Insects and Birds need your help. Take the Pollinator Pledge!
Recent news reports can be depressing. Migratory birds have declined 30% since 1970. An insect armageddon is devastating the underpinnings of the food chain. What can you do?
Studies show that we can each make a difference. Our suburban and urban oases matter, and we can help to bring back the bugs and migratory birds with simple steps. In fact, the overwhelming scientific advice is Do Less: less mowing, less leaf mulching, less chemicals (none actually), less irrigation. When you leave the leaves, also leave seedheads and plant stalks. In short, less. What to do more of? Replace lawn with native plants, particularly low maintenance shrubs and trees that provide big wildlife value.
Take the Pollinator Pledge:
- Leave the leaves in the fall
- Leave plant stalks and seedheads
- No pesticides or lawn chemicals
- Native plants to provide year-round forage
- Mow less
- Reduce light pollution
Why leave leaves, plant stalks and seedheads?
Leaf Litter. Many insects, such as fireflies, overwinter as larvae or adults in leaf litter. Moths and butterflies hang as cocoons on plants, but in winter the cocoons drop into and shelter in leaves until adults emerge when temperatures are above 50oF. Leaves also provide soil cover for insects overwintering just below the soil surface. When we mulch leaves, we are destroying these beneficial insects or removing the shelter they need.
Move leaves to flower and shrub beds instead of mulching. As the leaves decay, they enhance the soil. You will be helping birds too because baby birds rely on insects for about 90% of their food until they are old enough to diversify their diet to include seed.
Plant Stalks. Insects also burrow into plant stalks to overwinter. Leave plant stalks standing, or if you must tidy up, break off the stalks and pile them in a sheltered, dry area of your garden, such as under trees or shrubs.
Seedheads. Have you ever collected seeds and found your seed tray is full of tiny beetles and spiders? Many insects overwinter in seedheads. Birds also rely on seedheads during the winter – both for seed and for the tiny insects inside.
Why No Pesticides? It isn’t habitat if we kill the critters we are trying to preserve. Pesticides kill unintended animals: mosquito spray kills baby bird nestlings, lawn chemicals kill ladybugs and dragonflies, rat poison kills owls, foxes and others. Beneficial insects overwintering underground, like fireflies, can also be poisoned. When you add leaf blowers to your yard, you are kicking up these toxins into the air.
Neonicotinoids, or “neonics,” are the most widely used insecticides in the United States. Lethal to birds and insects, they are in hundreds of products including insect sprays, seed treatments, soil drenches, tree injections, and veterinary ointments to control fleas in dogs and cats. According to the American Bird Conservancy, “neonics are toxic to birds and invertebrates, even in small quantities. … a single seed treated with neonics is enough to kill a songbird. Lesser amounts can emaciate the birds, impair reproduction, and disrupt their migratory pathways.” https://abcbirds.org/neonics
Glyphosate is a controversial herbicide, antibiotic and active ingredient in Roundup weed killer. Widely used to ripen and harvest ‘Roundup Ready” cereal and soy crops, it is being studied for its effect on human health and whether it targets enzymes in the intestines of bees. “When pollinators come in contact with glyphosate, the chemical reduces this gut bacteria, leaving bees vulnerable to pathogens and premature death,” according to Nancy Moran, a biologist at the University of Texas at Austin. Proving that nothing is simple: Glyphosate is used in many environmental restorations because environmentalists have found it less disruptive to nesting grassland birds and other wildlife than other restoration methods.
Instead of toxins:
- Add mulch and leave your leaves instead of adding fertilizers.
- Plant desired plants closer together and pull weeds instead of using herbicides.
- Dump birdbaths and water containers at least weekly to disrupt mosquito development. (Rates vary by species, but mosquitos take about a week for larvae in the water to become adults.)
- If you want to get rid of an infestation of something, soapy water with a little oil added is extremely effective at smothering bugs.
- When caterpillars are in your trees, appreciate all the woodpeckers and chickadees that come to eat them.
- With less lawn, skunks digging for grubs don’t cause as much visible damage.
- If rats are an issue, remove bird feeders, pet food, pet droppings and other food trash, and ensure you compost only plant and vegetable, non-oily refuse. Avoid poisons that may injure pets, or foxes, hawks, skunks, opossum and other predators that keep rodents in check.
