Having safe and undisturbed habitat is critical to keeping our birds and planet healthy. Research published last year by Cornell Lab of Ornithology showing 3 Billion Birds have been lost and the enormous impact this has had on bird populations over the past few decades cited habitat loss as the single largest driver for this enormous loss of birds.
The loss of safe feeding and resting areas for birds all along their migratory routes, the loss of trees providing shelter and food, loss of grasslands and meadows which provide nesting and safe overstay areas, loss of marshes and undeveloped shorelines for safe shorebird nesting and migratory overstays. All these diverse habitats have been affected. But there are many things we can do to help, and one small way is to create habitat in our backyards, on roofs and decks, in the country, at the shore, in cities. We cannot re-create rainforests, marshes or fertile shorelines at home. But we can make a small but important contribution by converting whatever outside areas we have into not just bird-friendly yards, but important life-supports for birds.
A few years ago I tried what began as an experiment on a very small piece of land in a busy beach area in NJ. I had always wanted to create some kind of bird-friendly location but wanted to do more than provide feeders and watering stations. I wanted a wild area that would support birds throughout the year and in whatever cycle of life they found themselves at the time they were in my area – migration, nesting, overwintering. At the shore with very little land, this seemed almost pointless to me, but I wanted to see just how much of benefit I could make a grass covered side lot become to local and migrating birds. The outcome was a real surprise!
About 5 years ago I hired birder and wildlife gardener, Josh Nemeth who with his business partner, Justin, came up with a plan to create meadows and keep some of the lawn. There is a lot of water where I am, so a marshy focus seemed to work best.
They removed large swaths of a very thick lawn by placing cardboard over it, and planted a couple of small meadows. (see photo to right). The idea was to create real habitat for the birds and butterflies in the area as we are losing habitat at a high rate due to development and general misunderstanding of the need for preservation of native habitat. The meadow was planted with some small plants in the spring and seeded in the fall, and the following year we had a junior meadow. It took a few years for this experiment to take off, and during the early days it wasn’t terribly attractive – at least to me. But not so for the wild ones nearby – I rapidly began to notice more bird and butterfly activity even early on with a not fully developed habitat. And this has has grown more prominent every year.
Now 5 years later, the meadows are mature. (see photo below and at the top of this article). They reseed themselves so
there is very little maintenance, and they are basically self-sustaining – providing food and shelter for lots of wildlife throughout the year. This spring, they are alive with bird families – Song Sparrows, Robins, Cardinals, Catbirds, Mockingbirds, Carolina Wrens, House Finches, Purple Martins, Barn Swallows, Tree Swallows – many nesting around the edges and in trees and shrubs, in houses, under my eaves – it has been really busy! But all were using the meadows for feeding and shelter including keeping their recently fledged chicks safe while they became strong enough to fly. There are so many species of butterflies(Monarch, Admirals, Fiery Skippers, Gray Hairstreak, Common Buckeye, Garden whites, Variegated Fritallary) plus bees, frogs, rabbits, – all kinds of wildlife taking advantage of the area. People on their way to the beach stop to watch the activity, try to identify the birds and butterflies and admire the beautiful plants and flowers. I had so many questions from beach-goers about what was going on, that I got a sign from Audubon identifying it as a bird-friendly habitat. Now I hear moms explaining to their kids that this is a place where birds are living.
What would make this a real home run is if more contiguous habitat was created so wildlife would have safe passage from one end of town to the other. Given 5 years ago this meadow was just a lawn…who knows what can grow from this little experiment?
Photos: Deborah Rivel