The Humane Gardener: Ohio’s Paige Nugent

Conversion to a wildlife-friendly haven doesn’t have to be expensive. One seed at a time, this Ohio animal lover has brought back the hummingbirds and fireflies to her formerly barren yard in just a few years. Learn how in this second dispatch of our online series, Humane Gardening Heroes.

She has great affection for snakes and moles. She loves her pet chickens but welcomes predators to her yard. She may be one of the only people in the U.S. who has actually bought pokeweed, a species that, though nutritious for birds and other animals, is often maligned by gardeners. And when she’s not adding more plants for wildlife on her 3-plus-acre property just outside Cincinnati, Paige Nugent spends her spare time providing advice and encouragement to help others to do the same.

Image of Paige Nugent with chicken
Paige Nugent welcomes both the wild and domesticated creatures, including Trouble, one of her pet chickens. (Photo by Tim Nugent. Featured image of caterpillar and all other photos by Paige Nugent)

She does so even when they haven’t actually asked for it, especially at big-box centers where invasive plants that wreak havoc on natural habitats are still sold in high volume: “I have been known while shopping at Lowe’s to stop an individual, look in their cart, and say, ‘Put that back; you don’t want that.’ ”

Image of DIY water feature_Paige Nugent
Using a buried plastic container, pump filter, hardware cloth, and rebar, Nugent fashioned a pondless water feature where bluebirds and other animals find refreshment.

A nurse by day, Nugent moonlights as a passionate advocate for other species. Her efforts started in her own backyard, where she planted hazelnuts, elderberries, brown-eyed Susans, and many other natives beneficial to Ohio’s wildlife. In a formerly barren lawn that once had few wild visitors, the coral bells and columbines she’s grown from seed now attract hummingbirds. The dog fur she places in baskets for birds lines the nests of cedar waxwings. Bluebirds visit her DIY waterfall. Fireflies, once banished from the mowed-down yard, have come back.

It’s taken only four years for nature to return to the once-scarred land. And though Nugent describes much of her garden as still looking “like a bunch of sticks with cages around them”—referring to her strategy of wrapping young trees to prevent deer nibbling—the garden’s promise is already showing in the form of a thriving sycamore. Planted as a knee-high sapling just after Nugent moved in, it’s now 15 feet tall. “The other day my husband walked out and goes, ‘When did this tree get here’?” she says.

The Seeds of her Obsession
Image of pokeberry_Paige Nugent
Pokeweed is for the birds, as Nugent learned the hard way when she destroyed the harvest of a backyard patch as a child. Though the plant grows naturally in her yard, she has also bought seeds of a native cultivar with variegated leaves.

But it’s not just the majestic and commonly admired species that captivate Nugent, who learned from an early age that animals rely on many of the plants we take for granted. After she and her brother carelessly smashed a stand of pokeweed covered in ripening berries in their backyard, her disappointed father asked one pointed question: What are the birds going to eat this winter? “Suddenly I was horrified,” writes Nugent on a website she recently created, “Never again did I knock down the pokeweed.”

That experience—plus years of camping trips with her family, tree ID lessons from her father, and eventually a college degree in biology—gave Nugent a different perspective on what it means to garden. Two of her favorite underappreciated plants are Virginia creeper vine and Eastern red cedar, both natives that offer food and shelter to many wild species but get little respect from gardeners. Though Eastern red cedar is one of the few evergreens in Nugent’s region, “everyone I talk to goes, ‘Don’t plant that; it’s junk,’ ” she says. “But it has such a dense branching that you can put so many birds in there. It’s a perfect windbreak. It grows fast.” In fact, the row she added at the edge of her property is now four times the size of the Norway spruces she had also planted there.

Image of Eastern red cedar
Eastern red cedar fruit is a staple for cedar waxwings, robins, mourning doves, crows, mockingbirds, foxes, rabbits, and raccoons. It provides nesting sites for Eastern screech owls, juncos, robins, and many others. The juniper hairstreak butterfly also relies on the tree as food for her caterpillars.
Image of Praying Mantis_Paige Nugent
A praying mantis finds plenty to eat in the yard of this self-described bug lover.

Long before milkweed species received exalted status for their role as exclusive feeders of monarch butterfly caterpillars, Nugent revered these often maligned plants too, feeding their leaves to monarch larvae by hand. As a young girl in the early 1990s, she raised the caterpillars to adulthood, inviting fellow elementary school students to join her in magical butterfly releases.

Image of spicebush swallowtail caterpillar
Caterpillars of the spicebush swallowtail butterfly specialize on the leaves of both spicebush and sassafras trees.

Since then, habitats for monarchs and other butterflies have vastly diminished, and Nugent’s methods for helping them have evolved. Rather than captive-feeding, she adds plants for butterflies in the wild instead. This year she hadn’t even removed her new spicebushes from the pots yet when their namesake species found them. “I go out there, and all the spicebush leaves were gone,” she says. “And I looked, and a spicebush swallowtail had laid an egg, and the caterpillar was eating them. I hadn’t even gotten them in the ground yet!”

As a humane gardener, Nugent views such experiences as life-affirming and knows that plants were meant, in part, to be eaten. She understands that all animals, from the hawks who pass through during migration to the moles who tunnel underground, have a role to play. “I got asked by my neighbor if I wanted any mole traps last week,” she says. “And I said, ‘No, that’s fine, they’re eating the Japanese beetle grubs.’ ”

Image of orb weaver_Paige Nugent
In a garden without pesticides, orb weavers and other spiders provide natural insect control.
Image of Common Milkweed_Paige Nugent
As a child, Nugent hand-fed monarchs milkweed leaves. Now she grows the plants on her three acres and gives away pods to friends who want to start their own patch.

Nugent is accustomed to such attitudes; it’s why she started her website. After hearing her coworkers talk about killing spiders and hating snakes and spraying their lawns with toxic pesticides, she decided to begin educating. “I really started to see when I worked with non-science people how much they didn’t understand that these animals are fine,” she says, “and that they should be there because we’re the ones who displaced them.” Covering a broad range of topics that span everything from the merits of golden mantled ground squirrels to DIY tutorials on creating backyard prairies, Nugent looks first for concepts and species that people naturally relate to—birds and butterflies, for example—as a gentle segue to topics that tend to inspire more fear. Her efforts have already garnered some loyal fans among her colleagues, who recently enthusiastically accepted her offer of free milkweed pods, bringing them home to plant the seeds of new life-sustaining gardens.

Top Tips Inspired by Paige’s Garden

Image of Echo and Pumpkin chickens
Echo and Pumpkin enjoy supervised play that protects them from hawks and predators.
Protect the flock.

To safeguard her pet chickens from hawks, foxes, and other
animals, Nugent fortifies her 300-square-foot coop with field fencing and hardware cloth. She also keeps her feathered girls safely confined during hawk migration season, rather than letting them out of the coop to play in the yard. At the same time, Nugent is careful to care for her chickens in a way that doesn’t harm other animals as well. “Chicken people like to throw diatomaceous earth around like it’s candy,” she says, referring to a common method of trying to prevent mite infestations. “And it really bothers me. You can’t throw that into the air because you’re going to kill bees.”

Show your neighbors some plant love.

To help people better understand the plants and animals they fear, it’s sometimes effective to start a conversation about less intimidating species—or to even add them to your yard. “I have redbuds out the wazoo,” says Nugent. “Our next door neighbor said he loves redbuds, so I put a row of them on our property line.”

Order bareroot seedlings, and grow plants from seed.
Image of burr oak
Planted as bareroot seedlings, bur oaks will provide an abundance of food for wildlife, from butterfly and moth caterpillars to turkeys, squirrels, and raccoons.

To make the task of filling her yard with native species affordable, Nugent has planted many trees and shrubs as bare-root seedlings. Available from state conservation agencies and private nurseries, they’re a fraction of the cost of potted plants and can become established with less care. Because they are small and dug up while still dormant, they are usually quicker to adapt to new soils. Nugent’s thrifty gardening methods, which also include growing flowers from seed, have helped her fill her yard with bur oaks, flowering dogwoods, five types of viburnums, American cranberry bushes, three kinds of sumacs, currants, winterberries, New Jersey tea, great blue lobelia, royal catchfly, and many other plants.

Start small.

Though Nugent has taken on major projects in her backyard, including the planting of a prairie, she’s learned to divide her ambitions into manageable chunks. “I have actually finally calmed myself down,” she says of her initial frenzy to convert the entire yard as quickly as possible. “I’ve divided it into three phases, so I’m going to kill parts of my lawn each year and work on certain areas of the prairie.” The strategy will allow her to grow and nurture each section until it’s largely self-sustaining.

Keep cats safely confined
Castiel Cat on window seat_Paige Nugent
Castiel holds down the fort from indoors.

Nugent’s cat, Castiel, has plenty of indoor entertainment in the form of a window seat onto the world. Nugent keeps him inside for both his own safety and that of area wildlife—something she hopes more cat owners will do to protect their pets and prevent predation on birds and small mammals.

Plant a caterpillar garden.

Planting flowers for butterflies is still more top of mind for the average gardener, much to Nugent’s lament. “It’s always about the butterfly, but you can’t forget the caterpillar,” she says. Their needs are completely different; rather than sipping nectar from blooms, the larvae of moths and butterflies eat leaves and occasionally other plant parts. You can use the searchable database at Butterflies and Moths of North America to learn more about their lifestyles and nutrition preferences; for gardeners in the East, Caterpillars of Eastern North America is also an invaluable resource for identification and information about species’ life cycles.

Visit public gardens for ideas.
Image of buttonbush
After one look at the bumblebees covering a buttonbush at the local arboretum, Nugent knew she had to have this plant.

