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THE CITY REBORN FROM THE ASHES OF AMERICA'S MOST DISASTROUS FOREST FIRE
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From My Window

Issue Date: January 26, 2022

Jane Thibodeau Martin

I Can't Change the World, But"

**********

A lot of big problems plague us. Big problems frustrate and worry us, as we can't resolve them as individuals. Climate change is a good example of a "big problem" that gravely concerns me.

I am going to write about one small part of a big problem; the crash in songbird populations documented by scientists and noticeable by ordinary people like me. To do it, I am going to start with something I think nearly all of us can agree on. (I know, it is miraculous, right?)

I think all Wisconsinites enjoy chickadees. Instead of fleeing south, these cute and often tame little birds hang out with us, visiting our feeders and singing their cheerful song of "spring soon!" We welcome them to visit and nest in our yards. But to set up successful reproduction, the birds have some specific needs.

To raise a brood of nestlings, a pair of chickadees has to make about 800 trips to the nest with food every day. One researcher fully documented a pair of warblers feeding a brood. He found the male bird made 241 food-delivery trips to their nest in a single day while the female made 571. (I will abstain from divisive commentary on the disparity of labor.)

The preferred nestling food of not just chickadees but many of our other favorite songbirds is caterpillars. These members of the Lepidoptera family, (moths and butterflies,) have a larva/caterpillar that is a soft, relatively large protein rich bag of food, providing much more nutrition per trip than other insects, worms or spiders. Few songbird species including robins feed nestlings earthworms, which surprised me. Parent birds highly prefer caterpillars, but when there are none the birds must turn to other options. Unfortunately, this results in fewer nestlings surviving and increases stress on the parent birds, which can result in fewer broods per year.

If your lawn is a perfectly manicured "bird food desert" of grass, with a single tree or two, your yard will be less suitable for songbird reproduction. Their instinct tells them they will need 350 ?? 570 caterpillars or good-quality substitutes per DAY. Flying long distances from the nest to hunt for suitable food reduces the number of trips they can make and decreases their chances of successfully fledging healthy offspring.

I found this mind-boggling. If I went outside in June, with the goal of finding as many caterpillars as I could, I doubt I'd locate even a dozen. The job of parent songbirds is difficult, and they could use our help.

But how can we do that? "Nature's Best Hope" by Douglas W. Tallamy is a book that explains how we can "take a new approach to conservation that starts in our yards." It takes a thorny, complex problem (the frightening crash of songbird populations,) and gives us a roadmap to make a difference in our own little corner of the world. It is as simple as reducing the amount of lawn which is unhelpful to wildlife, increasing the amount of native plant populations, and reducing our use of broad-band pesticides that kill the very butterflies, moths, and caterpillars birds need. (These steps also reduce noise and air pollution, and save both time and money spent on lawn equipment gas and chemicals.)

The book details the positive impact these steps have on other species of insects, birds, reptiles and mammals as well; you can't go wrong abandoning chemicals and increasing native plant species your own little ecosystem depends on. Buying plants that are not native means few if any of the local insects and other living things will be able to utilize them for food, shelter or reproduction. To find out what plants you should add to your land, or even a patio, you can consult a database developed by the National Wildlife Federation, called the native plant finder.

There is no reason we can't replicate the early successes being shown from encouraging people to protect or plant milkweed to help the beloved Monarch butterflies. The concepts are similar, but native plants help not only photogenic "stars" like Monarchs, but also humbler species that may be critical as food to songbirds or our equally suffering friends the bees.

I have greatly simplified the book here and I am sure I am less convincing than it is. But it is reader friendly, and gives great resources and examples should you choose to become an environmental advocate for your own little corner of the world. If enough of us quit poisoning insects with insecticides, especially those containing neonicotinoids, we will help countless species besides songbirds. No, just a few of us can't "save the world." But it is a start, and like that old story about the boy throwing starfish stranded on a beach back into the water. He was told there were too many dying, and he couldn't save them all, so why bother. In his wisdom, he said "but I can save some."

You should be able to reserve this book at your local library since it is a New York Times bestseller. The author hopes we will begin to think of ourselves as trustees of little patches of land that become part of a network of small acreages adding up to an inspirational "Homegrown National Park."

I read this book a year or so ago; and implemented some of the concepts on our land. Recently, a reader who grew up and lives in the Coleman/Klondike area contacted me and asked if I would consider doing a column about it. I read the book a second time, got re-inspired, and will be making further changes here on this little piece of heaven. If any of this resonates with you, please read the book. You will get ideas for changes you can make to help songbirds, like which trees to plant for the maximum impact on local species. Now I need to go look up the plans for building bee houses, because this spring I am inspired to help the bees, too. Nancy, thank you so much for inspiring me. The local chickadees thank you as well.

APOLOGY

In my "January part II column" I incorrectly identified reader "Sabin" as "she." She is a he. (This is a good news/bad news fact about e-mail. It is "blind" to gender, race or party affiliation.) Please forgive my error, and thank you again Sabin!

You can reach me for commentary, alternative viewpoints or ideas at this e-mail address: JanieTMartin@gmail.com.


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