Give backyard wildlife a chance

Lenore Fahrig with elm tree trunk

Lenore Fahrig, Carleton biology professor, has retained in her Glebe back yard the trunk of an elm tree that died five years ago as a home to beetles that provide food for woodpeckers and other birds. Photo: Jennifer Humphries

Is your backyard an ecological haven for wildlife and insects? Or is it, from the perspective of the wild creatures and of ecologists, an urban wasteland?

I’ve been wondering for some time whether our Glebe backyards, my own included, are as kind to birds, bees, butterflies and bats, all kinds of small animals and insects, as they could be. The contemporary approach to yards combines the aesthetic and practical: a bit of garden that looks lovely and some manicured lawn that can be used for play or relaxation. It’s a very tidy style, leaving no “yard waste” to detract from the clean look.

But what if that yard waste is needed by birds and squirrels to build nests and shelters? What if it houses the insects and seeds that they need to eat? And what if the trees and plants we favour aren’t very good at feeding and sheltering the avian and small mammal species we like to see?

Fortunately a few slight changes can make a huge difference, as I’ve learned from three local proponents of an eco-friendly approach to landscaping and gardening.

Christine Earnshaw is one of the founders of Tree Fest Ottawa. When I told her about our project to encourage planting 150 trees in the Glebe for Canada 150, she mentioned that she had planted a gingko and later realized that, while lovely, it was not the best choice. Why? Research shows huge variation in the number of insects that different tree species support. For example, an oak is considered to sustain over 500 caterpillar (moth and butterfly) species while the gingko supports only a few.

Monumental dead tree

Monumental dead tree at the Museum of Nature. Photo: Jennifer Humphries

Earnshaw, with a core group of people passionate about trees, founded Tree Fest Ottawa in 2015. Their goal is to heighten awareness of the importance and beauty of trees in our urban setting and inspire Ottawa residents to get involved in planting and preserving trees.

So far Tree Fest has focused on pop-up events, e.g. guided walks, the autumn festival, photo exhibits, but they hope to develop more permanent learning activities. I suggested that Earnshaw take a look at the Glebe’s Exploration Garden beside Central Park East, a child-friendly area created at the initiative of the Glebe Community Association (GCA) Parks Committee with support from City Councillor David Chernushenko. During her visit to the Garden she admired the magnificent elm that anchors it (in fact, the tree may be challenged soon by development on the adjacent lot). And she encountered two young children with their grandparents making good use of a site feature by excavating “dinosaur bones.” “We need more of these child-focused natural places in all kinds of neighbourhoods to give everyone in Ottawa access to trees,” Earnshaw urged.

Magnificent pine

Giant pine tree, home to many insects. Photo: Chris Osler

Lenore Fahrig is a member of the GCA Environment Committee and a professor in the biology department at Carleton University. Recently she told me of the important eco-system role that is played by dead trees. Fahrig has retained in her Glebe back yard the trunk of an elm tree that died five years ago. It is home to beetles that provide food for woodpeckers and other birds. And good to know: it’s the branches that may cause a dead tree to fall in severe wind conditions, a risk that can be remedied by removing them and leaving just the trunk.

Fahrig pointed out that over-cleaning of yards makes them unhelpful to the many creatures that depend on a bit of brush or a mound of leaves for habitat and food. A woodpile can be both an attractive addition to a yard and a helpful resource for wildlife. Fahrig suggests that before you clean up, you consider where you might create opportunities for food and habitat. “We need to recognize that, though trees are essential, it’s not just the trees but the whole eco-system around them that’s important,” she said.

The wildlife that uses trees for habitat and nourishment includes birds, bees and butterflies – and bats too!

Mike Anissimoff of the Canadian Wildlife Federation (CWF) is deeply aware that bats get a bad rap. He is the CWF’s bat conservation specialist and is working on a campaign called Help the Bats, which is geared towards providing roosting sites for species whose numbers are in steep decline, e.g. the endangered Little Brown Bat.

Bats are a valuable part of our ecosystem, Anissimoff told me. They are nature’s pest control, eating huge numbers of insects such as mosquitoes during their nocturnal flights.

Backyard trees Christine Earnshaw

Christine Earnshaw, one of the founders of Tree Fest Ottawa, at the Exploration Garden at the corner of Central Park East and Bank St.

Scientists believe they’ve been around for 50 million years. But in the 21st century they are threatened. Habitat loss, pesticides and white nose disease (not a risk to humans) have vastly reduced their numbers.

Anissimoff wants Glebe residents to think about helping bats when they design or redesign their yards. Tall, large trees make homes for tree-roosting bats. Consider adding a bat house to a pole or tall structure in your yard (recommended that the house be south-facing for maximum sun and four metres from the ground). If you have to evict bats from your attic, use the services of a humane wildlife control company and try to give the bats a new “detached” roost in your yard.

The CWF has a project to provide bat houses to 50 homeowners and is particularly interested in neighbourhoods like the Glebe. For more information, visit www.helpthebats.ca.

So, before you clear or redo your yard, please think about what you can do to make your environment welcoming to little wild creatures.

For more information, see the stories, interviews and photographs conveying the power and importance of trees at www.treefestottawa.org. See the Canadian Wildlife Federation site for great tips on wildlife-friendly yards: www.cwf-fcf.org. And there is great information on trees and plants that support wildlife from the Ottawa Field Naturalists Club: www.ofnc.ca/fletcher/your-garden.

Jennifer Humphries is co-chair of the Glebe Community Association’s Environment Committee. You can contact her at environment@glebeca.ca.

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