It wasn’t a nursery or website that introduced Nugent to her favorite shrub of all; she fell in love with buttonbush after a recommendation by creatures even more discerning than her fellow humans. “I saw it at the arboretum, and I could actually hear the bush buzzing,” she says. “I was like, ‘What is that noise?’ And there was a bush bigger than me covered in bumblebees.” Taking time to observe such interactions between plants and animals can help us make the right choices for our gardens. After all, who could be more credible in recommending a plant’s value than a bee?

Ohio Resources

Wildlife gardening: Nugent’s website,, provides advice about native and invasive plants, misunderstood animal species, and planting methods.

Native seed seller: For native plant seeds, Nugent recommends  Ohio Prairie Nursery, which offers individual packs and seed mixes as well as on-site consultations for homeowners.

Raptor rehabilitation: The Hueston Woods State Park Raptor Rehabilitation program, where Nugent once volunteered, cares for injured and orphaned birds of prey, with the goal of releasing them back into the wild.

Nature center education: The Cincinnati Nature Center has restored 50 acres of former farmland to prairie grasslands and offers resources to homeowners and others wishing to learn about restoration of their own properties.

Field education. Western Wildlife Corridor preserves sensitive habitats for wildlife, primarily by removing invasive plant species. By volunteering to help or signing up for wildflower walks, you can learn more about identifying native and nonnative species in the region.

Find more profiles, tips, and inspiration in The Humane Gardener: Nurturing a Backyard Habitat for Wildlife, due for release from Princeton Architectural press in April. Learn more about the Humane Gardening Heroes series, and tell us your story.

(Photo of Paige Nugent by Tim Nugent; all other photos by Paige Nugent)

Great Gifts for Humane Gardeners

Image of shrubby St. John's wort with Hylaeus bee
The gifts that keep on giving: This shrubby St. John’s wort, bought with a certificate that old friends purchased for me at a native nursery, now draws new friends to my yard. Though this bee in the Hylaeus genus looks more like a wasp, I was able to correctly identify him with the help of another gift, a book titled The Bees in Your Backyard. (Photo above by Nancy Lawson. Featured image of bluebird by Joyce Wagner/ReJoyce Photography)

What do you want for Christmas? When my mom calls around this time of year with the same question, you’d think I’d be prepared. I almost always draw a blank.

Socks? Nope. As long as I can double up on my well-worn pairs for maximum warmth, I’m set in the sock department for another winter.

A shirt, skirt, shoes? Nope, nope, and nope, because if I’m not at my desk working, I’m in the dirt—or I’m talking to other people who would rather be in the dirt too. (If a gardener wearing fancy footwear falls in the forest and no one is around to see it, why is she even wearing dangerous fancy footwear in the first place?)

Isn’t there anything you need or want? My normally patient mother grows exasperated. I’m not getting you a gift card to the grocery store again!

Well, sure, there’s an awful lot I want: a ban on pesticides and leaf blowers, a mass rebellion against lawns, enough plants for all animals and humans to never go hungry, a kinder society, world peace, a cellar full of wine and vegan cheese and pickled peppers, that sort of thing. But there’s not much I really need.

It’s not that I’m some kind of saint who’s reached a higher form of enlightenment than my fellow humans. But the season of giving in our country is so far removed from my season of truly living—when the sun is high, the days are long, and the plants are so impossibly lush and green I can’t see the birds anymore but still hear entire orchestras among the treetops. If my mom could ask me at that time of year what I want, it would be a challenge to narrow down the list: more viburnums, elderberries, bayberries, sumacs, oak trees, meadow grasses, sunflowers, cardinal flowers, asters, milkweeds—more of anything that feeds the wild animals who currently visit, have ever visited, or are even thinking about visiting my little sanctuary.

Though my mom’s nearly done with her shopping this year, I finally gave more thought to her question. Exasperated families and friends of other humane gardeners, take note: Here’s what we’re asking Santa to bring us this year!

A gift certificate for—what else?—plants!
Image of Virginia rose with syrphid fly
A Virginia rose, purchased with a gift certificate to a native nursery, is a treasure for me and the syrphid flies. (Photo by Nancy Lawson)

Over the years, I’ve given and received birdfeeders, but they aren’t nearly as helpful to animals as real habitat. A certificate to a native plant nursery is truly a gift with compounding interest for both the humane gardener and her wild friends. When I walk past the hedgerow of Virginia roses and shrubby St. John’s wort in my backyard, I delight in the bees covering the flowers in summer and the birds enjoying the fruits and seeds in fall. The plants also remind me of the friends and colleagues whose thoughtfulness made this garden possible, after they pooled their money to buy a certificate from Herring Run Nursery in Baltimore. Other plant sellers, including Prairie Moon Nursery, also make it easy to order gift cards online. If you’re not familiar with suppliers in your region, check out these resources.

A water heater for wild friends.
Image of house finch on heated birdbath
A house finch visits a heated birdbath in Ohio. You can choose a bath with a built-in heating element or purchase a de-icer for an existing birdbath. (Photo by Dave Lundy/Creative Commons)

As I write, the outdoor thermometer says 23 degrees, but the largest birdbath in the front yard is still toasty, thanks to a heating element I bought a decade ago for about $20. The male cardinal who took a long and boisterous bath yesterday afternoon is returning for a sip, accompanied by chickadees, female cardinals, a tufted titmouse, and a junco now lining up along the branches and fallen leaves for happy hour. A pair of blue jays has also stopped by for a drink.

Access to open water is just as critical to birds in winter, both quenching their thirst and, scientists believe, keeping their feathers clean for flight. But it can be harder to find during a deep freeze, and birds waste precious energy searching. Options include a birdbath with a built-in heater or, if you’re looking for something more economical, a de-icer like mine that can be inserted into an existing birdbath.

Emergency housing for all.
Image of screech owl
A natural birdhouse looks like this, but there aren’t enough tree cavities to go around anymore. (Photo by John Harrison)

Hundreds of wild species build their houses from the same materials we do: dead wood. Before the era of chainsaws and highly manicured landscapes, cavity-nesting birds had a lot of real estate choices. But now their options are far more limited. The best way to help these and other animals is to leave tree snags—or dead and dying trees—in the landscape wherever possible. For gardeners who don’t wish a quick death upon their live trees or can’t wait around for decades (and sometimes centuries!) while the majestic plants complete their life cycles, well-made birdhouses and bat houses can provide alternative nesting and resting spots. Even handmade or store-bought toad abodes will attract intended visitors, but don’t bother with butterfly houses, which likely won’t; most butterflies overwinter as eggs, pupae, or chrysalises and couldn’t even get themselves inside if they wanted to.

Books that save lives.

Gardening tomes about creating pleasing plant designs are a dime a dozen (sometimes almost literally, as I know from scouring the bargain bins at big-box stores in my early gardening days). But rarer are the books that convey a deeper understanding of the wild animals who depend on those plants for survival. Experienced humane gardeners likely have already read Doug Tallamy’s Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants; less known but just as valuable is his follow-up book with Rick Darke, The Living Landscape: Designing for Beauty and Biodiversity in the Home Garden.

Image of stack of book coversThe Xerces Society’s Attracting Native Pollinators: Protecting North America’s Bees and Butterflies is an authoritative but accessible guide packed with little-known facts and practical advice for creating habitat, while Joseph Wilson and Olivia Carril’s book The Bees in Your Backyard helps readers identify and empathize with the nearly 4,000 native bee species who don’t make honey and don’t live in hives but help make the world go round.

Moles and The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating provide rare insight into the lives of overlooked creatures. More visible but highly misunderstood animals such as skunks and raccoons are the subject of Wild Neighbors: The Humane Approach to Living with Wildlife, an essential part of any humane gardener’s bookshelf.

Plants, too, are plagued by misperceptions, often thought of as static ornaments rather than living beings. Three fascinating books–The Hidden Life of Trees, Brilliant Green, and Braiding Sweetgrass—put that notion to rest. Garden Revolution shows readers how to take their cues from plants and nature rather than from practices long recommended by the traditional landscaping industry.

Lifelong learning.

While it’s too cold to dig in many parts of the country, it’s never too cold to dig into the latest research about ecological gardening and the animals it benefits. Webinars and online classes allow homebody humane gardeners to do it all from the comfort of their desk chairs. Prices range from $199 for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s bird biology course to $10 for the Ecological Landscaping Alliance’s one-time webinars about topics such as plant communities, water conservation, and invasive species. ELA members can take webinars for free, so an even more economical option might be to purchase a membership for your favorite humane gardener.

Also consider giving the gift of a state native plant society, local nature center or arboretum membership; these organizations often offer talks, events and invaluable field experience in the form of hikes, canoeing and other day trips.

A tool of the trade.

Since humane gardeners don’t use pesticides, good tools are critical to easing the strain of manual labor, especially when removing invasives the old-fashioned way. A hori hori knife cuts the mustard (invasive garlic mustard and otherwise), offering a long, narrow blade that also allows for precise, careful transplanting of young native seedlings that will grow up to spread even more plants that support wildlife large and small in your favorite humane gardener’s yard.

Image of Eastern-tailed blue on blue mistflower
My hori hori knife, recommended by a friend, helps me dig and divide blue mistflower, which I then give away to other human friends, who plant it to attract yet more wild friends like this Eastern-tailed blue … and the gifts of love and friendship continue. (Photo by Nancy Lawson)

Do you have a gift idea for the humane gardener in your life? Add it to the comments to help all those last-minute shoppers (and to give my mom some hints for next year!).

