By Kathy Van Mullekom
NEWPORT NEWS, VA–Wildlife needs four elements to survive in this world: food, water, cover and places to bear and raise young. They can pick some crazy places to nest as evidenced by the mother duck that laid 11 eggs in a sparsely planted bed at our front steps.
All of us should make every effort to include native plants in our yards. Non-native species are nice but they typically don’t support the same number of insects that are food sources for wildlife.
Years ago, I didn’t give native plants a second thought, thinking I had to have everything exotic. I’ve greatly changed my tune, realizing native plants create a natural kind of beauty and bring more songbirds than ever to my feeders and windows.
Native plants in my new garden include bald cypress, dogwood, fringe tree, sweet bay magnolia, holly, Virginia sweetspire, deciduous azalea, wax myrtle, loblolly pine and swamp hibiscus. It’s a start and my goal is to plant them with an assortment of native perennials and groundcovers.
Predators play a part. You never use toxic chemicals in a wildlife habitat, so predators play a vital role in controlling bad bugs. Icky spiders catch and eat more biting and plant-eating insects than all other insectivorous animals put together.
Ladybugs can eat about 5,400 aphids in a lifetime. Salamanders consume insects and slugs. Night-cruising owls kill small mammals –hopefully voles and moles. Other predators you can count on include dragonflies, damselflies, bats, foxes and good snakes like the black rat kind.
Foods are a must. Most attention in a backyard habitat focuses on songbirds you can enjoy. Ken and I marvel at how fast birds take up residence in a new birdhouse–one bird flew in a house literally the minute Ken walked away with the hammer he used to install it.
In addition to feeders, songbirds like fruits such as cherries, cranberries, grapes, orange halves and fruit jelly. Mealworms are recommended for bluebirds, but we’ve never enjoyed great success with them and still have numerous bluebirds in our yard.
There are numerous ways to make suet and decorative food supplies, including grapefruit feeders, edible garland, bird bagels and energy muffins.
For butterflies, experts suggest you hang a cluster of over-ripe grapes and watch them arrive at the buffet. Give them water. Birdbaths and fountains are eye-catching additions to yards but they can be unsuitable water sources for songbirds and butterflies if they are too deep. Shallow sources work better. Butterflies actually prefer muddy depressions in soil.
You can create a natural water feature with an old tree stump– something we had plenty of after Hurricane Isabel in 2003. A stump still in the ground or a flat-bottomed large log works. Use a sharp chisel to chip out chunks of wood from the top of the wood, making the depression 3 inches deep or less.
The depression doesn’t have to be smooth because birds prefer the safety of a rough surface while they bathe or drink. You can place some little rocks in the water–something helpful you can also do in a too-deep birdbath so birds have them to stand on. Plant native groundcovers or small shrubs around the base of your birdbath stump. Empty and refill it every few days.–Newport News