Poking About My Yard

Birds, though they often don't eat leaves, depend on the caterpillars and other insects that do eat leaves. A caterpillar is simply an efficient way to turn a leaf into the perfect food for baby birds. Photo by Jeff Tome

I took a few minutes to poke around my yard before writing this today. My usual poking involves weeding, planting seeds and checking out how flowers and fruit are developing. Today, I was poking around for ideas to write about.

Even though it is not very large, my yard is a delightful place to explore. The Mountain Laurel, rescued from a neighbor who was cutting down the 20-year-old bush, has taken 10 years to get back to waist height. The branches are currently weighed down with pink blossoms. I have searched those flowers for bees and other pollinators each year but have never found any. Each Mountain Laurel blossom has spring-loaded pollen in it that flips up with speed to stick the pollen on a pollinator’s back. So far, none of the pollen has been sprung. There is a pollinator missing from the yard, and the Mountain Laurel will not make seeds until it comes. I’m not sure how many years it will take for the right insect to find the flowers.

Just behind the Mountain Laurel is a Red Oak. My daughter planted it when she was a year old from plump acorns she tucked into chubby fists while walking around the neighborhood. In a ritual only she understood, the acorns were tossed off the porch every time we returned home. I transplanted one of the 19 tiny oaks into the corner of the yard. Now, 10 years later, the tree towers 18 feet high and is home to birds and insects galore. Oak trees are known to have more different kinds of caterpillars on them than any other local tree.

We visit the mama tree on occasion and tell her how well her baby is doing up the block. Between the mama tree with her three-foot wide trunk and the youngster oak in the yard, there are hundreds of caterpillars to feed the birds. Most birds feed a lot of caterpillars to their young. One study by Douglas Tallamy even showed that chickadees might feed their young over 300 caterpillars a day.

I’m sure the birds in the yard are grateful for my daughter’s sporadic oak planting. There are wrens nesting in the lichen covered nest box we built together, Mourning Doves in the trees, chickadees in the honeysuckle arbor and Blue Jays in the Balsam Fir. The birds split the yard up into sections that, like my daughter’s odd love of acorns, I don’t understand.

The truth is, I have strived to plant native plants in my yard so that there is plenty of food for local animals. A lot of those animals are caterpillars and glittering long-legged flies and interesting insects that provide food for the bigger, showier animals.

My family loves to watch the wrens carry food to their babies, but that wouldn’t be possible in a landscape without plants that bird food eats. Think of caterpillars as walking bird feeders with six legs. Each one can help a baby bird survive for a few minutes. A couple hundred will get them through the night with enough protein to grow fast. Caterpillars are often stubborn eaters of American fare.

A landscape full of plants from Europe and Asia contains fewer insects, simply because local insects don’t recognize foreign plants as food. To a caterpillar, a Bradford Pear or Gingko tree is as edible as the computer I am typing this on. While there are local caterpillars that thrive on unexpected plants, like the itch-inducing Poison Ivy or searingly painful stinging nettle, they won’t touch a gingko leaf.

A neighborhood without native plants may start a domino effect that affects the whole area. Fewer native plants means fewer insects which means fewer birds. That is, of course, a simplification. It takes years of research to understand all the moving parts in a habitat, even in a yard as tiny as mine.

Still, I plan to keep planting for the insects and the birds and hope that my little corner of the world will be a valuable part of the local habitat. It’s my little effort to make things just a tiny bit better.

Jeff Tome is a Senior Naturalist and Exhibits Coordinator at the Audubon Community Nature Center, a former CWC board director and a longtime CWC volunteer.

The Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy is a local not-for-profit organization 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 chautauquawatershed.org or facebook.com/chautauquawatershed.