*Featured image of bluebird in heated birdbath, by Joyce Wagner/ReJoyce Photography, is licensed through Creative Commons.



The Dangers of Fencing and Netting

Image of deer at Forest Hill Cemetery
Deer reside in a Michigan cemetery among centuries-old oak and hickory trees. But the fencing at the perimeter can pose deadly challenges to traveling in and out of the property. (Photo by Dave Hoedel)

In more than three decades of animal welfare work, Sally Fekety had rarely seen anything more brutal. Stuck in the narrow space between two rails of a wrought iron fence was a young buck fighting for his life. Suspended horizontally over a crossbar a few inches off the ground, he’d tried in vain to free himself for so long his sides were open wounds. The pile of fur that once covered his now-raw skin lay behind him. One of his antlers had snapped off. His hooves were buckled from nerve damage.

Fekety’s friend had come upon the scene first while visiting her father’s gravestone one November afternoon. Marking the perimeter between Forest Hill Cemetery and surrounding houses in Ann Arbor, Mich., the fence had become a death trap. “She called me, and I went running over,” says Fekety. “I threw a blanket over his face that calmed him down.”

Image of deer caught in metal rail fencing
Metal rail fencing is particularly hazardous for deer, who manage to squeeze most of their bodies through the narrow spaces between bars before getting their hips stuck. Many are so injured that euthanasia is the only humane option. (Photo by Sally Fekety)

But it didn’t last long. Soon enough the deer tossed the blanket off his head and began struggling again. With so many years of experience handling animals in distress, Fekety has an intuitive sense for how to use quiet movement and expression to keep deer calm. “But this one was so far gone in the stress of his predicament,” she says, “that he just couldn’t see I was trying to help him.”

No one present that day—not Fekety, her friend, or the local humane society officer who also showed up to help—could understand how the deer had wedged himself past his rib cage into only a few inches of space. But far from being unusual, the scenario has become all too common. Wildlife rescuers respond to numerous calls of deer caught in the crossrails or, sometimes even worse, impaled on the spikes. “Those are some of the most heartbreaking calls we have to go on,” says Candice Haskin, a Maryland Department of Natural Resources biologist who helps free animals from such hazards, often in people’s backyards. “And those fences have gotten really, really popular.”

Caught in unintentional trapsImage of opossum with leg wounded in fencing
Image of opossum with leg wounded in fencing
An opossum caught in fencing in California received treatment for his leg wound from the Fund for Animals Wildlife Center. Happy endings are possible for animals lucky enough to land in the hands of wildlife rescuers and rehabilitators. But many aren’t found until too late. (Photos by Allison Gibson/The HSUS)

Among the many challenges urban and suburban wildlife face, getting stuck—whether in fencing, leftover food jars, open window wells, soccer nets, even hammocks—is one of the most difficult to survive without early intervention from human helpers. Nationwide,
state agencies and private wildlife rehabilitation centers rescue and treat raptors, foxes, bears, skunks, snakes, and many other animals who have traversed through the wrong place at the wrong time. Often that time is at night, when obstacles are harder to see. In the morning, frantic homeowners call for assistance after hawks have flown into volleyball nets or foxes have gotten their legs tangled up in fallen fences.

Hidden traps are particularly hazardous to bucks because, as Haskin says, “anything that’s got holes, they’ve got the potential to get their antlers hooked up in it.” Though she and her colleagues have saved many animals from such fates, sometimes nothing can be done. One deer caught in a soccer net had waited too long before the homeowners spotted him. “By the time I got there,” Haskin said, “it had wrapped [the net] up around its nose and actually suffocated.”

Image of deer caught in lacrosse netting made of fishing net

Image of deer caught in lacrosse netting made of fishing net
Bucks with antlers are particularly vulnerable to manmade barriers and recreational equipment, sometimes struggling to the point of exhaustion or suffocation. (Photos by David Cecil)

Recently Pedro Dieguez had just dropped his daughter off at her bus stop when he noticed a gathering of neighbors in someone’s yard. Stopping to find out the source of the commotion, he came upon a deer caught in a makeshift lacrosse backstop fashioned from fishing nets. Mindful of the strength of large animals, Dieguez used a gardening tool and a knife to carefully cut the netting and free the buck. “I don’t like to see any animals suffering,” he says, “and that would be a heck of a way to go.” But it was too late. “Unfortunately he had already exhausted himself,” Dieguez says. After walking a bit, the buck fell over and died.

Prevention is key

One of the greatest tragedies of such unnecessary suffering is that it is so preventable. To minimize fencing and netting hazards on your own property, consider the landscape from the animal’s perspective and take the following simple steps:

Stow it away. When not in use, put soccer nets, volleyball nets, hammocks and other recreational equipment in the garage or another storage space. If something can’t be moved, try tying bright fabric or a ribbon to it—something that animals with good night vision can clearly see, recommends Haskin.

Image of snake in garden netting
To avoid further injuring animals, wildlife experts have to cut garden netting away slowly and carefully. (Photo by Humane Wildlife Services)

Find humane alternatives. Intended to keep animals from nibbling the fruits of the gardener’s labor, netting often does far more than that. Snakes, birds, squirrels and chipmunks caught up in the holes can easily wound themselves or dehydrate and die. Flash tape and motion-detecting sprinklers are among the many alternatives, but perhaps the best solution of all is to plant more and share.

Image of Will cutting fallen fencing
In our own yard, my husband, Will, and I are taking down fencing that once kept our dog safe. After she died, we worried that the collapsing structure would ensnare the legs of foxes, deer and other animals. (Photo by Nancy Lawson)

Pick up or repair fallen fencing. Wire fencing is difficult enough to see, but collapsed wire can quickly become buried in leaves and plant growth. Broken or unsecured chain link or wooden slat fencing can also ensnare animals. Remove any unnecessary structures, and maintain those you need to keep up for pet safety or other reasons.

Look for safe tree protection materials. To protect young trees from deer nibbling and rubbing, many people use orange plastic wrapping or other small-holed, flexible materials that can strangle or suffocate. Look for something less likely to entangle antlers; tubing, bamboo wrap and wider-spaced wire can protect trees while minimizing harm to animals.

Avoid the wrought-iron fence. They might look pretty, but fences with vertical metal rails are some of the most dangerous, and spikes on top exacerbate their deadliness to wildlife. “Those are some of the worst ones that could be prevented just by picking a different type of fence,” says Haskin.

Image of Safe Passages Fence Project
At the Duchess Sanctuary in Oregon, horses stay safe behind fencing surrounding the large property, but crawl-throughs and jump-overs allow animals large and small safe passage. (Photo by Dave Pauli/The HSUS)

Add under- and overpasses. When removal of other types of fencing is impractical, landowners can make adjustments. At an Oregon sanctuary where horses need to be contained, wildlife experts at the Humane Society of the United States added underpasses made of PVC pipes for small animals, bridges for bears, window-like gaps for coyotes, and other adjustments to ease the journey of animals just passing through.

Let him not die in vain

As the deer caught in the cemetery fence rallied in a last-ditch effort to free himself, Fekety wished she could put him out of his misery; his external and internal injuries were too extensive to repair. “ ‘I hate guns, but I would give anything to have a gun right now,’ ” she remembers telling the humane society agent. “Because the deer was just struggling and struggling.”

Eventually the police came to help, but the deer had already died. By the end of the next day, he was gone, taken away by municipal officials. The blood had also disappeared. But though no signs of the epic struggle remained, Fekety hopes the deer did not die in vain—and that his story will help other animals live on by making more people aware of what our fellow species see—and don’t see—in the landscapes that they, too, call home.

Learn more about preventing safety hazards in your own backyard—and other ways to live harmoniously with wildlife—in my forthcoming book, The Humane Gardener: Nurturing a Backyard Habitat for Wildlifescheduled for release in April from Princeton Architectural Press and available now for pre-order from



Untimely Evictions

Trim trees now to avoid harming animals in spring

Image of squirrels orphaned by tree removal
These babies were victims of poorly timed tree removal. (Photo by Humane Wildlife Services)

To most people, the tiny voices rising above the din of traffic would have registered as everyday birdsong. But to Lori Thiele’s finely tuned ears, the high-pitched staccato emanating from a neighbor’s yard last spring was unmistakable, a sure sign of distress.

“I was getting ready to go out on a job,” says the longtime rescuer and wildlife biologist. “I walked out my back door and immediately heard the babies.”

Image of baby squirrels almost orphaned by tree removal
Thiele placed them in an accessible box, hoping their mom was still nearby. (Photo by Humane Wildlife Services)

She also heard chainsaws. Crossing the street to investigate, she found young squirrels who’d been placed inside a plastic cat carrier by workers removing a tree. Knowing their mother was likely frantic to retrieve them, Thiele relocated the babies to a cardboard carrier with holes cut in the side for easier access.

When the mom failed to reappear, Thiele waited for the noise to stop and got even more creative, playing these pre-recorded baby squirrel vocalizations from her phone:

“I couldn’t even get out of the way fast enough before the mom started grabbing them—boom, boom, boom,” she says. “She came down looking for them so quickly that I just started putting them out on the sidewalk, and she had them all three tucked back in the next tree over in like 30, 45 seconds.”

Image of oriole's nest in palm frond
Orioles in California often nest behind palm fronds. When tree care workers don’t take a few minutes to inspect the tree and watch for activity, many babies end up in wood chippers. (Photo by Gillian Martin/Cavity Conservation Initiative)

Given the chance, wild parents often carry displaced babies to alternate nests. But countless animals never have that opportunity. Though it’s best to prune and remove trees after they’ve gone dormant, many babies end up orphaned because of poorly timed tree maintenance at the height of breeding season. Entire nests are inadvertently—or sometimes intentionally—thrown into wood chippers. Some are so camouflaged that losses are impossible to quantify: Tree trimming is a significant threat to the tiny, lichen-covered nests of hummingbirds. In southern California, orioles raise their young under palm fronds that are often cut away. Woodpeckers nesting in dead limbs are also lost to obsessive pruning.