Why reduce lawns and mowing?
Lawns require mowing, watering and chemicals. U.S. property owners cultivate about 30 million acres of lawn, making it the biggest U.S. crop, surpassing even corn and soy. “Gas powered garden tools emit 5% of the nation’s air pollution. Forty million lawnmowers consume 200 million gallons of gasoline per year. One gas-powered lawn mower emits 11 times the air pollution of a new car for each hour of operation. Excessive carbon from the burning of fossil fuels contributes to global warming. Native plants sequester, or remove, carbon from the air,” according to the US Environmental Protection Agency.
If you can’t give up lawn, consider a drought tolerant, low maintenance lawn mix of native grass or sedges, A no-mow lawn reduces the fuel and exhaust from lawnmowers, reduces water needs and can be allowed to go to seed to feed birds. Pennsylvania or Ivory sedge are two native choices that are low growing.
Why add Native Plants?
Native plants have evolved over thousands of years in a particular region. Adapted to the geography, hydrology, and climate of that region, they have evolved together with other plants and with native wildlife species such as songbirds and butterflies. Lawns provide little benefit to insects and birds, especially if they are cut before they are allowed to seed.
Native plants are nurseries for beneficial insects, offering leaves, pollen, nectar, sap, and more to forage. Caterpillars, and some bees and other insects depend on particular native plant species as hosts; these plants provide essential food necessary for those insects to develop. Many people know milkweed is essential for monarchs, but did you know the spicebush swallowtail needs spicebush, the violet fritillary needs violets, the pearl crescent butterfly needs asters? Species of non-stinging mining bees need sunflowers (helianthus), the passionflower bee needs passionflowers, some ground-nesting plasterer bees need purple prairie clover. There are many more examples.
Doug Tallamy, University of Delaware entomologist widely recognized as wildlife expert, has ranked trees and herbaceous plants by the benefit they provide to wildlife. He has done this by looking at how many caterpillar species each plant feeds. More caterpillars, more critters that eat caterpillars. What eats caterpillars? Mammals, like chipmunks, squirrels, opossum, raccoons and foxes, but also birds, amphibians, reptiles, fish and even other bugs. A lot of wildlife eats caterpillars, so caterpillar species indicates wildlife value. Check out his wildlife rankings HERE. Here are his top plants and trees. The full list is here.
Ranked Native Woodies
|Genus||Common Name||Total Caterpillar Species||Non-Native Caterpillar Sp.||Native Caterpillar Sp.|
|Prunus||beach plum, cherry, chokecherry, peach, plum, sweet cherry, wild plum, almond||456||27||429|
|Populus||aspen, cottonwood, poplar||367||9||358|
|Carya||hickory, pecan, pignut, bitternut||235||2||233|
|Rubus||blackberry, dewberry, raspberry, thimbleberry, loganberry||163||12||151|
Ranked Native Herbaceous
|Genus||Common Name||Total Caterpillar Species||Non-Native Caterpillar Sp.||Native Caterpillar Sp.|
|Solanum||horsenettle, nightshade, potato, tomato, eggplant, aubergines||61||8||53|
|Rumex||dock, sheep sorrel, curly dock||54||7||47|
Trees and shrubs not only provide big wildlife values, but they are relatively easy to manage. Take out lawn, such as in a shady or poorly growing area, add trees and mulch around it. The mulch can suppress unwanted plants, and no mowing, chemicals or fertilizers needed. Trees, shrubs and native plantings need watering to get established, but then should fare well; water in the driest periods or drought.
How do I find plants with year-round benefit?
Insects emerging in spring need the early blooms, and birds overwintering or late to migrate needs seeds and fruit in fall and winter. Search options at https://prairiemoon.com and https://prairienursery.com allow you to select bloom times. Find native plants for your area at Audubon and National Wildlife Federation
Select plants that bloom in spring, summer and fall, not just summer-bloomers. Berry plants usually fruit in summer or fall, and the fruit may last into winter. Don’t forget trees. Pinecones often provide seeds through winter.
Native Plant Suppliers
- Possibility Place, Monee, IL (also online) possibilityplace.com
- Chalet Nursery
Native Plant Suppliers Online:
- Sheffields.com (only seeds)
How can I make my garden more friendly for insects and birds?
