Osprey, children and nature in the spring give me hope.
“The osprey is back!” Kellan trumpeted my other 4-Hs, staring at the nest crowning the cell tower behind The Smith.
“Of course,” I said, wondering aloud how many other towns could claim their own osprey nest. I smiled, proud that Kellan recognized the bird and that all the children were impressed by its size and happy that it was back. They too seemed to recognize in it a sign of spring and hope.
I had told my 4-H’ers how the osprey population declined in my childhood, just as monarchs did in theirs. We didn’t know the side effects of DDT at the time, just as we never imagined that killing the ubiquitous milkweed would eliminate food for monarch caterpillars. It took my entire adult life for the osprey to bounce back.
Both situations inspired my 4-H’ers to join a national effort to replenish the monarch population. We started observing the monarch life cycle, collecting and planting milkweed seeds, and keeping records of when the caterpillars and pupae hatched in our backyards. We celebrated with thousands of others last fall when newspaper headlines announced that the monarch’s decline was slowing. We rebuilt the monarch’s habitat right here in Geneva, all in the blink of an eye!
That’s why I was happy, and optimistic, when Doug Tallamy’s “Nature’s Best Hope” was chosen as the spring/summer book for Geneva Reads’ community reading. In it, Tallamy offers a blueprint for how individuals – through small actions of planting native plants and rebuilding natural habitat in our backyards – can build a corridor for birds. This lifeline of hope is needed because 40% of songbirds have disappeared since 1970, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
The premise of the book is that our national parks are too small and too remote to provide the ecosystem needed to save nature. Tallamy challenges us to create local national parks by adding native plants to our gardens and removing invasive species.
His research shows that each year, our 40 million acres of lawn use 70 million pounds of pesticides and fertilizers, 200 million gallons of water and 3 billion hours of maintenance. The impact on nature’s diversity can be hard to believe. So I armed my 4-H with bug nets to sweep up sections of my lawn, then sections of a wildflower meadow. The lawn produced almost no gnats and leafhoppers. The field was producing honey and solitary bees, ladybugs and milkweeds, praying mantises, herbivorous wasps, dragon and damselfly flies… the list and number went far beyond what we could identify and count. The kids got it – more diversity in the meadow led to more life.
I started reading more and asking questions of birders, nurserymen and master gardeners. My neighbor Jana Lamboy gave me the most realistic and thought-provoking answer:
“It’s about good, better, better. It’s good if you go out, enjoy watching nature and even plant something. Better if you start thinking about how to make your garden more attractive to birds and butterflies and enjoy some native plantings. Your first thought is native plant alternatives to support the health of your birds all year round when you are landscaping.
Geneva Reads’ bird-themed efforts are good. Our Community Read events, which started in September, attracted over 100 people. That’s a good number, but nothing compared to the more than 200,000 bird enthusiasts who come to the Finger Lakes each year. Our neighborhood bird walks revealed a wealth of native species and plants along Castle Creek and the old growth forest of Loomis Woods; Additionally, a neighbor of Gulvin Park said he recorded 37 species of birds in the area.
Better isn’t too difficult either.
Tallamy’s book and two other titles that Geneva Reads provided to the library sparked questions in our birding community, and our events revealed a slew of regional experts eager to answer the following questions (and more):
What are native plants? And where can I get them?
A native plant is one that grows naturally in an area, and natural landscaper Jill Byington showed me what qualified in my yard — my sugar and walnut maples, dogwoods and viburnum shrubs, monarda and purple flowers. But my forsythia, burning bush, yew and day lily are not and can be invasive if left unchecked. She directed me to three local native nurseries to plant this spring and suggested I ask other nurseries to start stocking native plants.
Why are native plants better for birds? Tallamy’s simple answer is that a pair of black-capped chickadees need 4,000 to 6,000 caterpillars to raise their young, and native plants best support a caterpillar’s life cycle. So I have to plant more.
Another best step is not to rake or mow between September and June.
My husband, Bob, compromised last fall and raked the front yard, but left the leaves around the base of the trees. and left the stems in my garden to overwinter – important areas for hibernating pollinators and foraging birds. We’re also talking about dedicating a small area in the backyard for “No Mow May” to help birds and bees start their season with more food and cover.
The best comes with spring.
My 4-H’ers and I have each created local 10 square foot national parks in our yards. We started coneflowers, butterfly weeds and gaillardia from seed. Some have built shelters for bats, bees and birds. We share kitty willow and red osier dogwood sprouts for planting.
Even better, these young people will participate in the Mission Zero Environmental Day at the Geneva Community Center from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on April 30. They hope you will share Nature’s Best Hope’s vision for our future by participating in their demonstrations and embracing the resources available. , including tree and seed donations that will be available.
McCarthy is Community Reading Committee Chair, Geneva Reads Board Member, Thistle & Shamrock 4-H Leader, NYS Master Naturalist and Raptor Educator Volunteer for Wild Wings Nature Center.