Image of mockingbird parent with food for babies
To check a tree for nests, first watch for busy parents and listen for the chirping of their babies.  (Photo by Mike Fried/Comprehensive Tree Care)

Simple observation can prevent harm, says Gillian Martin, founder of the California-based Cavity Conservation Initiative, dedicated to preserving dead wood for habitat and encouraging mindful maintenance of live trees. The presence of active parents, combined with the sounds of their young, can alert tree trimmers to a growing family in their midst.

Timing is also key. As an arborist and animal rescue volunteer who helps renest raptors, Mike Fried of Comprehensive Tree Care in Frederick, Maryland, doesn’t hesitate to postpone certain tasks in his clients’ yards if he finds a nest. Last spring, he only partially pruned a dogwood after discovering catbird families, being careful to avoid the nests and the shade that protected them.

Image of hawk family taken with wildlife camera
Fried delayed pruning at his daughter’s house when he discovered this hawk family nesting. A wildlife camera tracked their development. (Photo by Mike Fried/Comprehensive Tree Care)

Pruning or removing trees in summer can harm more than just animals, often scalding surrounding plants that are unaccustomed to direct sunlight. “The majority of trees are best pruned in the dead of winter when they’ve gone dormant and don’t have any leaves,” says Fried.

Even if branches must be pruned sooner for pedestrian or structural safety, sometimes carefully reducing their lengths can keep nests intact. “The more you leave in place,” says Martin, “the better.” On a recent job, Fried left enough tree trunk for a resident mouse to continue his occupancy. “Typically dead wood is removed for aesthetic reasons,” he says. But provided it’s safe, “it’s still a good source for habitat … and there’s no reason not to leave those things up.”

A version of this article originally appeared in the November-December 2016 issue of All Animals magazine. For great advice about helping birds and squirrels who’ve fallen from nests, see the information on orphaned wildlife compiled by the Humane Society of the United States.

*Featured image of hungry baby mockingbirds by Mike Fried/Comprehensive Tree Care

Spirit of the Evening Sky

Image of spectacled flying fox
Australia’s spectacled flying fox is one of about 1,300 bat species worldwide. (Photo by Jurgen Otto/Creative Commons)

They inhabit the ruins of a 14th-century empire in Africa, cling to 800-year-old cliff-side dwellings in Arizona, forage in old Indian temples and European churches, and occupy the decidedly less grand crawl spaces of our modern homes.

As the only true flying mammals, the world’s 1,300 bat species know how to get around. While some have esoteric lifestyles—roosting in unfurled banana leaves or tents carved from rainforest foliage—many are less specialized, building a life wherever people have already made their mark on the land. Now adapting to the latest artifacts of human empire, bats often trade their traditional caves and trees for abandoned mines and cozy attics.

Image of Honduran white bats
A plant to call home: Tiny Honduran white bats, whose lengths average 3.7 to 4.7 centimeters, create a perfect tent for roosting by cutting the veins of Heliconia leaves. (Photo by Tim Carter, courtesy Organization for Bat Conservation)

Though resilient, these animals—who account for a quarter of all mammal species—are in decline worldwide. The pace of development is much faster than it was in the days of ancient temple-building, with chainsaws destroying natural roosting sites, pesticides decimating food supplies, and wind turbines killing bats outright. Humans have even learned how to take to the skies themselves, their long-distance flights paving the way for the speedy transport of pathogens like the one that has killed nearly 7 million bats in North America in the past 10 years.

Image of little brown bat
Biologists band and track little brown bats as part of an effort to learn more about the devastating white nose syndrome. (Photo by USFWS/Ann Froschauer/Creative Commons)

The fungus responsible for white nose syndrome likely arrived on the clothing or gear of cavers, scientists or other visitors to hibernation sites. Not known to affect bats where it originates in Europe, here the pathogen causes bats to awaken too early from winter slumber, depleting their limited fuel reserves. Transmission is so rapid that little brown bats could be gone from the eastern U.S. by 2020.

“In just a couple of decades, we’re looking at going from an extremely common species to an endangered or nearly extinct species,” says Rob Mies, executive director of the Organization for Bat Conservation. White nose syndrome will likely affect more than half of the 47 bat species in the U.S. and Canada. “For us bat biologists, it’s just absolutely devastating.”

Their vanishing would be ecologically disastrous. Most bats are insectivorous, consuming up to 120 percent of their weight daily and contributing an incalculable amount of insect control services.

Image of Mexican long-tongued bat
Mexican long-tongued bats are important pollinators of agave and cacti. (Photo by USFWS/Creative Commons)

Some are pollinators, fruit eaters, and seed dispersers, playing an important role in forest regeneration and even in happy hours.  “When you go to a Mexican restaurant and you order chips and guacamole and a margarita, those things aren’t going to exist without bats,” says Mies. “Bats pollinate avocado trees, and they also protect corn—they’re one of the most important predators of the corn earworm moth. And they’re the only pollinators of the agave that we make tequila from.”

While certain locations—like the Congress Avenue Bridge in Austin, Texas—are known for harboring these quiet creatures of the night, bats are everywhere; we just don’t realize it. “When people are outside and bats are flying over their head, they don’t know they’re bats,” says John Griffin, director of the HSUS urban wildlife solutions program. “They think they’re birds.”

Image of bat at the Cape Wildlife Center
Wildlife rehabilitators take great care to avoid damaging the delicate wings of bats. (Photo by Heather Fone/The HSUS)

More closely related to whales than birds, bats can see but primarily rely on echolocation, emitting high-frequency sounds to find prey. Their wingspans belie their size; even a big brown bat is not so big at all, weighing less than an ounce, notes Deborah Millman, director of the Cape Wildlife Center in Massachusetts. Bats are so diminutive that rehabilitators feed them with tweezers and wear special gloves to protect both the handlers and the bats’ paper-thin wings.

In a retrofitted barn attic situated near night lights to attract insects, recovering bats at the Cape facility also feed themselves. Before the habitat was built, “we had one bat who was literally walking to the food dish,” says Millman, but now flying patients can build cardio strength critical to life in the wild. “We’re really bat-happy here. People are afraid of them, but they do a lot of good.”

Follow these tips to create safe spaces for these delicate creatures on your own property:

Plant a Bat Garden.
Image of bat garden sign
Hang a sign to encourage others to join the cause. (Photo by Nancy Lawson)

Masters of disguise, bats don’t reveal daytime whereabouts; red bats hanging from trees look like decaying leaves, Indiana bats blend into loose bark of dead and dying trees, and hoary bats’ coats mimic lichen. To help them evade predators and find roosting opportunities, leave tree snags in place and plant hickories, maples, oaks, spruces, pines, beeches, gums, and other species that will provide many nooks and crannies in the bark and trunks.

Bats eat moths and other nocturnal fliers attracted to flowers that open at sunset, such as evening primrose, or blooms that never close, such as wild bergamot. In many regions, fall is a great time to plant; find lists of recommended species, a bat garden planting guide, and bat habitat signs from the Organization for Bat Conservation.

Install a Bat Hotel.

Even if designed according to building codes specified by experts, a bat house may sit empty for years. But when an ice storm topples the preferred real estate of dead ash trees down the road, your hospitality will be well-received. “Bats aren’t going to leave a perfect place,” says Mies, “but when they need to relocate, that’s when the bat house is available.” Create your own backyard bat house with these helpful blueprints and guidelines.

Evict Humanely.

Tiny crevices leading to attics are invitations to bats. “They can virtually flatten themselves and get into really tight spaces,” says Griffin. To remove them safely, he covers gaps with a temporary fiberglass window screen open at the bottom. Called a “check valve,” the method allows bats to exit but not reenter; once they’re gone, openings can be sealed. For more information about humane eviction and exclusion methods, visit the websites of Bat Conservation International and the Humane Society of the United States.

Featured image of Rodriguez fruit bat: Alfred Viola, Northeastern University,

The original version of this article was published in the September-October issue of All Animals magazine.

Where Have All the Flowers Gone?

Last week I walked my street for more than a mile without ever seeing a bee.

While that may seem unremarkable at a time when stores are already stocking Christmas decorations, to me it’s a sign that something’s amiss. That’s because I’ve dedicated a few minutes of most autumn afternoons to photographing more animals than I could count on our little plot of land: bumblebees, mining bees, sweat bees, pearl crescents, orange sulphurs, common buckeyes, Eastern-tailed blues, wasps, syrphid flies, monarchs, common checkered skippers, and creatures I cannot yet name:

Image of green sweat bee
Green sweat bees are among the many pollinators visiting frost asters in the fall.
Image of pearl crescents on frost aster
Pearl crescents are fanatic fans of the white blooms, which have sprung up on their own among the meadow grasses.
Image of chrysalis on frost aster
The plant also hosts butterflies and moths in the making; some spend winter in the chrysalis stage.
Image of bumblebee on smooth aster
Smooth asters near our mailbox draw dozens of bumblebees at a time. Flowers are critical to them late in the season, when new queens mate with males and build up their fat reserves in preparation for hibernation under the leaves. In the spring queens will emerge to start entire new colonies on their own.
Image of common buckeye in meadow
Common buckeyes are prolific at this time of year, seeking puddling sites and shallow flowers accessible to their shorter proboscises.
Image of common checkered skipper
In spite of their name, common checkered skippers were once uncommon where I live in Howard County, Maryland. Recently they have been spotted with greater frequency, though this year was the first time I saw them on my property.
Image of sleeping bumblebee
Male bumblebees sleep at night under the flowers that provide them with nectar during the day. Our goldenrods served as a Bee n’ Bee to dozens of bumbles in early fall evenings.
Image of syrphid fly on swamp sunflower
Swamp sunflower is a favorite of syrphid flies, an underappreciated pollinator.
Image of Eastern-tailed blue on blue mistflower
Eastern-tailed blues gather frequently in blue mistflower (Conoclinium coelestinum), a long-blooming late-season food source.

