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Birds and butterflies: Making your yard a sanctuary

by Liz Magnanti

Cloudless Sulphur Butterfly Moth on purple coneflower. Photo courtesy Flickr: C Watts

The past couple of months have been a stressful new challenge for all of us. Navigating the new social norms while keeping ourselves and others safe has been at the forefront of most of our lives. While we all navigate through the new normalcy of life, spring is sneaking up on us! Even though life as we knew it for most of us is on pause, nature is showing us that life goes on! Plants are springing up, birds are singing, insects are beginning to fly. One thing is for sure. Spring is here and thriving! 

I think it’s fair to say that this year is unlike any we have ever experienced. We are facing sobering news stories, job losses, working from home, separation from our friends and family, and so much more. At the same time, we are seeing some beautiful acts of kindness that people are showing one another. This new lifestyle has created a different type of busy, but at the same time has slowed life down. I, personally, have found I have more time to take walks in my neighborhood, and enjoy my little patch of land. Each day, I’ve been able to see the little changes that are happening as spring descends. With that has come a renewed appreciation for the diversity of wildlife that I’ve been able to attract to my yard. Making your yard wildlife-friendly doesn’t have to take a lot of effort. With all of us spending more time in our personal patches of nature, now is a great time to take an overall look at the different types of wildlife that can be attracted, and how to do so.

Let’s start with pollinating and beneficial insects. Butterflies, bees, ladybugs, lacewings … there are so many! To attract butterflies, nothing beats planting a butterfly garden. Keep in mind butterflies require nectar-producing plants for their adult stage, but they also need plants for their caterpillar stage to eat and grow. Blooming flowers like beebalm, joe pye weed, phlox, and goldenrod are great for adult, flying, butterflies. Planting a diversity of plants that bloom early spring through late fall are key. Caterpillar plants are a crucial and often overlooked way to attract butterflies. These are the plants that adult butterflies will lay their eggs on. The eggs hatch, and the caterpillars will eat them in order to grow and reach their adult stage. Each butterfly species has different requirements, but a great start is planting milkweed for monarchs, dill and parsley for black swallowtails, and keeping things like nettle and plantain in the garden; those are larval plants for Angle Wing and Sulphur butterflies. Butterfly feeders provide nectar and rotting fruit that can help attract more of them as well. Butterfly puddlers are the best addition besides plants that you can add to your landscape to attract butterflies. These are reservoirs that provide a place to add some mud, sand, pebbles and water. Butterflies will siphon off the water that contains minerals from these elements. Mason bee houses are a super easy way to attract non-stinging, native pollinators to your garden. They are simple houses constructed of small bamboo, wood or paper tunnels. Female bees will lay their eggs inside these tunnels, fill them with nectar and pollen, and then cap them off. The eggs inside will hatch, the larvae will eat the nectar and pollen packets, and then pupate. The pupa stay in the house all winter and then hatch out in early spring to pollinate your garden. Many mason bee habitats are included in “beneficial insect houses” which also contain pinecones for lacewings to lay their eggs and hollowed out holes for ladybugs to hibernate in.

A variety of birds are easy to attract to your yard. They need the same things every other animal needs to thrive, food, water, shelter and a space to raise their young. Birds are probably the most diverse form of life you can attract to your yard, especially during spring migration. Food can be provided with berry- and seed-producing plants or bird feeders. Putting out a bird feeder that holds sunflower seed, or a mix containing sunflower seed, will give you the best diversity of birds per any seed type. If you expand your food offerings to seed blends that provide peanuts, safflower, or shelled sunflower, you will get even more diversity. Nyjer feeders will attract birds like goldfinches and suet feeders will attract woodpeckers. Birds like orioles eat jelly and hummingbirds drink nectar. Water in the form of a birdbath or moving water feature is key. The sight and sound of moving water brings in more birds. If you have a birdbath, consider adding a solar fountain insert. The birds will love it! Bird houses, shrubs, and trees provide a place for shelter and a space they can raise their young. When selecting a bird house, keep in mind most birds like a house that is secure and doesn’t move around. Attaching a bird house to a pole is your best bet to get birds to inhabit a house. 

Bats, despite their recent bad press, are animals that are not only beneficial but also struggling and should be considered when making you yard wildlife friendly. Bats are a great way to safely control insects, especially mosquitoes, without using pesticides. One bat alone can eat 200 insects every hour! When putting up a bat house make sure that they are mounted high, 10 or 15 feet up, and without any obstructions underneath. In our climate its best to paint the bat house black. That will absorb heat, which the bats prefer in a roosting site. Once occupied, the bat house will be a place for bats to spend the spring and summer and will provide entertainment at dusk when they begin to chatter and leave the house to hunt insects. Bats do not carry rabies any more than other wildlife, and they do not get caught up in people’s hair. Those are two misconceptions that often make people wary about encouraging them to a yard, so fear not!

Throughout the next few weeks, or possibly even months, I’m taking it upon myself to take a step back and enjoy the things I sometimes take for granted or don’t always have the time to appreciate. The lovely songs and sights of spring are rolling in fast and furious. I’ll be looking around my yard and considering how I can make it more wildlife-friendly. Not only will the wildlife appreciate it, but it comes with a sense of joy and entertainment that can’t be taught or bought. Wildlife, as well as the rest of us, will prevail. Instead of thinking of the things or opportunities I have lost during this time, I’ve decided to keep track of all the experiences in which I’ve grown and gained. This is an opportunity to get out, enjoy spring, nature and my garden. It’s chicken soup for the soul.

Liz Magnanti is the manager of the Bird House in Pittsford. 

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