There’s a Vast Green Desert Among Us

I don’t spend much time channel surfing, but the other morning I was stuck in the house waiting for the cable man, and I wandered into a program on ANIMAL PLANET called “Backyard Habitat.” I’ll admit I was fascinated. On the program a perky former Miss Florida in khaki pedal pushers and a friendly naturalist from the National Wildlife Federation fly all over the country helping families revamp their old-style yards into little pieces of territory friendly to wildlife. It’s a sort of “green eye for the normal guy.”
In an hour I witnessed a suburban backyard in central Florida turned into a bird sanctuary, and another on the edge of a state park in Washington State revamped into a pond garden fit for burrowing mountain beavers and ring-neck pigeons. Each backyard makeover included selected special projects fit for your spot, such as moss birdhouses, hanging stale bagel feeders covered with peanut butter, tadpole observatories, and mockingbird pizzas.

Habitat for wildlife, the naturalist host points out often during the program, has four essential factors: cover, food, water, and safe places to nest and raise young. When the Backyard Habitat crew moves in, yards usually don’t provide these four factors in much abundance. It’s fascinating though how by shifting a few aesthetic suburban priorities, it’s easy to create good territory for wildlife right under all our noses.

And what needs to change if backyards are to become better habitat? Keeping all the grass cut an inch high might be good for putting or kicking a soccer ball, but it is not good habitat for wildlife. An ecologist friend of mine looks out at the greenswards of suburbia and calls them “a vast green desert.” Not much lives in a lawn, and what tries to is eradicated with chemicals.

That perfectly clipped green moustache of same-species shrubbery planted around the house does not make good habitat either. Diversity is the key in creating habitat. A variety of native plants make for better cover and wildlife feeding than the relatively short list of conventional plants we usually purchase and use in our yards.

The crew for “Backyard Habitat” almost always suggests installing a water feature somewhere as well. For the Florida family it was a small jar of bubbling water that drained into a base of cobblestones. This provided enough flowing water to add an element of sound to their backyard, but the top of the jar also offered a small bubbling pool for birds to get a drink on a hot Florida day.

In Washington State, the land of the burrowing mountain beavers, the family requested a larger pond, and so the “Habitat” crew dug a wide hole, lined it with black plastic, and brought in a load of rock to create a formable water feature, a real watering hole fit for bringing in the bigger, wilder game from the surrounding state park.

When the two hosts of “Backyard Habitat” finished with these two yards they presented each family with a certificate from the National Wildlife Federation stating their spot on the planet as fully made-over, and officially certified them as “Backyard Habitat.” They also left a rock behind with the show’s official logo on it.

Of course all this got me thinking about our own backyard. After the cable man finally showed up, I spent an hour walking around, looking for the four magic elements of habitat. I’m glad I found them everywhere around me.

Out front we have no lawn. Most of the space is piedmont hardwood forest, deep and untended. There’s no need to do anything to this forest to make it better habitat. It’s been pretty good natural habitat for tens of thousands of years.

Closer to the house I’ve built a carnivorous bog garden, and it’s great to sit on a little bamboo bench and watch the green and brown anoles prowl through the pitcher plants and blue flag iris. That bog habitat is a sort of fast food haven for lizards. When I look inside the barrels of the pitcher plants (native to bogs in the Carolina coastal plain) I often see an insect slowly decomposing. Add a bog to your yard, and it’s the plants themselves that can be seen as the predators.

On the west side of the house we have two small ponds. They are full of frogs, and this week there were three white leathery egg shells left behind on the edge of one of them where a turtles or snakes had hatched out. The upper pond has supported a small population of bream and minnows for two years now, and once I saw a heron sorting through the lilies for breakfast. I don’t feel as compelled to protect these native fish as I would expensive showy koi. I let the bream fend for themselves. I just restock from the creek every spring.

So why create habitat for wildlife? “Imagine a child growing up without having the opportunity to watch a tadpole changing into a frog, to smell a wildflower, or to wade in a clear stream,” the creators of “Backyard Habitat” ask of us. The pressure on wild places and the creatures that live in them is greater today than ever before. “Natural habitat is disappearing at an alarming rate, and habitat loss is the No. 1 threat to wildlife today.”

Go out and take an inventory of your own backyard. Is your yard habitat, or is it part of LAWN PLANET, the vast “green desert” stretching all across America?

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