There were a few signs of life around the rest of the neighborhood when I went on my walk: a funny-faced pit mix who likes to pretend she’s tough stuff behind her invisible fence; a squirrel peeking around from behind a tree to ensure I wasn’t after his walnut; a flock of geese overhead; birds in the roadside canopies harmonizing with the perpetual cricket chorus; and a man on a large mower that leveled his front yard while he went along for the ride.

Image of typical neighborhood property
A typical property in my neighborhood offers virtually no flowers. Instead of the soft sound of buzzing bees, the streets more often vibrate with the noise of mowers and power trimmers.

All in all, it was pretty quiet for a mile-long stretch, a silence I’ve come to expect. I’m familiar with the lack of plant diversity—and the resulting dearth of what could be abundant animal life—on the turf-dominated landscapes throughout our town. In the past the barrenness has so discouraged me that I’ve sometimes forgone some much needed exercise. But now, determined to get my head on straight after a neck injury this summer, I’ve walked up and down the road so much that I suppose I’ve grown a little to used to the unnatural solitude that grass and pavement force upon us.

It was the sound of buzzing bees that brought me back to my senses and made me realize what I’d been missing on my journey. In front of the only other plant-filled property on our long road were bumblebees, sweat bees, and orange sulphurs—a whole community of animals much like those in my meadow. With few grass blades in sight, my neighbor Wayne’s yard is a refuge, much like mine, for species still searching for sustenance even as we humans begin retreating inside to our TVs and fireplaces.

Image of bumblebee on New England aster
The bumblebees knew where the party was among the seas of turfgrass – in the roadside New England asters at my neighbor Wayne’s house.
Image of back meadow
Mowing a path lets us access the compost pile and the woodland beyond while allowing volunteer natives to proliferate undisturbed.

My own gardens haven’t always been such a rich refueling station for animals as the seasons change. A few years ago I noticed butterflies and bees zipping around our property, presumably searching for flowers, after almost everything had gone to seed. Desperate to help them, my husband and I started planting more native fall blooms—swamp sunflowers, smooth asters, New England asters, goldenrods of every size and stripe. But even more beneficial to our wild inhabitants is what we have stopped doing altogether—namely mowing the field behind our house. Now that broomsedge, purpletop grass, and other native grasses are beginning to take hold, they put out a natural welcome mat for all sorts of uncultivated fall flowers, including late-flowering thoroughwort, more goldenrods, and especially frost asters that sprout throughout the meadow. I no longer have to worry about whether we have enough to feed the migrating monarchs or the tattered but still flying fritillaries or the gourmand bees who feed their young pollen only from certain fall-flowering species but turn their proboscises up at everything else.

Image of swamp sunflower garden
As summer wildflowers retreat, swamp sunflowers rise up to greet autumn’s hungry creatures.
Fritillary on frost aster in back meadow
An aging meadow fritillary spends an afternoon visiting frost aster after frost aster. This plant also supports about half a dozen specialist bees, who emerge in time to gather pollen only from their favored blooms.
Image of praying mantis
A quick shift of position gives away this otherwise invisible praying mantis.

You don’t need a two-acre expanse to create such opportunities for our wild friends. In fact, small yards in cities can support abundant life, especially when native plantings connect these habitat fragments across the landscape. On my property, the patio, roadside, and container plantings offer their own kind of buffets.

Image of smooth asters and black-eyed Susans
Even a small area – in this case a four-foot wide strip near our mailbox planted with smooth asters, black-eyed Susans, wild senna, mountain mint, golden ragwort, blue mistflower, coral honeysuckle, and staghorn sumac – draws many species of bees and birds,
Image of orange sulphur on aster
Orange sulphurs visit several aster species planted by the driveway.
Image of sweat bee on blue wood aster
Even though this blue wood aster by our patio is the first one I’ve ever planted, the bees have had no trouble finding the lone specimen.

These flowers won’t be here for much longer. This morning I awoke to a freeze warning, in effect until 9 a.m. By now many of our tiny friends are retreating to their winter hiding places. But I’m still planting this week for those who are left—and the many more who will visit throughout the next season. In some areas of the country, it’s not too late to add life-sustaining native trees, shrubs, vines, and flowers to your yard. And though the stores are now filled with traditional spring bulbs like daffodils and tulips, those flowers won’t do anything for the specialist bee who emerges just in time to gather pollen only from the flowers of spring beauties or the one who takes pollen exclusively from violets to feed her young. Even generalist foragers like bumblebees, who visit a wide variety of blooms, will likely have better luck with natives like Dutchman’s breeches and Virginia bluebells than with plants sold en masse at big box centers. Not only are many still treated with systemic pesticides that can contaminate pollen and nectar; some highly bred plants have had nutritious floral resources largely removed for the sake of extra petals and other aesthetic characteristics pleasing to human eyes.

One day I hope to walk my street and hear the sounds not of lawn mowers but of busy bees visiting their favorite flowers lining the driveways, the front walkways, and the roadsides. Last month the Natural Resources Defense Council predicted a major shift away from lawns over the next 10 to 15 years. But we don’t have to wait that long. We can act now, one property and neighborhood at a time, planting the seeds of a flower revolution wherever we go, starting with our own front yards.

You can find native plant sales and nurseries in your area by checking out the website of your state native plant society.  If you don’t live close enough to a nursery that sells native plants, search online for sources like Izel Plants, one of my favorites in the mid-Atlantic, or Prairie Moon Nursery in the Midwest.


A Resting Place for All

Image of redtailed hawk at Mount Auburn Cemetery
Dedicated red-tailed hawk parents work hard to build sturdy homes for their chicks among the tombstones and trees of Mount Auburn Cemetery, an urban oasis for wildlife. (Photo by John Harrison)

“Here lies Lucy: expert pilot, supermodel, squirrel eviscerator, custom homebuilder, attentive mother, and devoted mate. RIP.” 

If she were human, Lucy might be commemorated this way, her life story etched in granite. She might take her place in a family plot beneath her favorite lookout, a weeping beech at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She’d join an elite roster of underground inhabitants of the burial grounds, permanent home to such luminaries as Senator Henry Cabot Lodge and modern cookbook pioneer Fannie Farmer.

Image of raccoon in tree at Mount Auburn Cemetery
The cycles of death and rebirth have continued for nearly two centuries at Mount Auburn, where dead wood in the naturalized landscape harbors raccoon families and other new life. (Photo by John Harrison)

But Lucy is a red-tailed hawk with an elusive past, known primarily through camera lenses. Though she’s gone now, she has her own epitaph in photographs by John Harrison, who captured her nestbuilding prowess as she snapped off branches so thick they cracked like gunshots. Her visage is one of many animal close-ups gracing the pages of a compelling book honoring the nation’s first garden cemetery, where human families honor deceased loved ones while generations of wild animals seek food, shelter, and nesting sites in verdant surroundings.

Edited by Harrison and fellow photographer Kim Nagy, Dead in Good Company offers an intimate view of Mount Auburn, weaving tales of lives ended with stories of those just beginning. Collectively, the contributing authors, historians, birders, and scientists convey the sublime sensation of being a mere speck on a complicated, gorgeous planet. Add to the mix a heightened awareness of mortality inspired by gravestones of people who once had a vibrant presence above ground, and the effect is a paldigccoverpable unburdening—a “calming magic,” as novelist Maryanne O’Hara calls it in her moving essay about a trip to the cemetery while her daughter awaited a lung transplant.

Intentionally established to embrace the cycle of life through naturalistic landscaping, Mount Auburn was ahead of its time, opening in 1831 before public parks even existed in the U.S. Its creation inspired future urban sanctuaries, including New York City’s Central Park. Though its founders were revolutionary in conceiving a respite from pollution and population density—and in devising an alternative to unsanitary burial grounds—they could not
have known just how lifesaving the expansive green space would one day be for animals. Like Central Park, Mount Auburn is an important stopover for migratory birds, with 5,000 trees beckoning them to rest and refuel on their long journeys through otherwise paved landscapes.

Image of yellow warblers
When he was tipped off by a friend about the beauty of Mount Auburn, Harrison could name few bird species, including yellow warblers. Since then he’s discovered a passion for photographing all the wild friends he meets, viewing them as individuals, each with her own story and inner life. (Photo by John Harrison)

More than a century later, Harrison didn’t initially understand the cemetery’s tremendous value to wildlife either. A book distributor, he learned of its abundant life 16 years ago from professor and author Pierce Butler, who later contributed to the book. On his first visit, Harrison didn’t know what a warbler was and couldn’t name the Baltimore oriole he photographed.  But the beauty of the gardens and their inhabitants captivated him, and in time he began to identify the animals not just by species but on more personal terms: There was Lucy, of course, but also great horned owls Alexander and Roxanne and coyote patriarch Big Caesar. In natural areas outside the cemetery, Harrison now  follows the lives of Rocky the snowy owl and many others. But it was Mount Auburn that introduced him to the wonders of wildlife. “I don’t know what else I would be doing now that would so completely fill me with the passion that I have for them. I can’t get out of the door early enough to see them.”

