I was entranced overnight as the snow quickly fell and piled on every surface, even tiny twigs. By morning I was ready with my camera, photographing out of windows and emerging on to the deck and porch to capture the rare and magical transformation of a snow-covered morning here in Western Pennsylvania. Shrubs and small trees were bent down and everything, my brush piles and tall natives left in the habitat included, was covered with an undulating snow blanket at least 18 inches deep.

photo of doves on clothes line

Doves Online

Doves were lined up on the clothes line on my deck and wrens and sparrows were perching under the rockers and other chairs, using my deck for cover and no doubt waiting for me to put out the goodies.

However, as I cleaned off the deck and filled the feeders around the railings and the improvised bird bath I saw flocks of birds headed for both the deck and at least one of the feeders at the end of the yard (the other was hopelessly covered by its small tree completely bent over under the weight of snow), but they weren’t using the feeder and they weren’t perching, which was very strange behavior.

photo of song sparrow on rocker

Song Sparrow on Rocker

I had filled the seed and suet feeders and put out some ear corn yesterday afternoon so they would have it first thing in the morning instead of waiting for me to dig out. If the Cooper’s hawk had been around I wouldn’t have seen any birds at all, except perhaps a sacrificial mourning dove.

photo of birds at a feeder

At the Feeder

Then I took another look at this lovely landscape—the forsythia which is usually filled with sparrows, the pussy willow hosting the larger cardinals and blue jays, even the American Hemlock and brushy saplings around the larger feeder on which and in which the birds are usually perching in wait for the feeders, were all covered with several inches of snow which the birds couldn’t perch on. All the tall stems of goldenrod, asters, coneflower and bergamot that I leave standing for the birds to use as both perches and food sources were completely bent down and covered in snow. Even the ground around the feeders was covered with snow the birds couldn’t even land on top of without dangerously sinking in.

They had no place to land and nothing to eat.

photo of bicycle buried in snow

Backyard and bicycle

This was a totally different interpretation of a lovely snowy morning, and potentially fatal to all my avian visitors. Where smaller mammals can and do tunnel under the snow and larger ones travel over it or can walk through it, birds can’t brush away snow and ice before they land or dig through it to get to something underneath. In order to use the feeder they need to land close, then hop to the feeder. Unless they could land right on the feeder, they couldn’t eat from it, and all their natural sources were under snow, not only in my yard but everywhere.

photo of t-square in snow

36" t-square covered to 18"

Well, I’d probably gotten as many photos as I wanted, so out came the broom and I waded in snow that had drifted deeper than the 18 inches I had measured earlier and swatted away at the forsythia, pulling the longer branches out of the snow on the ground so they could swing free. Then I reached the pussy willow from the deck railing on one side, and the lilac from the other side. As I was working a large clump of snow fell from higher up in the trees at the end of the yard and conveniently knocked the snow off of the feeder in the yard as well as the hemlock and saplings. Thanks, nature!

Clean the snow out of shrubs used for cover

I was barely finished with clearing one bush and then the other before the birds were in it, chattering and fluttering. And even though they are familiar with me—the blue jay had announced that I had come out onto the deck earlier, and that’s the signal for birds to gather in the shrubs around the deck anticipating the daily feeder refill—they don’t usually fly right past my head to get to the feeders, but today they did.

wren under rocker

Wren Under Rocker

“Eating like a bird” has been famously misinterpreted indicating a picky eater, but while birds don’t all eat twice their weight in food every day, they do need to eat proportionally much more than humans, especially in cold weather. Imagine having to hop out of bed into a situation you physically can’t negotiate and having to forage for enough quality food to equal about a quarter to a half of your body weight just stay warm and alive for the day and overnight, using only your face and toes as tools.

Tonight is forecast to be in the single digits, and some birds would simply die overnight if they hadn’t been able to find or access any food today. Out in nature, nobody would brush off the trees and fill the feeders, but with songbird populations imperiled because of habitat fragmentation and pesticide use, they could use a little help from us.

High energy food

photo of cat sniffing snow

What is this stuff?

If you do feed birds, put out some extra stuff, especially high-protein, high-energy foods like hulled sunflower, peanuts and even other unsalted or plain nuts you might have on hand; I donated a cup of crushed walnuts, which were a really big hit. Dried fruits are very good for them now, too, even just a handful of raisins snipped in half so smaller birds can manage them. Many birds eat insects as well as seeds, and suet fills that part of their diet when no insects are available. The extra protein will help them get through a cold night and into tomorrow.

All-important water

Don’t forget the water—just a shallow pan of warm water will keep from freezing most of the day and be easy to punch out and refill in the morning. Rising steam from warm water will help attract them to it.

