I’d like to begin with a few personal sketches.
An Unusual Discovery
My wife and I are committed birders. In our backyard, we provide birds with food, water, and places to nest and take cover. We also have a “yard list” of 77 species—the number of bird species that we’ve observed or heard on, near, or above our quarter-acre property in Chesapeake, Virginia. To our amazement, the latest addition was a migrating Chuck-will’s-widow (Antrostomus carolinensis).
On May 4, we heard the bird sing at dusk, albeit briefly, in the narrow woodland buffer that separates our neighborhood from the sprawling and always-busy Norfolk Southern rail yard. Here’s a recording I made of the same species a few years ago as we conducted a Breeding Bird Survey on the Eastern Shore of Virginia.
As I listened in rapt attention, I imagined the bird resting and foraging in those woods as it journeyed from Cuba to Cape Charles. That this bird of “open forests and dune lands,” and also of declining numbers and rising conservation concern, wound up in a strip of woods between a city neighborhood and moving coal cars was borderline hard to fathom. Yet it’s not surprising given the ecological importance of these habitat islands.
A Backyard Experiment
My wife and I love birds—fellow travelers, nature’s emissaries. In a nutshell, they enthrall us. They’re also contributors to environmental health and important environmental sentinels. But we wondered if we could play host to other wildlife, too, on our habitat island. So, we did a little experiment. We decided to forgo the usual maintenance and let our backyard lawn grow. The fescue grew taller, and so did the white clover (Trifolium repens). We didn’t realize we had so much!
After the ground was blanketed with the small, white clover flower clusters, we discovered some new guests. They included pollinators like this common eastern bumble bee (Bombus impatiens),
and helpful herbivores like this eastern cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus).
Eastern cottontails not only help keep some weeds in check, but they also provide food for many animals, including a number of birds of prey.
Every Bit of Wild
Clemson Professor of Wildlife Ecology Dr. J. Drew Lanham all but shouts the importance of these places—these buffers and woodlots and yards—toward the end of his must-read article, “The wildness is in me, too.” He declares, “EVERY BIT OF WILD is important, from urban pocket parks to sprawling landscapes that swallow us whole in the unknown.” Our little backyard experiment confirmed that what he says is true.
A City Park
Prof. Lanham’s words echo some of what I wrote in “An Ode to a City Park,” a blog post about Lakeside Park in Chesapeake, a park sandwiched between a middle school and a busy city road: “You can travel to the local National Wildlife Refuges or to Wildlife Management Areas or state parks, but you might very well have a certifiable birding hotspot in a town or city park in your own backyard.” That 11-acre park, a stormwater control pond on much of its footprint, is not only a bird and wildlife hotspot, but it also plays host to a green heron (Butorides virescens) breeding colony.
Biodiversity Sustains Us
“Every bit of wild is important” is also the theme of much of the work of Doug Tallamy. He urges everyone from window box gardeners to policymakers to consider the significance of conserving or reclaiming even tiny spaces for plants (especially natives) and animals (especially Lepidoptera).
According to Tallamy, “lepidopterans form a critical base of the food web,” and many birds rely on their larvae to feed their young.
Author David Lindo makes a similar plea in his How to Be an Urban Birder. He writes, “There is fabulous wildlife all around us and we need to encourage and conserve it in the places where it exists. Whether this be nurturing invertebrates within a tiny window box…or starting a green roof project.” Both gentlemen also advocate for wild places wherever they’re found: home gardens, local parks, and vacant and abandoned city land.
Tallamy explains why all of this is so important in his book Bringing Nature Home. There, he simply affirms that “biodiversity sustains us,” or as the World Health Organization has said, “Biodiversity underpins life.” We depend on this diversity and the healthy ecosystems that support it not only to meet our basic needs but also to contribute to our mental and spiritual well-being. Dr. Lanham—also a poet—expresses that contribution this way: Wilderness and the myriad winged, clawed, fanged, or finned wild things have the power to connect us to our better selves, (a connection especially important now). And those are the thoughts I’d like to leave you with—those, and EVERY bit of wild matters.
I hope you listened to the common eastern bumble bee recording. In case you’re wondering, the sounds of the bee were bracketed by a green heron flight call and a downy woodpecker “whinny.” You also heard the sounds of an eastern bluebird and the neighbor’s dog.