By Mark Herwig
A few years ago I was out in my White Bear Lake back yard doing some gardening when over the fence a neighbor called out:
"Your yard sure looks good."
"Thanks," I replied. My suburban back yard is all flowers and vegetables with only a slim trail of bluegrass sod.
The neighbor continued, "The kids and I used to love finding salamanders and watching the birds in the yard, but we don't see them much anymore. Your yard is full of birds."
I suggested that the fact his back yard was covered with Kentucky bluegrass had something to do with the lack of wildlife. He agreed.
Many people regard urban yards as pretty places to see a few birds and squirrels, but most of us don't expect much more from them in terms of wildlife. Perhaps we should.
Urban wildlife habitat is hard to come by and, therefore, vitally important to species such as pileated woodpeckers, spring peepers, painted turtles, and other critters trying to survive in increasingly developed areas. Indeed, some of Minnesota's rarest species, such as the hooded warbler, rely on the green spaces left in the seven-county metro area to breed and raise their young. And several species of migratory waterfowl and songbirds depend on natural areas in cities and towns for resting spots during their spring and fall journeys. These connecting corridors between summer and winter homes are vital habitats to sustain populations.
We sell ourselves and wildlife short if we treat our urban environment as a sacrifice zone, subject to total human domination. I've hunted in 30 states and visited numerous national and state parks and wildlife areas around the country. I thought I had to get out of town to get my wildlife fix. But once I started looking around my suburban home, I came to believe that the beauty of nature should not be something we expect only during a few days of vacation each year away from home. It should be just around the corner, where we live -- and for most Minnesotans, that's in the city. As city dwellers become more aware of urban wildlife, more of us are making room for backyard habitat.
By replacing Kentucky bluegrass with a mix of wild and cultivated flowers and food crops, I've restored a simple food chain in my garden: Plants draw insects, which attract hungry birds, some of which a sharp-shinned hawk has caught and devoured before my eyes. A 10-by-10-feet patch of sunflowers had goldfinches feeding around the clock on the nutritious seeds. A grapevine I planted and trained to grow 30 feet up a spruce tree drew a flock of yellow-shafted flickers one autumn. The energy-packed grapes fueled their migration south. A small pond I built now harbors an insect-eating toad and supplies mud for robin nests in spring and wasp nests in summer.
These wildlife benefits would be multiplied if my neighborhood had more gardens with native plants. The benefits include absorption of carbon, less need for fertilizing and watering, and reduced stormwater runoff and soil erosion.
Farmers have state and federal incentives to establish wildlife habitat, and lakeshore owners have local watershed district programs to do the same. Some counties and municipalities offer incentives for homeowners. To learn about programs, contact Minnesota Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts at www.maswcd.org or 651-690-9028.
If connected with other large habitat fragments, neighborhood and regional parks can be the building blocks of green corridors that run through the metro area. Indeed, according to Jan Shaw Wolff, coordinator of the Department of Natural Resources' ecological education program, improving and protecting the combined habitat of thousands of yards, gardens, and parks is the best way to help some species.
"Up north isn't the only game in town for wildlife," she said. "The metro matters too. The most reliable place, for example, to find hooded warblers in Minnesota is in Murphy-Hanrehan Park in Scott County." The 2,400-acre park, 18 miles south of downtown Minneapolis, hosts the only known breeding population of hooded warblers in the state. With at least 85 bird species breeding in these wooded rolling hills, the reserve has been designated as one of Audubon's Important Bird Areas.
Wolff said the DNR's state wildlife action plan, Tomorrow's Habitat for the Wild and Rare, published in 2006, reported that over one-half of Minnesota's 292 species in greatest conservation need are found near the Twin Cities and south along the Mississippi River. The diverse habitats in and around the tributary rivers, lakes, forest, and prairie of the river corridor have some of the state's greatest biodiversity. Species such as common snapping turtle, Blanding's turtle, freshwater mussels, American bittern, and Virginia rail are in need of conservation actions because of habitat loss due to a large and increasing metro human population, said Wolff, who advocates metro-area projects as a key to preserving these species.
"How many other cities across the United States can boast bald eagles, peregrine falcons, American white pelicans, sandhill cranes, and trumpeter swans flying past their skyscrapers?" Wolff asked.
Karen Eckman and friends are improving wildlife habitat in suburban Shoreview. Eckman, a supervisor on the Ramsey Conservation District Board, has volunteered to work with the Shoreview Green Community, organized by local Sierra Club members. The group began by analyzing and reporting on Shoreview's progress on transportation, clean air and water, sustainable land use, and recreation. It then organized a public caucus with more than 50 citizens voting on their priorities. Transit, natural resource use, and water quality came out on top. Work on these priorities includes a self-guided tour of 10 projects that demonstrate best conservation practices, such as maintaining a rain garden to catch runoff from a parking lot.
Neighborhood conservationists make a difference around my town of White Bear Lake. Several years ago, the late U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Art Hawkins, other citizens, and I negotiated with a local water-ski club to delay training on its slalom course until migratory birds depart from Goose Lake, an important migratory stopover. One morning last spring, I counted 65 migrating loons, 150 lesser scaup, and three species of mergansers on Goose Lake. Our next goal for Goose Lake is to mitigate the phosphorus and chlorophyll levels, elevated due primarily to runoff from lawns and impervious surfaces.
Perhaps an old refrain should be modified: A neighborhood conservationist's work is never done.Support wildlife and habitat through DNR Nongame Wildlife Checkoff on your Minnesota tax forms. Learn more about Minnesota's rare wildlife.