Home is where the habitat is: Wildlife in the suburbs
Spring is here in full force, especially after our recent summer-like temperatures. The birds and many bees are already going about their business, while other animals are slowly emerging from long slumbers. We, too, are remembering again what it's like to share our space. At times we are inconvenienced (bird poop, chewed landscaping, carpenter bee dust) or alarmed, i.e., the panicked warnings about seeing foxes in the daytime (it does not mean they have rabies).
I have been wanting to write about suburban wildlife for a while and the wonderful, silly, and sometimes heart-aching adventures that these co-habitations entail.
When Green Team Urbana received an email recently suggesting that the suburbs and wildlife aren't necessarily compatible, it felt like it was a good time to share the success and experiences in my own yard...and some context on why creating habitats is so important now, more than ever.
The sender, concerned about wildlife- friendly landscaping, listed animals —raccoons, mice, rats, coyotes, foxes, bears, feral cats, and snakes—that might show up on account of it, and asked:
Q: "Would you want these in your yard?"
A: "Yes, I do" (with one exception)
I don’t necessarily like the deer eating my veggies, but I always love seeing them.
When the groundhog ventures into my yard mostly for the clover, I sit as still as I can to see how close it will come before getting spooked.
Last year black ratsnakes and garter snakes showed up in abundance. One slithered under the chair I was sitting in (okay, I didn’t like that so much), another entered our garage, and we almost stepped on a third.
Paper wasps build abodes under our deck and the mason bees camp out there too.
All are welcome, except for cats, as they are not native and kill one billion birds and upwards of 20 billion mammals worldwide each year. Now, I love cats—especially our Waffle— just not when they are on the senseless prowl.
The photos you will see here are from my own 1/4 acre lot in a large HOA that backs to a reforestation area. I'll share more about my experiences with wildlife later in this blog.
But first I want to convince you why we need to welcome visitors—especially the non-human kind.
We are nature
Several years ago, I was pleased to find the document "Villages of Urbana Wildlife" on the neighborhood website. It's only a page long and describes how the natural areas here—namely the forests and ponds—manage stormwater runoff and serve as habitat. It was likely written in response to residents' concerns about snakes in particular, as this section is bolded: "The snakes native to VOU forests and ponds are non-venomous and not aggressive. They are also very efficient consumers of mice and therefore they are an essential part of keeping nature in balance."
This document could certainly be expanded to include additional wildlife we may encounter here and why healthy ecosystems—interdependent communities of living things in a geographical area—are important for our own well-being. But I was glad to discover that the environment is recognized as part of our community's fabric. The subheading for the document is: "Nature is around us and we'd like to keep it that way."
That "nature"—though it is here—is rapidly decreasing. According to the World Wildlife Fund, since 1970, populations of mammals, birds, fish, amphibians and reptiles have decreased by over 60%. Insects are plummeting, with some estimates on loss as high as 75%.
A first-of-its-kind United Nations report in 2019 warned that over ONE MILLION SPECIES ARE EXPECTED TO BE EXTINCT, some within decades, if we do not make transformative changes. The UN ranked the specific drivers of this decline, all of which are related to our human dominion. Habitat loss is our largest impact on wildlife, followed by direct exploitation of organisms, climate change, pollution and invasive species.
Announcing the report's findings, the Chair, Sir Robert Watson warned:
“The health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever. We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide.”
Diversity and native species are necessary for ecosystems to function and provide the services we need. Birds, bats and insects pollinate food crops and our wild plants; plants create our oxygen, feed us and comprise our medicine; microbes in soil help to capture carbon and support forest health; fungi, invertebrates,—like worms, millipedes, and termites—and even turtles decompose the dead to bring forth new life; and so on.
There is one additional change I would make to the VOU wildlife document: nature is not just "around us,"we are nature, despite often acting so unnatural. We would be wise to recognize the drama that is unfolding before our eyes—a drama in which we unwittingly play the starring role.
The "Land Ethic"—a call to individuals
In the 19th century, as American sportsmen recognized the decline of game, they set down their rifles for a time to protect habitat and create hunting limits. Meanwhile, authors like Henry David Thoreau and John Muir reminded the citizenry of nature's glory with their pens. The conservation movement grew in the 20th century with the designation of national parks and reserves, creation of new government agencies to manage natural resources, and groups tasked with saving threatened species such as birds and bison. Yet habitat and animals continued to be plundered as the human population boomed. Many private landowners were not sustainably managing their own properties—despite the new education efforts brought forward by federal agencies.
