Tuesday, November 23, 2010


            As we prepare for our annual stuff-yourself-until-you-spew holiday, let’s take a minute to be grateful for the other creatures that are part and parcel of the improbable miracle of life on this insignificant rock that spins around a mediocre star in the indifferent infinitude of space.

            How about that for putting things in perspective? Whether we admit it or not, humans are not the ultimate rulers of the universe. (Personally, I’m extremely grateful for that.) Clever and adaptable, we nonetheless exhibit a hard-wired self-destructive streak that I fear will render us the merest blip on the radar of the cosmos. Meanwhile, the crocodiles and the cockroaches soldier on, too busy surviving even to laugh at the pretensions of Homo sapiens.

           Sorry—did I say all that out loud?
Clear-cut Fitzgerald backyard, 1998
What I mean to address is ameliorating the loss of wildlife habitat that is one of the most serious negative by-products of unbridled development, right up there with water-table depletion and degradation. In Brunswick County, NC, back in the day of real-estate hubris and liar loans, housing tracts and golf-course communities sprang up like toadstools. The “developers” clear-cut woods, filled swamps and concreted over ever-increasing percentages of maritime, estuarine and wetlands environments. I truly understand the primal urge of humans to live near water—after all, I’m part of the problem, having moved here myself from somewhere higher and drier. But there is such a thing as taking responsibility for what our arrival destroys.
Take the idea of garden-as-habitat. It is not a new one. Perennial marketers have pushed whole groups of plants as butterfly and hummingbird attractors for years. Lots of us maintain birdfeeders and hang houses for our feathered friends. Four-footed natives show up too: just putting out birdseed is enough to make squirrels and raccoons appear.
 Alas, along with the cute critters we encourage come the ones we don’t. Bambi and Thumper help themselves to our roses, vegetables and anything else that takes their fancy. Snakes slither in on rodent, amphibian and insect patrol. Foxes, feral cats and dogs, possums, the occasional bobcat and other omnivores cruise their habitual territories even though our houses and yards now occupy the land. Tim and I have seen trees rubbed barkless by itchy, parasite-plagued bears. There’s even a black panther rumored to prowl the neighborhood of Midway Road.
As ex-urbanites realize they are not alone on their out-of-town properties, it helps to remember two things: 1) the wild creatures were here first, thus rating some accommodation; and 2) most are nocturnal, so frightening-for-all face-to-face confrontations are rare.
            So, you ask, what can I do to further peaceful coexistence? Replace a bit of the habitat your decision to relocate eradicated, I reply. Okay, you say. How?
Dense plantings provide shelter

Well, creating wildlife-friendly environments boils down to the presence of two things: shelter and sustenance. Shelter includes nesting or denning sites and materials, and protective cover. For example, Tim and I have the great good fortune to live adjacent to a heavily wooded vacant double lot. (I shall be heartbroken when the owners or their heirs finally build.) Our own densely planted back yard enhances both privacy for us and habitat for critters. At the far back of our property we planted an ill-considered and difficult-to-control eleagnus hedge flanked by flourishing Leyland cypress. Moving toward the house, another, formally clipped hedge of dwarf yaupon hollies broken by an arbor overgrown with Confederate jasmine encloses the flower garden. When we first moved in, we hung birdhouses in our oaks and on the decorative post-and-rail fence. In the ensuing 12 years, vegetation subsumed them all. So chez Fitzgerald, shelter needs are met.
Resident mockingbird
defending his turf

I have to smile when I see “houses” for toads, bats, butterflies, carpenter bees and ladybugs for sale. Our toads live under the outdoor shower, or beneath the floorboards of our screened porch, along with gorgeous Miss Scarlett, the scarlet snake. The carpenter bees fashion their own nests in the back of an untreated wooden bench on the deck. The bats, ladybugs and butterflies take care of themselves. The desire to control where creatures domicile reminds me of the bluebird experts’ canon: boxes of certain dimensions with apertures exactly one-and-one-eighth-inch round set five feet off the ground and facing southwest are critical for bluebird survival. Oh, yeah?  How did they manage all those millennia before the bluebird experts evolved?

