Blue Ridge Naturalist: Child’s Play

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A Carolina Wren uses a large variety of natural materials to construct its dome-shaped nest: dried pine needles and plant stalks, moss, rootlets, twigs, bark strips, and sometimes a cast-off snake skin! Photo: Marlene A. Condon.

Today’s column is especially for children (per a reader suggestion), although adults are certainly welcome to read along too!

Gardening for Wildlife

Just like you, wild critters need a home. For them to live in your yard, they need lots of plants. But it is not necessary to buy trees, shrubs, and flowers to plant around your house.

Ask your parents if you can mark off a sunny area of the yard to call your own. If it’s okay with them, remove most of the grass in your garden patch, and then wait. Be patient, and soon “volunteer” plants will come up.

Although most folks tend to call plants that come into the yard on their own “weeds,” many such plants are pretty as well as helpful to such critters as birds, butterflies, bees, and bunnies. By keeping an eye on your little garden, you can discover which plants are most often visited by wildlife.

You might learn which animals feed on leaves and which go to flowers for pollen and nectar. Later, you might see which animals eat the seeds or fruits that the plants made.

A Place for Life

A bird lays its eggs in a nest made of natural materials that should be easy for it to find, such as moss, lichen, spider webbing, mud, and feathers. Birds also use many kinds of dried plant matter, such as pine needles and leaves, stems, grasses, and twigs from trees.

Can a bird find these things in your yard, or in the yards of your neighbors? People like tidy yards, so they often rake up all the leaves and pull or cut all the plants that have turned brown. Usually they burn this old plant material or send it away to a landfill, which means birds can have trouble getting what they need to build a nest. However, there is a way to help birds as well as other animals and still have a tidy yard.

See if you can find a corner of the yard that people don’t visit often and ask your parents if they could put all plant debris, including woody material, in that one spot. By doing this, you create a brush pile, which is one of the best things you can do for wildlife.

By piling up branches trimmed from trees and bushes with the other yard debris, you make a place where birds can grab nesting material, hide from predators, or sleep at night. Some kinds of birds, along with bunnies, like to nest at the bottom of the pile where they can hide their nests underneath the twigs.

The bottom of the brush pile that is touching the ground will, over time, begin to decay, creating a perfect place for lizard and salamanders to lay their eggs. It even serves as a restaurant for them because they will find many different insects and spiders hanging out there.

Giving Toads A Helping Hand

All animals need water to live. Many people put out a bird bath on a stand for birds to get a drink and to clean themselves. But if you put a bird bath on the ground, it becomes a toad bath, too!

Although toads have dry skin (unlike frogs, which stay moist), they need water to drink. A toad does not drink by using its tongue to slurp up water as many other animals do. Instead, it takes in water through its skin. If no rain falls for a long time, there might not be any puddles for the toad to get into for a drink, but you could provide the water it needs.

The bath should be no more than two inches deep. If you do not own a bird bath, you can use a shallow dish instead. Whichever you use, be sure to put in fresh water every day. If the surface of the bath becomes slimy and turns green or red, algae is starting to grow. Algae are simple plants that do not make flowers. They are related to seaweed. You can clean off the algae with a scrub brush and then rinse the bath out.

Place the toad bath where you can easily watch it as the Sun goes down and toads become active.

Helping Butterflies and Bees

You might also want to make a “puddling bath” for butterflies where these insects can get water and minerals.

Place a glazed ceramic-flowerpot saucer in a sunny area. Make a “mud” by mixing together soil and manure (sold at garden centers), using an equal amount of both materials. Fill the saucer with the mixture to about one-half inch below the rim, then add just enough water to make the mud wet. Keep it moist throughout the summer and watch for butterflies to visit. These lovely insects need salt to reproduce, which they can get from the manure.

You can help bees and other insects to get the nectar and pollen they need for themselves and their young by growing some of their favorite flowers. Zinnias and marigolds are easy to grow from seed and offer you a choice of colors.

Two Important “Rules”

By welcoming wildlife to your yard, you give critters a place to live, which is something you can feel proud about doing. But there are two “rules” you should follow:

Always try not to scare the animals by getting too close, and you should never try to handle them. Although you know you don’t plan to hurt them, they don’t know that.

By keeping your distance from them, you will learn much more about their lives. If they do not know you are watching them, they can go about their business as they usually do. And that is the secret to finding out just what they do all day!

Become A Scientist

A scientist is someone who makes careful observations and writes detailed notes about them. This is the best way to become an expert about nature in your own back yard.

For example, all plants and animals have their own calendars. By keeping track over many years of the dates and temperatures when, for example, you hear different kinds of frogs calling, you will know under what conditions each type of frog will be active. Then you will be well on your way to becoming an expert on frog activities.

Think of a nature-friendly yard as a teacher, showing you how the entire natural world works. There is literally a world of discovery waiting for you just outside your door, because what happens there, happens everywhere! 

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