Enter Aldo Leopold. As a government wildlife manager and professor, Leopold lamented on what was missing in the conservation movement and postulated that we needed a land ethic—a moral responsibility for the land. As the suburbs were starting to take off, lawns coming into fashion, and industrial agriculture expanding, he wrote A Sand County Almanac (1949). Rendered in beautiful prose, his compilation of essays portrays his experiences, month by month, restoring a worn-out farm in Wisconsin. He finishes this appreciation of and communion with nature with the essay, "The Land Ethic."
As individuals, Leopold wrote, we generally recognize that we are a part of a social community with which we need to cooperate for the benefit of us all. He proposed that we expand that community to include the land: soils, waters, plants, and animals and that we recognize their right to exist, and preferably, in a natural state. Our government regulations can only go so far to protect what should be treasured.
Leopold suggests that as citizens we need to recognize our obligations to "the land":
"In short, a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such".
We still are falling far short of the land ethic today, as the data on wildlife loss show.
A new movement that encourages individuals to restore our ecosystems may help us recognize what we have to gain, instead of lose.
A renewed ethic for the 21st century
Our modern-day Leopold, Douglas Tallamy— an entomologist turned native plant advocate—developed Homegrown National Park, the largest cooperative conservation project ever conceived.
Preserving habitat should not just be the purview of our public parks, he claims. There is just not enough public land and very little in the East. We need to take another look at how we landscape our private spaces. He explains:
"In the past we designed landscapes as if they weren’t essential parts of our local ecosystems. But if your yard, your neighbor’s yard, your entire neighborhood and township, in fact, all the places in which we live, work, and play, are excused from contributing to our local ecosystems, then the natural world that supports us is whittled down to nonfunctional remnants of its former self. This must change if we hope to avoid the worst of Earth’s sixth mass extinction and to sustain the production of essential ecosystem services."
The good news: this change can be rather simple to start. Add native plants!
Having evolved with the local climate, soil, and wildlife for millennia, native plants, trees, and grasses are essential for our ecosystems. Native plants support insects, the backbone of our food chains. They also prevent erosion, capture carbon, contribute to healthy soil, clean our water, mitigate temperature extremes, provide habitat for wildlife, and more.
If Homegrown National Park achieves its goal, we will have restored 20 million acres of habitat, which represents one half of the lawns of privately owned properties. Lawns, I would suggest, that are seldomly used. Check out how you can get on the Homegrown National Park map and be a part of this nationwide effort. (And please, skip the routine use of pesticides.)
If you are thinking this effort may be difficult to join because you live in an HOA, you're in luck if you live in Maryland. The Low-Impact Landscaping Law that took effect in 2021 gives homeowners much more freedom to provide habitat in our own yards. (See your HOA's guidelines for more information.)
My Suburban Safari
I never intended to settle in the suburbs, much less spend half of my life in one neighborhood. But after I read the book Suburban Safari: A Year on the Lawn (2008) some years ago, I convinced myself that the suburbs could offer the best of both worlds: convenience—with some nature—and a great place to raise kids.
So I dug in. I adorned my rectangular plot of grass that I inherited with layers of native trees, shrubs and plants. I added birdbaths and houses, toad abodes, dead logs, brush piles, etc. After reading Tallamy's research, I added specific host plants for insects.
And then the real adventures began. Observing, interacting, and learning.
When the milkweed patch attracts dozens of species, including the always favorite Monarch caterpillars and butterflies, I am always in awe at such transformation.
When a giant snapping turtle laid eggs one spring where we had recently removed a dead tree, I created a turtle cage to protect them from would-be raiders and little human feet. When the mama returned annually over the next several years, I skipped the cage but kept a watchful eye.
When a Cooper’s hawk dove from my roof and grabbed a red-bellied woodpecker in mid-flight and plucked off its feathers one by one as it kept the bird clenched to the ground, my stomach ached. Not just for the brutal death, which of course happens regularly sight unseen, but also for the role my bird feeder may have played.
When we found a baby rat snake in our grill—attracted to the eggs laid by a Carolina wren— we overreacted due to its patterned markings. Only after donning protective gear, grabbing a bucket and a long pole, and playing the fool to relocate the intruder, we learned that baby rat snakes mimic copperheads to trick their predators. A good way to tell the difference is by their tail tip: copperheads have a bright yellow one. Note: if you do come across a venomous snake, please call a professional. (Though I haven't seen or heard of any venomous snakes in the VOU neighborhood).