Image of red fox at Mount Auburn Cemetery

Image of groundhog at Mount Auburn Cemetery
Before coyotes began inhabiting the cemetery a few years ago, foxes raised their families there. Everyone’s welcome on these hallowed grounds, including groundhogs. (Photos by John Harrison)

Cemeteries may be particularly fertile ground for instilling such appreciation, commanding a quietness that parks with volleyball nets and swing sets never will. Surrounded by buildings and roads, the 175-acre “gated community” of Mount Auburn is especially conducive to Harrison’s uncommonly expressive imagery of animals like Big Caesar and his pups because, as he notes, even apex predators are sometimes more likely to stay put. Such habitat islands can present challenges for resident species in need of broader ranges, but they also dispel stereotypic views of nature as distant and separate.

Image of ruby-crowned kinglet at Mount Auburn Cemetery
Designated as an important area for migratory birds, the lushly landscaped cemetery serves as an urban refueling station for a diversity of species, including ruby-crowned kinglets. (Photo by John Harrison)

In the end, their most important function now may be as a call to action, inspiring people to create wildlife corridors by connecting habitat fragments with more green spaces wherever possible—in corporate lawns and schoolyards, vacant lots and backyards. The towering canopies of Mount Auburn remind us of what’s been lost—but also what could be gained if we treat public and private land as lifesaving spaces for both humans and animals, replacing turfgrass and fear of nature with trees and understanding. As the contributors
to Dead in Good Company make clear, we owe it to the animals—and ourselves—to try.

TIPS: How to find nature—and yourself

Image of Ziggy the owlet at Mount Auburn Cemetery
Watching Ziggy’s parents raise him and a sibling helped heal the spirit of photographer Kim Nagy, coauthor of Dead in Good Company. (Photo by Kim Nagy)

When her mother’s mental state deteriorated, Kim Nagy found saving grace in watching another mother—a great horned owl—raise her babies at Mount Auburn Cemetery. Feeling unmoored, Nagy visited almost daily, observing the owlets’ sleepy yawns and wobbly attempts to push aside their mom’s feathers for air. “They inspired action in me by uplifting my spirit,” she writes in Dead in Good Company, “and they encouraged me to be cheerful merely because
of their existence.”

Peering into these other lives changed her own. Now an avid birder and photographer traveling internationally, Nagy hopes the book she coedited with John Harrison will encourage engagement in broader conservation issues. “Let’s face it: The world’s on fire,” says Nagy, who works in natural product sales. “And you just think, what can one person do? One person can actually do a lot.”

To find natural inspiration, look for where the plants grow and the water flows. In the Midwest, some old cemeteries have been preserved because they support rare flora, having never been plowed or grazed. Discover other hidden gems through local guides and wildlife organizations, and use these tips to gain a quiet glimpse into the lives of animals in your own neighborhood.

1. Be in the Moment

Image of yellow-rumped warbler at Mount Auburn Cemetery
A yellow-rumped warbler found refuge at Mount Auburn. The life-changing experience of watching such animals in the wild has inspired her to want to change their lives for the better too. (Photo by Kim Nagy)

Lose the phone, says Nagy, who laments the tendency to tap away on devices “like a squirrel with a nut. We’re never where we are. And when you watch nature, you see what it is; you lose your judgment about what’s good and what’s bad. And it’s very beautiful, and it’s very peaceful. And to me it’s very real.”

Observing animals in their element requires patience, says Harrison: “We think nothing of standing for an hour or two waiting for a raptor to take off.” Slowing down improves the chances of sighting fast-moving creatures; capturing a clear hummingbird photo requires a shutter speed of 1/5000 of a second. “At that moment, that hummingbird’s wings are frozen in time,” says Nagy. “So you can either focus on that or focus on the things you can’t control.”

2. Zoom In

To observant eyes, one spotted salamander is not the same as the next; each has a unique pattern, notes herpetology expert Joe Martinez in his essay about salamander surveys at Mount Auburn. To a birder with tuned-in ears, birdsong isn’t uniform either, explains retired HSUS scientist and fellow book contributor John Hadidian; each bird sings a slightly different tune. Study individual animals, advises Harrison, and you’ll absorb more than you would in a class or in a race to catalog species. People often ask why he shoots so many images of the same birds, but “every takeoff is a wonder to us,” he says. “The more you learn, the more familiar you become, the more you love these species.”

3. Let Them Teach You

Image of wild turkey at Mount Auburn
Wild turkeys tour the grounds alongside humans learning about the lives of those buried at Mount Auburn. (Photo by Kim Nagy)

By being open to suggestion, Harrison has learned to interpret signs of impending raptor takeoffs and time his morning arrivals to the awakening of coyote pups stretching among the tombstones. Watching male hawks and owls feed females and just-born chicks, he’s also come to admire animals’ parenting skills. “They just do their job, and it’s amazing to see that,” he says. “They have feelings in their own way, and they have expertise in their own way. I can’t imagine our planet without them.”

Top featured image of coyote pups by John Harrison. To see more of Harrison and Nagy’s work, go to Medford Wildlife Watch. (This article originally appeared in the July-August issue of All Animals magazine.)


Night Beauties: 4 Ways to Help Moths in the Garden

Image of brown hooded owlet moth caterpillar on heath aster

For every documented butterfly species in North America, about 15 times more moth species inhabit our gardens and natural areas. Yet they’re far less known to us than their charismatic day-flying counterparts, perhaps because most moths are active long after we’ve hit the sack.

Though they often escape the notice of humans, moths are essential to many other species, including plants that depend on them for pollination and animals who eat them for nourishment.  As caterpillars, they’re a mainstay of the diets of baby birds. As adults, they feed everyone from bats to bears; in fact, researchers have found that grizzly bears at Yellowstone National Park eat up to 40,000 miller moths (adults of the army cutworm caterpillar) each day.

Our judgment of an animal’s worth should not be measured only by their potential to be prey for other species, though. Like all our wild neighbors, moths have intrinsic value of their own and deserve just as much respect, appreciation, and freedom from harm as butterflies do. Here are a few ways you can help these unassuming creatures in your garden and neighborhood.

1. Put down the spray bottle

Image of grape leaf folder moth
As caterpillars, larvae of the beautiful grape leaf folder moths do exactly what their name implies, spinning silk to tie leaves around themselves and nibble without being seen.

Much of the easily accessible information about moth caterpillars is confined to academic and agricultural sites that refer to these animals as “pests” because they dare to chew holes in leaves. All sorts of chemical potions are recommended for destroying the supposed enemy. But everyone has to eat, and I rather appreciate nature’s vegetarians. The grape leaf folder moth pictured above has likely taken up residence in our yard because this year we have an abundance of wild grapevines, their larvae’s favorite food.

image of tiger milkweed moths
Tiger milkweed moths like to hang out in packs on butterflyweed and other milkweed species.

Tiger milkweed moths also set up shop at this time of year, though the caterpillars are more gregarious than the adults. Sometimes gardeners are upset by the voracious appetites of these fuzzy creatures, worried there’ll be no food left for the monarch butterfly larvae, who also depend on milkweed. But these two winged species tend to have different palates. Tiger milkweed caterpillars join the buffet when plants have aged a bit, while monarch caterpillars prefer young, fresh milkweed leaves.

2. Plant native species they recognize

Image of brown-hooded owlet caterpillar
A brown-hooded owlet caterpillar munches on a heath aster, a white-flowering native that volunteered in my garden a few years ago and has since spread.

Plant names are sometimes embedded in the common names of some moth species or their caterpillars. There’s a good reason for that; like butterfly larvae, moths in the teenage phase often nibble only on vegetation they coevolved with. Common oak moth larvae eat oaks, locust underwing moth larvae munch on locust trees, and caterpillars of the hickory horned devil—whose more appealing adult name is “royal walnut moth”—dine on hickories and walnuts.

Image of bicolored pyrausta
A bicolored pyrausta (we think) visited a cutleaf coneflower by my patio last weekend.

But many moth names seem to bear no relationship to the plants the animals depend on: Brown-hooded owlet moths eat asters and goldenrod, and Pandora sphinx moths eats Virginia creeper and grapes. The larval host plants of some species aren’t even yet known; after moth expert Dr. David Adamski helped me tentatively identify a small orange moth in my garden as a bicolored pylautus, I searched references for her preferred foods only to learn that scientists haven’t yet figured it out. The lesson for me? Plant even more native plant species! You never know who might need them.

Yuccas and yucca moths provide an exquisite example of the fascinating mutualistic relationship between animals and plants. The yuccas receive the benefit of pollination from the moths, and the moths lay their eggs in the flowers, where larvae hatch and eat the abundant seeds. Wondering why I’d never witnessed moths among the many yuccas scattered around our gardens, I finally ventured outside around 10 p.m. earlier this summer and found more action than I’d ever imagined. It really gets going at the 27-second mark in this video taken by my husband:

3. Let there be dark

Image of giant silk moth
A polyphemus moth in our neighborhood appeared to be on her last legs – or wings – when my husband scooped her up from the road and placed her in the grass.
image of polyphemus moth caterpillar
A polyphemus moth caterpillar, brought to a presentation at City Wildlife in Washington, D.C., rests on an oak leaf.

Recently while researching a magazine column about gardening for bats, I was alarmed to find that some experts support leaving lights on to unnaturally attract moths for an easy food supply. Light pollution negatively affects giant silk moths and has led to the decline of other large species, including the royal walnut moth. “The preponderance of lights where there used to be forest is taking a heavy toll on these wonderful animals throughout their range,” writes entomologist Doug Tallamy in Bringing Nature Home. “Royal walnut moths have already disappeared entirely from New England.”

image of hickory horned devil
We felt lucky that our garden was home last year to the royal walnut moth’s caterpillar, called the hickory horned devil, a species threatened by light pollution.

