Earth Week 2016: Upgrade Your Yard for Wildlife by Letting it Go

We’re celebrating Earth Week 2016 with suggestions for how to apply the phrase “Earth Day Every Day” to conserving biodiversity. There are a number of great suggestions for things you can do every day to conserve energy and water; but we asked ourselves, what actions can we take to conserve biodiversity? This week we’ll explore: food production on biodiversity, how plastic consumption impacts biodiversity, creating a biodiversity friendly lawn, and engaging children in nature experiences to foster connections to the environment.

The word biodiversity congers up visuals of far away places – the Amazonian rainforests or The Great Barrier coral reef. Having an impact can seem insurmountable, but is in fact it is within your reach. Biodiversity is as close as your own backyard. Traditional conservation models separate people and animals through protected areas, putting and saving biodiversity “over there” in areas seemingly untouched by people. Human development is not slowing down and we rarely gain more land to set aside for nature. To sustain wildlife, developed areas are needed as corridors and even permanent habitat. This means you can have a direct impact on wildlife by improving (or letting go of) your yard. Here’s some easy ways how.

Flowering plants provide food for pollinators.
Flowering plants provide food for pollinators.

Landscape with native plants. Urban areas can actually have higher plant biodiversity than natural areas because of invasive species of ornamental value of used in landscaping, but native plants are important for wildlife. They have evolved in that ecosystem with those species and therefore host higher species richness and are essential for other species, some of conservation concern. For example, monarch butterflies, which been in decline for decades, need milkweed to lay their eggs. Plant some milkweed and you directly help monarch populations. Native plants require less water, no pesticides, and as an added bonus are low maintenance. Natives are especially important in arid areas as the plants have evolved with little water and can handle stressful droughts. Planting native flowering plants provides food sources for pollinators, which are vital to our economy, as they pollinate our food supply.

Don’t use pesticides. Pesticides obviously kill insects and other pests, which means they directly reduce insect biodiversity, but also other species by reducing food sources.  Pesticides are highly toxic to humans and animals, and spread throughout the environment as runoff, which can also affect animals and us in the form of endocrine disruption, interfering with reproduction.

backyard_marie_reamer-570x350Or don’t landscape at all. When I was little, we were not allowed to walk on my next door neighbor’s lawn. I could not understand this concept. How could someone care about grass so much? He was so obsessed about getting it perfectly green and manicured, dumping tons of pesticides and fertilizers on it, that now I am happy that I didn’t walk on it for my health. Mowed lawns are actually terrible for wildlife. They are severely monocultured and do not provide any dimension for habitat structure. Therefore, there is less food and shelter in yards with large, manicured lawns. Even if you can’t get away with, or can bear the thought of not having a lawn, at least let parts of your yard go. Piles of brush, logs, and unraked leaves all provide macro and microhabitat that a range of wildlife can enjoy. The best part about this tip is that you can be super lazy and still do it.

Put up a bird house and a bat house. With the sprawl of houses and monocultured lawns, animals like birds and bats lose the types of complex structures such as tree cavities that they live in. Building these houses creates shelter in these difficult, developed landscapes. Setting up bat houses can reduce human-wildlife conflict (bats will choose bat houses over your house) and can make your yard more enjoyable by eating mosquitos.

Keep cats indoors. This one is huge. I love cats (I have four), but they are cute, little wildlife murderers. While they don’t discriminate, killing reptiles, birds, and mammals, their impacts are particularly damaging to bird populations. One study found they kill at least one bird per month (that was only what they brought back). Multiply that by all the cats, both owned and unowned, and you could have impacts in the billions.

Don't be fooled. They look cute and innocent, but they are supreme hunters. Which is why they stay indoors.
Don’t be fooled. They look cute and innocent, but they are supreme hunters. Which is why they stay indoors.

If you follow these guidelines, you may consider certifying your yard as wildlife habitat through the National Wildlife Federation. Beyond these recommendations, there are only a few more things to do such as providing water sources.

The weather is warming up and everyone is getting ready for some backyard recreation. When outside at your grill or mowing the lawn, look around and see if there are some small tweaks you can make to make your yard more wildlife friendly. Better yet, involve your children to create conservation stewards for the future. You won’t just help wildlife, but you’ll also save time and money.

I'm super lazy when it comes to my yard, which creates a lot of habitat for animals. Sorry neighbors! #sorrynotsorry
I’m super lazy when it comes to my yard, which creates a lot of habitat for animals. Sorry neighbors! #sorrynotsorry

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