When a juvenile bear ambled through our backyard, we were camping at the beach, and I'm still disappointed about it!
When each day brought another unique visitor, blooming flower, or experience, I knew I had succeeded in contributing to my local ecosystem: I created my own suburban safari.
Be part of the solution!
"We can be ethical only in relation to something we can see, feel, understand, love or otherwise have faith in." -Aldo Leopold
As volunteers, as Master Naturalists and Master Gardeners, and as amateur this-and-that’s, we at Green Team Urbana are “bringing nature home” (a nod to a great Douglas Tallamy book). We share resources, offer workshops, lead hikes and tours, and help conserve and restore the area’s forests and habitats so that our neighbors can experience and learn about the wildlife that live with us.
Hopefully, you, too, will consider inviting them in!
A disclaimer of sorts: It's important to enjoy wildlife responsibly. This blog provides the whys and includes some of my how-tos based on personal experience and research. I'm likely to have many more visitors since I border a forested area. Luckily, I have not had any incidents that have harmed me, my family, or our property, but some wildlife can present danger especially if threatened or surprised. It helps to be observant and mindful of our shared space. Some animals, though it is rare, can spread disease. There are many resources for learning about how to live with wildlife, including The Humane Society website. There are books as well, including Wild Neighbors: The Humane Approach to Living with Wildlife by John Hadidian, et al. and Living with Wildlife: How to Enjoy, Cope With and Protect North America's Wild Creatures Around Your Home and Theirs by the California Center for Wildlife.
Here's how to start (or expand) habitat:
Be patient with your reaction to the new species that may visit. It took me years and years to (mostly) get over my fear of snakes.
Add native plants to your landscape or to a potted plant on your balcony or deck; see our Resources tab on the Green Team Urbana website or visit Homegrown National Park.
Attracting birds is an easy first step. Set up a bird feeder or bird bath, keep binoculars handy, download these posters of backyard birds and check out Slow Birding by Joan Strassmann.
Visit local native plant gardens at our Third Annual Open House on June 3.
Borrow a Nature Backpack— filled with field guides, interactive ideas, and more—from the VOU office or Sugarloaf Elementary School and explore your neighborhood, trail, or backyard.
Record your observations on iNaturalist and contribute to citizen science.
Advocate for Green Schools and volunteer with a school to create habitat, which is perfect for outdoor learning opportunities.
"The Humane Gardener" writes about adventures in her own suburban yard, including details about the genesis of Maryland's Low-Impact Landscaping Law. See specifically this article. She also writes about "Misunderstood Wild Neighbors" (choose the "Animals" tab from the main page of her website).
Bringing Nature Home and Nature's Best Hope by Douglas Tallamy. Both of these books articulate why we need native plants in our landscapes and are sure to motivate you to reconsider your landscaping. The former provides photos and descriptions of over 100 host trees/plants and the insects that depend on them.
There's a Hair in My Dirt! A Worm's Story by Gary Larson. This is a great short story—especially if you appreciate dark humor.
We are the Ark by Mary Reynolds shares how planting habitat for wildlife is an Act of Restorative Kindness. With beautiful illustrations and a great intro for people new to planting natives.
Beloved Beasts: Fighting for Life in an Age of Extinction by Michelle Nijhuis features stories behind the world's foremost conservationists, including Aldo Leopold, and the animals they protected.
Darwin Comes to Town by Menno Schilthuizen is a fascinating look at how certain species have evolved to thrive in cities. With so much of the world's population living in urban areas, recognizing and understanding the nature in our cities will become increasingly important.
Peterson: First Guide to Urban Wildlife by Sarah Landry (for children) or Field Guide to Urbana Wildlife: Common Animals of Cities and Suburbs, How They Adapt & Thrive by Julie Feinstein.
A note about me: I grew up in Frederick County, have a Masters in Documentary Filmmaking, am a Master Naturalist, and a local environmental advocate. I have had the privilege to travel to amazing landscapes with incredible wildlife—including unforgettable trips to the Galapagos, Patagonia, Central American rainforests, Alaska and countless national parks— but I am just as happy venturing out in my backyard. Usually, I'm looking for insects that have discovered the native plants I added just for them. Plus, they are usually easy to observe and document with my very outdated iPhone. All the pictures in this blog are from my own yard. And even though I'm happy here, one day I hope to restore a larger area much in the way that Aldo Leopold did, and on terms with nothing but nature.