As adults, these moths live for only a few days and don’t eat; lacking mouth parts, they survive only on the energy they stored up as caterpillars. Their primary function is to breed, but if they spend their nights circling the security lights in someone’s front yard, they run out of energy to mate and lay eggs.

Though bats are declining in number and face many threats themselves, it doesn’t make sense to harm one type of animal to help another–not to mention the fact that hurting species that serve as bats’ main food supply will only exacerbate the plights of bats, too. To save these moths from further decline, turn off outdoor lights at dusk, or install motion-detecting lights that don’t burn throughout the night.

4. Don’t equate tidiness with godliness.

Image of hummingbird moth
When not flying among our flowers, hummingbird moths rely on the garden’s leafy layer as caterpillars, taking shelter there in the winter.

We’re used to seeing hummingbird moths enjoying the wildflowers in our gardens, but they’d never reach this beautiful adult phase if we raked out too many leaves from the understory. These creatures overwinter as pupae in the natural ground layers, emerging in spring and summer as adults.

In fact, many species of butterflies and moths take shelter there, along with toads, queen bees, and countless other creatures who need to wait out the winter storms in decaying plant material we too often blow and rake away. This fall, leave the leaves and other natural material in place, and watch how many more species begin to take up permanent residence in your humane garden.

Photos by Nancy Lawson. Video by Will Heinz. Featured image: A Datana moth rests on a spicebush leaf.




The Beauty of Tattered Wings

“There is a crack, a crack, in everything; that’s how the light gets in.” —Leonard Cohen, “Anthem”

Image of splitting ash tree

Things fall apart. Sometimes they’re the little things: the doorknob to the attic, the light in the refrigerator, the timer on the clothes washer. Sometimes they’re much harder to replace: trunks that support huge canopies of beloved trees in our backyards or muscles that hold up the physical and emotional weight of our own heads.

Over the past month, all these minor and major breakdowns have come to pass on the little patch of planet my husband and I call home. Just after we discovered an irreparable crack in our old ash tree after some strong-winded storms, I began feeling a pain in the back of my head that quickly felled me for almost three weeks. Many doctors’ visits and scary hypotheses later, I’ve learned the reason: Though I try to stand straight and tall like our old tree did for so many years, bending but not breaking in the face of prevailing winds, the efforts have not been adequate. More often than not, I sink into my shoulders, especially at the computer, spending long hours leaning in the same position toward a world reduced to a 15-by-25-inch screen. Our tree swayed too much and too often; I have not swayed enough.

As I recover with the help of physical therapy and “postural reeducation” (a fancy term for breaking decades of sitting, breathing, sleeping, and lying down incorrectly), I have been feeling like Rip Van Winkle, discovering that even in the span of only a few  weeks, much has changed in the garden. The long-awaited joe pye weed blooms are just about to open, while the bee balm that was barely in flower in early July has already exhausted itself into a midsummer mildewed state. The Carolina wren babies have fledged, but the goldfinch families are just getting started. The butterflies we thought would never appear are here in every color and size—tiger swallowtails, monarchs, common buckeyes, fritillaries, clouded sulphurs, red-spotted purples, American ladies, azures, and members of other species who don’t sit still long enough for me to identify them.

Among those willing to pose for my camera, I’ve noticed more wear and tear than I would have expected at this time of year. Like me and the tree, many of these creatures are a little weathered now. Yet even those with only half their wings keep going. Their lives are much shorter than ours; most adult butterflies on this continent live an average of two weeks to a month.

I’m lucky. I get to stick around longer than that, and I don’t have to worry about other animals chomping on me. But this relatively modern comfort that we take for granted is in part responsible for my own tattered state. I sit and write because I can—because I don’t have to fight for survival against predators who want to gobble me whole—and it is both a luxury and a curse.

The butterflies don’t have that choice and can’t head to the urgent care clinic for wing repairs, so they press on until they’ve exhausted themselves. Over the years, their perseverance has inspired me. The animals in the following photo essay aren’t picture-perfect, but their age and experience convey a different kind of beauty—that of creatures who don’t take life for granted or give in to setbacks. Their wings may be torn, but these butterflies are not broken. They are still flying, and still trying. They are survivors.

Image of common buckeye on mountain mint
A common buckeye with a beak-shaped hole in his right wing rests on mountain mint (Pycnanthemum muticum).
Image of red spotted purple
Maybe the same bird tried to capture this red-spotted purple, who flew with seemingly no trouble in spite of this similarly beak-shaped hole in his hindwing.
Image of Eastern tiger swallowtail on Joe pye weed
An aging female Eastern tiger swallowtail held on long enough to enjoy the Joe pye weed (Eutrochium spp.) in full bloom. Females of this species can be yellow or darker in color.
Image of Eastern tiger swallowtail
Another Eastern tiger worked her way around the purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) despite the lack of a right hindwing.
Image of Eastern tiger swallowtail on Mexican sunflower
An Eastern tiger swallowtail with only half his wings fluttered around the Mexican sunflower (Tithonia rotundifolia) patch. Though I’m using male pronouns to describe this butterfly, I can’t be sure of the gender in the absence of an anatomical feature key to identification: Yellow female Eastern tiger swallowtails have more blue on their hindwings than males.
Image of monarch on boneset
As I headed to the grocery story one day, a fully intact male monarch visited the late-flowering boneset (Eupatorium serotinum). By the time I returned, he was missing a piece of his left forewing.
image of pearl crescent butterfly
A rather tattered pearl crescent kept me company as I created a new garden by killing the grass with newspapers and mulch. I began seeing these butterflies for the first time last year after I added more asters, the host plants for pearl crescent caterpillars.
Image of silver spotted skipper on wild bergamot
A remnant of wing hangs by a thread from a silver-spotted skipper, trailing behind him as he sips from wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa).
Image of fritillary on wild bergamot
Another visitor to the wild bergamot lost a left hindwing.
Image of eastern tiger swallowtail on ironweed
New York ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis) begins to bloom just in time for late-season butterflies both young and old.

Postscript: This week, Humane Gardener’s #WeedsNotWeeds series is featured in the Chesapeake Conservancy’s “Trips and Tips.” Be sure to check out this great newsletter, which provides details about fun and informative nature-focused events and activities in the Chesapeake Bay region.

Peekaboo! Who’s Hiding in the Plants?

Image of baby rabbits in golden ragwort
This spring, we grew bunnies in our garden! Though its leaves are said to be toxic to mammals, golden ragwort (Packera aurea) provides wonderful cover for nesting animals.

Last year, a friend emailed to say she thought my proposed title for an upcoming presentation—”Creating a Wildlife Garden”—was a little silly.  “If a vegetable garden grows vegetables, then a wildlife garden grows wildlife,” she wrote. “It sounds like you’re planting the seeds of baby rabbits!”

She was a marketing director with expertise in areas I hadn’t even thought about, so I certainly wasn’t going to question her. Besides, she had an interesting point.

In some sense, though, we do “grow” animals when we garden for wildlife. By adding plants and other habitat elements where they can eat, take shelter and raise their young, we are nurturing entire life cycles of species who may otherwise have nowhere else to go in the surrounding grass-dominated landscapes of suburbia. It’s just sometimes hard to see them. More often than not, my camera picks up on treasures I’ve failed to notice with my own eyes, serving up wonderful surprises in magnified images on my computer screen.

Often it feels like a game of hide-and-seek, adding to the joy of discovery in my own backyard. “Peekaboo!” I like to whisper when I do catch them diving into the flowers and taking cover under the brush. “I see you!” But mostly I keep my distance, grateful for a camera that allows me to watch them without disturbance. As these photos show, simply observing native plants provides a wonderful glimpse into the quiet worlds of animals who make their homes among the leaves and flowers.

Image of silver-spotted skipper on wild bergamot
Wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) obscures this silver-spotted skipper, one of many visitors to the nectar-rich plant.
Image of pink turtlehead and bee
A tiny metallic bee exits the all-you-can-eat buffet of a turtlehead (Chelone lyonii).
Image of earwig in coral honeysuckle flower
An earwig becomes much more intimate with this coral honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens) than my zoom lens ever could.
Image of bee in Virginia bluebells
A bee commandeers the Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica), an important nectar source early in the season.
Image of swallowtail on ironweed
A female Eastern tiger swallowtail isn’t exactly hidden by this New York ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis). But a closer look finds someone much smaller–a skipper–sharing the flowers beneath her.
Image of swallowtail butterfly on hibiscus
A male Eastern tiger swallowtail has better luck being a wallflower behind the giant bloom  of Hibiscus ‘Lord Baltimore,’ a hybrid of native hibiscus species.
Image of katydid on common evening primrose
Katydids are hard to distinguish from the leaves of common evening primrose (Oenothera biennis).
Image of northern pearly eye on garage door handle
A northern pearly eye spends a long time extracting something (minerals? rain drops?) from the screws of the garage door opener before traveling to the keyhole to find more treats.
Image of hummingbird moth on verbena
A hummingbird moth samples the menu in a pot of verbena on my deck. (Once I realized why this nonnative is so attractive to pollinators with long proboscises–because of its accessible corolla–I planted more varieties of native phlox that would bloom throughout the season in the garden.)
Image of slug on swamp milkweed
A slug is more than welcome to show up on the swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata). Sure, he’ll ooze a little, but who am I to judge? Our species leaves much slimier, less natural, and more harmful substances in our wake all over the planet.
Image of baby bluebird in house
Young bluebirds try to stay invisible until their hungry bellies get the best of them.
Image of monarch on sassafras
A monarch butterfly enjoys basking for a while on a sassafras leaf and doesn’t seem to be  in any hurry to get to the milkweed. Perhaps he has just hatched and needs to dry his wings–or maybe he’s as curious about me as I am about him.