I have articles on making your own inexpensive bird treats in Birds?! Attract them with homemade suet cakes and also a series of articles on Backyard Wildlife Habitats for more information on inviting and feeding wild birds and other wildlife in your backyard.

photo of two birds on swing

Sparrow and dove on porch swing

If you don’t normally feed birds it’s highly unlikely you’d be able to attract them to a new feeder or water source today. But at least knock the snow off of any shrubs with twigs small enough for bird claws to grasp, and especially from any dense shrubs they would normally use for cover. Birds roost overnight in tree cavities and in other protected places, usually huddled together for extra warmth. While snow is a great insulator this snowfall was really unique in that snow is piled on branches where I’ve never seen it, on the lee side of trees, and some shrubs are completely filled with snow, leaving the most typical spots for avian protection unavailable.

For more information, visit my page for Backyard Wildlife Habitats, and enjoy this series of articles:

What’s in Your Backyard? The First Step in Planning Your Backyard Wildlife Habitat

What Else is in Your Backyard: The Fauna That Fill It

Bringing it All Together: Enhancing and Developing Your Habitat

Also read about my art, photography, poetry and prose inspired by my backyard wildlife habitat:

Art Inspired by My Backyard Wildlife Habitat

Photography Inspired by My Backyard Wildlife Habitat

Poetry Inspired by My Backyard Wildlife Habitat

Prose Inspired by My Backyard Wildlife Habitat


Your Backyard Wildlife Habitat: Attract Birds With Homemade Treat Cakes

birdwatching cats

Birdwatching Cats

Among the requirements for my Backyard Wildlife Habitat, I provide food and shelter for native wild bird species all year round because aside from being fun to watch, they are an important insect guard in my vegetable garden.

Red-bellied woodpecker

The red-bellied woodpecker turns to look at me and my cats.

In winter, however, I am compelled to put feeders up everywhere I can hang one, and at least one seed feeder is visible from each window in the house as well as suet feeders, ear corn and water. Not only does it give the birds a safe place to eat, drink and be merry, it gives my cats something to do and it gives my eyes a break while I slave at the computer all day into the night.

Read the rest of this entry »


Your Backyard Wildlife Habitat: Fall Cleanup, Bird Feeding and Fleas

birds at the feeder

The feeder in autumn

So what do these three topics have in common? It’s time to start cleaning up the excess in the yard, raking leaves and giving the grass that last cut of the season, and time to put out the winter feeders as the migrants settle into your area. By taking care of a few extra details with the first two, you can manage the third, fleas, much more easily through the dormant season and into next year. Don’t be fooled after that first frosty morning when all fleas seem to be gone—there may be no more adult fleas, but there are plenty of eggs tucked all over your yard just waiting for spring.

Where Do Fleas Come From?

Fleas begin in the great outdoors, even in the nicest yard, and don’t think that simply because you don’t let your pet outside, or it’s only outside for a short while, that fleas won’t find them. Fleas are tiny and can hop amazing distances to get to a warm body for their blood meal, they can ride in on your own body though they don’t generally feed on humans, and encountering another animal that has fleas either on a walk outdoors or even at the veterinarian’s office can infest your pet without it ever setting a paw in the back yard.

Read the rest of this entry »


Your Backyard Wildlife Habitat: What’s in Your Backyard?

This is the second in a series of articles about considering your backyard wildlife habitat.

photo of pink phlox

Tall Phlox © 2010 B.E. Kazmarski

You think planning your garden is fun? Wait until you start an inventory of what’s currently available for wildlife in your yard. You will be shocked at what you have already, and if you’re not too clear on native species now just the process of identification will show you at least your most common native plants and animals and you’ll feel like an expert.

Where and how you garden

If you are reading about a backyard wildlife habitat, then it’s probably safe to assume that you are already gardening, even if you live in an apartment or just have a patio.

I gardened for a while with a flower box on my apartment balcony railing, a half-barrel with tomatoes, peppers and basil, a bird feeder and a deep-dish pie pan for a birdbath. I also had a garden behind an apartment building where I wasn’t supposed to garden, and I don’t suggest you do that, but it just illustrates that gardening can be done anywhere there is soil, light and water—and determination—and birds, bees and butterflies will come.

Likewise, the habitat doesn’t need to be in your backyard, nor be confined to your backyard. Community gardens, parks and other public places are also habitats—native flora and fauna don’t recognize our boundaries. The public area may also have most or all of the requirements for a habitat, or with permission of the authority for the public area you may enhance it. Whatever your space, consider it your habitat for the purposes of inventory.

Read the rest of this entry »