          Sustenance means food and water, including treats you provide and replenish. I spend a part of every Saturday stocking caches of birdseed, suet, peanuts, hulled corn and catfood—that last for Petey and Pauline Possum, Rocky and Rhoda Raccoon and their families. But we also maintain plants with edible fruits, nuts and seeds. We have a weeping yaupon holly that the resident mockingbirds defend against all comers, including entire flocks of cedar waxwings come January and the north-bound robins every February and March. After perfuming the whole neighborhood for all of November, the aforementioned eleagnus’ berries ripen in early spring, just in time to sustain migratory birds and to the delight of our regiment of squirrels. (I’m out there too, foraging away: the fruits are delicious as long as they are very red and soft when you pop them in your mouth. Otherwise, prepare to pucker.)  
Red buckeye,
Aesculus pavia,
in spring

The rodents love the nuts from our buckeye (Aesculus pavia). In April, there’s a three-way race—rodents, avians and me—for the serviceberries (Amelanchier x grandiflora) when they ripen, and again in May and June for the strawberries I planted as groundcover. I bow out of the contest for the fruits from the two crabapples (Japanese Malus x sargentii and Southern native Malus angustifolia). They’re just too darn tart for those of us with taste buds.

And then there’s the annual skirmish for whatever appears in the vegetable garden.
Fitzs' flowers in June 2003
              Our flower garden has something blooming as much of the time as possible for the nectar dependents: bees, butterflies and hummingbirds. An annual sowing of sacrificial host plants for the larvae, a.k.a. caterpillars, of many butterflies and moths—like fennel, parsley and dill for yellow swallowtails, passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) for Gulf fritillaries, butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa and A. incarnata) for monarchs, and tomatoes for Carolina sphinx moths—ensures the presence of the beautiful adults. 
Leave seedheads standing
for winter sustenance
(shown: Liatris spicata)

Even when nothing is in flower, I let the seedheads of gayfeather (Liatris spicata), coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea), black-eyed susans (perennial Rudbeckia fulgida var. sullivantii and annual R. hirta) and crape myrtles stand for the finches, juncos and nuthatches. (A dumb joke: Whaddya get when you cross a nuthatch with a blue-footed booby? A boobyhatch, natch.) Sure, it looks like I’m just lazy about fall cleanup, but there’s a reason for that. If the litter in your garden isn’t slimy (like frost-blasted canna lilies and impatiens) or diseased (black-spotted rose leaves, for example), leaving it in place for the winter provides food and shelter for small birds and little animals as well as a soil-enriching mulch.

A source of water is appreciated at all seasons. Tim ran a quarter-inch dripline with a two-gallon-an-hour emitter on the end of it into our birdbath, so it fills every time the drip zone comes on. Another often-overlooked yet crucial aspect of sustenance is to refrain from pesticide use, particularly broad-spectrum formulations that kill everything they contact.
Auto-fill birdbath

The print materials and website of the Backyard Wildlife Habitat Program of the National Wildlife Federation offer lots of helpful suggestions as well as a protocol to have your property certified as an official Backyard Wildlife Habitat (see links list at right).
Keep in mind that every ecosystem is more than the mere sum of its parts. Precisely because Homo sapiens occupies the top of the food-chain ladder means we have the greatest need of all the other rungs. Let us embrace our dependence and be thankful for them.

Thanks for dropping by. Y’all have yourselves a pleasant and peaceful Thanksgiving.

     P.S. -- For the blog-lore-challenged (such as myself): Tim tells me if you click on the pictures, they get bigger, the better to see the details. To get back to the text, click on the "back" arrow. On my Google toolbar, it's at the top left of the page. I tried it. It worked.