By Jeff Davis
Stand for five minutes in Suzanne Thing’s backyard— smack in the heart of Kingston, New York—and you’ll likely spy, as did I, a pair of cardinals, blue jays, a gold finch, nuthatches, a house finch, and a Pileated Woodpecker. Stay around even longer, and you might see a hawk stalk its prey, the friendly woodchuck snag a few leaves, a Monarch land on bottlebrush flowers, and even a hummingbird stop in for a cup of nectar.
Suzanne Thing in her backyard B&B of bee
balm and yarrow where hummingbirds love to stop in for
nectar. Photo by Lowell Thing
Thing, like thousands of Americans, has discovered that a little wise planning and a minor investment can transform a backyard into a veritable bed and breakfast for hummingbirds and butterflies, fox and frogs. Here are tips to get started.
A Floor Plan to Attract Birds
“Wildlife, like human beings,
require three things for happiness and survival,” Frances Groeters of Catskill Native Nursery says, “Shelter, water, food.” A sketch of your backyard will help you assess existing trees and shrubs for birds to nest and hide; plants to feed caterpillars, butterflies, hummingbirds; and a water source for bathing and drinking. Think twice, too, before you down that dead tree: It could be an ideal room for woodpeckers (who in turn feed on garden and tree pests).
Before you buy plants, though, “get
the dirt” on your soil. Lead-heavy soil — from
excess pesticides —
requires remedying before most wildlife-attracting plants can flourish.
Lead-heavy pesticides not only will kill “pests” such as aphids;
they also have destroyed millions of butterflies. Instead of using chemicals,
attract our natural pesticides —
birds. One warbler might eat 3,500 aphids a day, and a swallow might gulp
up to 2,000 flying insects a day. Ithaca-based Cornell Cooperative Extension
provides soil analyses kits.
Include a wild patch of grass in
your design. A four-by-four spot of unmowed grass, a “meadow
strip,” does more than give you a break from mowing.
William J. Weber, in Attracting Birds to Your Yard, notes
that wild grass attracts bountiful
insects, and the bugs plus the seeds feed birds. A meadow strip might house voles,
which in turn could invite the beloved red fox.
“Balance is the key in landscape design,” says Carol Washington
of Woodstockbased Serenity Gardens. Nature loves variety. One study by naturalist
Curt Janesen showed that backyards including a variety of native grasses, shrubs,
canopy trees, and plants pulled in some 30 to 180 wildlife species compared to
those yards with a basic lawn and, say, a feeder that attracted less than 20
species. Thing’s small patch of nature has an attractive combination
of barberry and forsythia bushes, towering maples and evergreens, flowers, and
herbs — all strategically laid out for different kinds of wildlife.
Get the most for your energy and money. If you can plant only one kind of tree, you might choose the dogwood (Cornus florida). This hardy deciduous tree’s branches reach three to ten feet high, providing rest-and-nest spots as well as bright red fruit that feeds some 36 bird species including thrush, tanager, and the Pileated Woodpecker. “Berrybearing shrubs and trees,” master gardener Jim Dinsmore notes, “attract birds throughout the winter, too.” Beware of hybrid plants, though, Groeters warns, “no matter how luring are their petals or poetic name.” Although they may dazzle your eyes, many of them are worthless to wildlife.
Contact your county Soil and Water Conservation District Office, too, to apply for bargain bundles of seeds, yearlings, and more. Brian Scoralick of Dutchess County said that around 600 orders in that county were filled this spring, translating to around 60,000 planting materials provided.
The Kid’s Room & Sun Room for Butterflies
To attract butterflies, feed their caterpillar kids. Host plants — plants on which a butterfly lays eggs — nourish the multi-legged butterflies-in-training. Cherries and ashes host the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) and the pale Hairstreaks (which also host on dogwoods), both common to the Catskills. If you wish to harvest herbs while creating a caterpillar nursery, the Black Swallowtail ( Papilio polyxenes) likes dill, parsley, and fennel.
To lure adult butterflies, let
the sun shine. Since butterflies’ body temperature
must rise to 86 degrees to fly, plant sun-loving flowers — preferably
with hues of purple, yellow, pink, and white, their favorites — in
clusters. Studies show that butterflies like large clusters
of pink or of yellow as opposed to a mixed patch of colors.
Summer bloomers such as bee balm and Impatiens draw in
several butterflies and hummers.
The Red Room for Hummers
When Pablo Neruda asked, “Why don’t we teach helicopters how to draw honey from the sun?” he must have been dreaming about hummingbirds, those micro- helicopters that shiver for nectar.
The ruby-throated hummingbird —
likely the only type you’ll spot in the east — loves red blooms
that produce more sweetness for their buzz. These winged wonders, among North
America’s most important bird pollinators, do feed on flowers of other
hues, but if you plant red-clustered plants — buttercup (Ranunculus),
jewelweed, or squill (Scilla) — you’ll likely see some hummers
in no time. Groeters as well as Washington encourage planting native beauties
such as wild columbine.
Years ago, Thing’s coral bells attracted what at first she thought was a hornet. It turned out to be a hummingbird. Now, each year a pair of hummers return for her backyard nectar.
Baths, a Swimming Pool, and a Shady
Don’t forget water. A bird
bath, regularly cleaned, attracts possibly two to three
times more birds to a yard. Hummers also love to dash through
a low pressure spray lawn sprinkler. Jim Dinsmore’s
pond teems with frogs, newts, salamanders, and birds, but
to keep it simple he recommends using small plastic pool
forms, available at Lowe’s, that make instant swimming
pools for frogs. Washington also says that upsidedown flower
pots and rock piles make “cool caves for amphibians.”
Your Backyard B & B in the Larger Picture
The 2004 Audubon State of the Birds
report claims that some 85% of grassland birds have declined
in forty years. Woodland birds such as the pine siskin
finch have dropped in number by over half. Too, migrating
rubythroated hummers travel 500 miles or more and must
double their weight to travel. With increased land development,
their journeys have become more challenged. But backyard
by backyard, butterfly by butterfly, Americans are reversing
that trend. Consider joining people such as Thing this
year. Plant a few seeds for the future, and make your backyard
a friendly B & B for wildlife.