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In This Place

Gardens and Feeders Can Keep You Busy

Patrick Kavanagh / flickr

In this time of social distancing, I’ve been noticing some strange things in my neighborhood – my neighbors. People and dogs I’ve never seen before are now sauntering down the road, perhaps venturing further from their house on some nearby road than they ever before dared on foot. And though state decision makers seem to still be in a little bit of denial about how exponential growth curves work, we may be headed towards “stay at home” orders, rather than just advisories, soon, meaning we will continue to spending a lot of time in our neighborhoods.


With even some major conservation organizations like Mass Audubon and Trustees of Reservations closing their trails due to overcrowding concerns, backyard and neighborhood birding have never been more important. The same goes for gardening, the most popular outdoor activity in America, and another thing you can do to attract and benefit birds. So here are some ideas for activities and areas of study to keep you occupied, healthy, and sane in the coming weeks. The good news is that even the strictest “shelter in place” order thus far, that for San Francisco, has allowed for walking, running, and hiking from your home.


But for some, even those activities are not an option. Luckily, watching your birdfeeders can be a form of meditation with real health benefits, I suspect, though I couldn’t find any studies to that effect in a quick search. One way to force yourself to have some meditative feeder time is to participate in Cornell’s Project Feederwatch. This long-running citizen science project asks you to watch your feeders for an hour on two consecutive days each week, recording what you see. On other days, record your sightings in Cornell’s other landmark citizen science project, eBird. In both cases, your sightings are then available to scientists everywhere.


Stepping ever so cautiously outside, you will notice some perennials starting to peek forth from the still chilly soil. With gyms closed and everyone rattling around their house amidst a steady hum of stress and uncertainty, I suspect some pretty aggressive yard cleanup is underway. Before you slash and burn, I recommend searching up some information on insect and bird friendly yard cleanup – I’ll include some links on the web version of this weeks’ report. The basic theory is that overly aggressive cleanup of fallen leaves and stems, in both fall and spring, removes the overwintering sites for a host of beneficial insects, including many native bees that overwinter in hollow stems, dead wood, or underground, as well as beneficial insect predators like ladybugs and non-aggressive wasps. Leaving the leaves a little longer, as well as keeping cut stems somewhere nearby gives these good bugs a chance, and also keeps them available as food for your local birds.


If you want to get deeper into the weeds - pun intended, of course – then Google up a lecture by native plant guru Doug Tallamy. Dr. Tallamy is a published scientist and professor of insect ecology. He develops questions about how our landscaping decisions might impact our native insect and birds, tests them with his grad students, and publishes the results in the peer-reviewed literature. His book on sustaining wildlife with native landscape plants is called Bringing Nature Home, and is a good one to read as we head into gardening season, whatever that may look like in this new world order.


Whether you are home bound and studying up on bird identification and gardening or venturing out into the neighborhood to awkwardly greet your neighbors from a safe distance, know that the birds, plants, and insects are there for you. While I often say “I’ll see you out there”, I probably won’t. Unless you’re that weird neighbor I just saw walking down my street for the first time ever.