Seek out host plants. Plant milkweed for the monarch butterfly. But keep other bugs in mind: the spicebush swallowtail needs spicebush, the violet fritillary needs violets and the pearl crescent needs asters. Oak trees feed an amazing 518 native species of caterpillar. Some resources:
Butterfly Host Plants
Oligolectic (specialist) Bees https://www.illinoiswildflowers.info/flower_insects/files/oligoleges.htm
Birds need layered landscapes. Some nest near the ground and others in high tree limbs. For them, plant groundcover, wildflowers, shrubs, understory trees and shade trees to attract different songbird species to your yard. Check out the Audubon Great Lakes resources: https://gl.audubon.org/birds/planting-chicago-area-migratory-birds
Got standing water or flooding problems? Create a rain garden
Native plants absorb and filter water. A well-designed rain gardens absorb 30% more water than turf lawns and will drain completely within a day after an average storm, according to the Illinois nonprofit Prairie Rivers Network. Consider planting a rain garden to solve a wet area near your house. Here are resources to help you:
- Illinois Dept of Natural Resources
- The Illinois nonprofit Prairie Rivers plant list (PDF)
- Prairie Rivers’ Rain Garden Brochure (PDF)
What are other Ways to Help Birds?
Stop birds hitting my windows. Up to a billion birds die hitting windows. To help migrating songbirds, stop window collisions. If you have a window where birds crash, solutions are simple and varied: add window films, decals, soap designs (a temporary solution) or cut DIY decals from wrapping paper, but avoid spaces bigger than 4” x 2” that birds may try to fly through. Or try the zen like ‘Acopian Blinds” that cue birds into identifying a solid structure. American Bird Conservancy has rated solutions and provides links to purchase: https://abcbirds.org/get-involved/bird-smart-glass/
Cat and Bird Health. 100 million US domestic cats kill about 2.4 billion birds a year, making it the biggest human-caused threat to birds. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals notes the dangers outdoor roaming cats face from disease, parasites, cars, injuries, human abuse, and other causes. The Humane Society offers tips on making your outdoor cat happier indoors.
What about Porch Lights? “Artificial light increases environmental pressures faced by insects,” according to Chicago Policy Review (11/20/2018) “and these stresses can contribute to significant and sustained population declines.” Insects are killed on contact by heat, electrocution or the force of impact; and get trapped, exhausted and preyed upon. Outdoor lights become feeding arenas for predators, like bats and spiders. “Moreover, the study notes that artificial light can impede communication among insects, diminish their average lifespans, and even change their physiology.” https://chicagopolicyreview.org/2018/11/20/global-insect-decline-linked-to-light-pollution/
- NHE calendar: https://calendar.google.com/calendar/embed?src=kv542sugt84im6eu903uihu644%40group.calendar.google.com&ctz=America%2FChicago
- Email Habitat@NaturalHabitatEvanston.Org
- NHE newsletter http://bit.ly/NHENewsletter
- NHE Facebook Group https://www.facebook.com/groups/naturalhabitatevanston/
- Certify your garden with National Wildlife Federation https://www.nwf.org/Garden-For-Wildlife/Certify.aspx
• Facebook Group http://bit.ly/IsabellaWoodsFacebook
 The problems
- 30% drop in birds https://www.independent.co.uk/environment/leaf-blowers-insect-noise-pollution-germany-gardening-a9208366.html?fbclid=IwAR2d11xh1dTicbzlS__S4fuTEasyA1_6roDVNb1Dj76RkVUDUIzbsjOBGUo
- Insect apocalypse https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/27/magazine/insect-apocalypse.html
- Germany says don’t mow; save bugs https://www.independent.co.uk/environment/leaf-blowers-insect-noise-pollution-germany-gardening-a9208366.html?fbclid=IwAR2d11xh1dTicbzlS__S4fuTEasyA1_6roDVNb1Dj76RkVUDUIzbsjOBGUo
Nonnative plants reduce population growth of an insectivorous bird, 2018 Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences of USA. https://www.pnas.org/content/115/45/11549
Audubon Plants FAQ https://www.audubon.org/news/bird-friendly-plants-faq