Making Space For Wildlife

“Build it, and they will come.” It’s a phrase often repeated by dreamers. There are people who have a vision in their head of what the world could be like, if only we could build something or change the way that people think.

When I lived Florida, they built a huge aquarium with the idea that, if they created it, it would be used. In Jamestown, the downtown ice arena was built in much the same way. It was a dream that was repeated and passed on and changed and presented until, years later, ground was broken. The dream finally became a reality.

The same is true of your yard the tiny patch of earth that, for whatever reason, you have control over. You can mow it, mulch it, pave it, poison it or pay someone else to take care of it. The truth of the matter is that your yard is a tiny patch of a bigger whole. Your yard, combined with your neighbor’s yard and the one next to them, creates a place where plants and animals can live and thrive or wither and die.

Chances are, you don’t know which is really happening. Life seems so rich and abundant that we don’t really understand what we are missing in most cases. Plants from foreign soils are bought up at box stores and nurseries. They attract bees and butterflies and perhaps some beetles, but their leaves are left alone and the plants look perfect poised in the corner of the yard.

Meanwhile, those plants are starving out the bottom of the food chain. They provide no food for the native caterpillars and grasshoppers and other insects. Plants and animals develop in partnerships with each other over huge spans of time and do not adjust easily to most new plants.

In other words, a yard with few native plants has fewer insects. Sound good? To some, perhaps, but what about the birds that eat those insects or feed them to their young? Their populations go down as well. With fewer birds, the hawks that eat them are affected. Your yard is part of a tiny, precious whole region that provides the plants and animals with what they need.

So, I am a dreamer too. My philosophy is “plant it, and they will come.” My yard is a patchwork of native plants and trees that create a kaleidoscope of color through the year, as well as blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, blackberries and several gardens’ worth of vegetables to eat. Since I planted the gardens, native butterflies visit for the flowers and stay to lay their eggs on the plants their young need to survive. Odd leafcutter bees, who I have yet to see at work, cut perfect half circles out of the leaves on the redbud tree. Thick headed flies, whose name has spawned more jokes than I thought possible, lurk in the garden, along with dozens to hundreds of other insects.

Last year, four different birds nested in one tiny section of tree. They often went over to the gardens to hunt for caterpillars and other bugs to feed their young. A Cooper’s Hawk spent the winter dashing through the yard, picking off some of those same birds. Really, the hawk’s food was the plants of my flower gardens turned into the flesh of bugs, which was turned into the meat of a bird. You are what you eat.

If your yard provides nothing for the bottom of the food chain to eat, it is a tiny hole in the fabric of the planet that spawns little life. So make sure your yard is one which creates a place where plants and animals can live and thrive, one that is part of the fabric of life.

Like any dream, this dream requires constant retelling. Pass the word to your friends. Your yard can benefit the world in many ways. It may require more thought and more work, but together we can create neighborhoods that harbor people and wildlife in harmony. Well, except for that pesky rabbit that had to be fenced out of the garden …

Jeff Tome is a senior naturalist for Programs and Exhibits at the Jamestown Audubon Society, a longtime CWC volunteer and former CWC board director.

The Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy is a local nonprofit organization that is dedicated to preserving and enhancing the water quality, scenic beauty and ecological health of the lakes, streams, wetlands and watersheds of the Chautauqua region. For more information, call 664-2166 or visit www.chautauquawatershed.org or www.facebook.com/chautauquawatershed.