Growing a Cruelty-Free Garden

Image of red fox
Don’t believe the hype: Predator urine isn’t sourced from animals in the wild like this one; it comes from foxes and other species cruelly confined on fur farms. (Top photo by Jennifer Howard/Nature Works Photography; above photo by John Harrison)

The products and potions lining the shelves of local nurseries and big box centers used to mesmerize me so much that it was as if I’d thrown the rational part of my brain onto the compost pile with the rotting squash rinds. Overpowered by the sights and smells of floral abundance nearby, I didn’t even think to question what was really in those packaged promises of gardening nirvana.

I can’t remember what finally activated my B.S. detector, but once it went on, many things smelled rotten, and it wasn’t just the contents of the bags of festering cow poo from industrial feedlots. Plenty of products billed as eco-friendly have negative impacts on our fellow species, either directly or indirectly. Some come from cruel operations that confine animals in cages and pollute the broader environment, while others contain ingredients harvested from fragile ecosystems that provide critical habitat for wildlife.

Rather than supporting exploitive industries or robbing distant ecosystems to improve our own, we can purchase more humanely manufactured items or, better yet, rely on materials we already have in our backyards. Here are just a few of the strange products of 20th century commodification that we’d do well to avoid in the 21st, along with tips for finding humane alternatives.

1. Predator Urine: Cruelty in a Bottle

Marketed by one company as “the all natural, organic and humane way” to defend garden borders from wild nibblers, bottled urine is anything but humane. The product comes from fur farms, says Mary Beth Sweetland, senior director of investigations and research at The Humane Society of the United States. Produced also for hunters as a way to hide human scent, the urine is collected from coyotes, foxes and other animals raised in wire cages. Earlier in her career, Sweetland was part of a 1990s investigation that captured sickening images of the animals’ pitiful lives, including a particularly haunting one of a fox with his right front leg bone exposed. To feed the animals, the company ground up live hens in wood chippers. “Nothing has changed insofar as how urine is collected,” says Sweetland. “It’s all from caged animals on fur farms.”

Image of Will
This is my go-to for “predator” urine. He’s locally sourced and free-range, unlike the bottled products made from wild animals kept in cruel confinement. (Photo by Nancy Lawson)

The best alternative? Adopt a dog and enlist her help in marking your territory, or make your project even more DIY. Every couple of weeks in the summer, I ask my husband to go on pee patrol—an effective way to protect Joe Pye weed and other plants from nibbling so they grow tall enough for the butterflies to enjoy. It may sound ridiculous, but isn’t it so much more sane than imprisoning wild animals and bottling up their waste products for interstate transport to unsuspecting consumers?

2. Mail-Order Ladybugs: A Not-So-Special Delivery

Those ladybugs billed as natural biocontrols for the home garden are vacuumed up from where they congregate in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California. “If you’re an organic gardener, this goes against everything organics is about,” says entomologist Suzanne Wainwright-Evans, owner of Buglady Consulting, “because organics is about being good to the environment, being sustainable, being ecological.”

Image of Asian ladybug
Asian ladybugs get a bad rap, but they are voracious feeders, says Wainwright-Evans. Encourage these and other ladies in your garden rather than purchasing creatures snatched from the wild. (Photo by Nancy Lawson)

Though companies harvesting ladybugs claim there’s no real impact on the populations, “I don’t know if they have any science to back that up,” says Wainwright-Evans, who recalls one season when ladybug sellers ran out of their supply. “But just from a common sense standpoint, if you go to an ecological area and remove a major portion of the population or even 25, 30 percent, there is going to be some impact.”

And if you don’t already have the habitat to attract ladybugs, these voracious feeders aren’t likely to stick around anyway. Companies selling “conditioned” ladybugs claim to ship them ready to eat, having held them until they are practically starving, Wainwright-Evans says, “but how do they know when they get to that point?” Rather than importing animals to release in your garden, make a home for those already present in the region by adding wildflowers, shrubs and trees where many insect species can eat, reproduce, and provide natural balance.

3. Animal-Based Fertilizers: A Bloody Business

Many organic potting mixes and fertilizers sold en masse contain byproducts of slaughterhouses and industrial operations raising animals in intensive confinement. The lists of ingredients—bone meal, blood meal, feather meal, and pasteurized poultry poop—aren’t just nauseating to read. They can also sicken pets tempted to snack on them.

Image of blood meal bag
Is the eggplant a vampire? Is someone strangling the eggplant? There are much better ways to grow eggplants–and treat farm animals. (Photo by Nancy Lawson)

Yet you wouldn’t know it for all the corporate greenwashing. Marketers for the most visible brand promise a “simple, down-to-earth gardening” experience with soil made “simply from organic things.” Their green bags pair kitschy cartoon drawings with verbiage that sounds like it was adapted from the script of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure; on the packaging for blood meal, a devious-faced eggplant dons a cape above the promise of a “luscious way to feed your plants for bodacious blooms and vibrant color.”

A product summary on Home Depot’s site takes it one step further by warning consumers about what they’ll get if they don’t accept the pitch: “pale, sickly, lifeless gardens.” It’s an interesting assumption to make, as my free-of-slaughtered-animals garden is anything but lifeless, buzzing and humming with bees, butterflies, birds, and countless other organisms making their home here.

Rather than seeding the “bodacious blooms” we grow for butterflies among the sad remains of once-sentient beings who spent most of their short lives packed into dark warehouses and feedlots, here’s a better idea for reducing the waste and misery of factory farms: Don’t buy anything they’re selling. Nature knows what she’s doing, and plants grew for millennia without our help.

In fact, many native species such as purple lovegrass don’t fare as well in overly composted or fertilized soil. And vegetables proliferate among natural materials from our own gardens—namely compost and leaves that are all too often sent to the landfill. “Why waste those nutrients?” asks Jim Nardi, author of Life in the Soil: A Guide for Naturalists and Gardeners. To enrich his gardens, he doesn’t go to the store; he shreds leaves gathered from neighbors and mixes them into the soil, adding food for millions of underground creatures and creating a far better substrate for root and water penetration than any bottled product could, whether organic or chemical-based. “You can add synthetic fertilizer, and you’ll add plenty of nutrients,” he says, “but it doesn’t do anything for the structure of the soil.”

4. Mystery Mulches: A Masquerade?

What’s in that mulch from the local big box center, and where did it come from? It’s hard to know for sure. Some bags could be filled with the wood of cut-up virgin forests that take centuries to regenerate. Despite efforts to limit the logging of mature bald cypress trees, these stalwarts of rich wetland ecosystems—which help control flooding and provide food and shelter for many wild species—still meet untimely ends as garden mulch.

Other mulch products may be filled with raw construction debris; cloaked in red and chocolate brown dyes, some could contain contaminants invisible to consumers blinded by the bright color choices. “That’s an example to me of sort of treating your yard like the inside of your house,” says William Cullina, executive director of the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens. “You have to kind of think about ecological function when you go outside too, and it’s beyond just the sort of color-of-the-rug decisions.”

Image of mulch around garden
We occasionally use mulch from the landfill, layering it over newspaper and other natural materials from our property to add and extend plantings. Although we can’t be sure it doesn’t contain chemical residues from other people’s gardens, we know that at least it doesn’t come from freshly cut forest. (Photo by Nancy Lawson)

Cullina recommends using soft-wood mulches that break open to reveal spongy insides with a dark color that matches the exterior, indicating the product has been composted. Mulch from local landfills is recycled and potentially more environmentally friendly, but, as Cullina notes, this recycled yard waste could still contain harmful mystery ingredients such as persistent pesticide residue: “The problem there, obviously, is you really have no idea what the people that rake up those leaves are putting on their lawns.”

Leaves, grass clippings, and shredded branches from your own yard—or from the yards of neighbors who avoid using chemicals—are the most effective and sustainable mulch, not only suppressing invasive plants and other weeds but providing nesting and foraging areas for birds, small mammals, frogs, toads, and insects.

5. No Re-Peats in the Canadian Bogs

Peat moss comes from sensitive wetlands that have evolved over thousands of years and provide habitat for rare flora and fauna. While industry marketers say they harvest only a fraction of the peatlands in Canada—and that restoration efforts post-harvest help the bogs regenerate—ecosystems are fundamentally altered by such disturbance. For a product that isn’t even as useful as the natural materials already in your own backyard, this scraping of the land seems especially wasteful. Often used inappropriately as mulch, peat moss in the garden dries out and blows away. Mixed into soil, it adds little to no nutrients. Compost and shredded leaves are much better alternatives.

It can be hard to avoid potting mixes containing peat moss, which is added to improve water- and air-holding capacity, but it’s possible to make your own or at least reduce your use of peat-based mix by blending it with compost. Many gardeners have tried coconut coir as an alternative, though the long-distance transport from overseas introduces other environmental issues. Cullina suggests peanut husks as a potentially sustainable alternative sourced closer to home—something I plan to try this year.

Do you have any other tips for alternatives to products that exploit animals or harm their habitats? Share them here!



The Butterflies Awaken

Image of mourning cloak on bark

Unlike the many summer butterflies who proliferate on our warm-season blooms, the mourning cloak isn’t much of a flower fancier, instead taking her sustenance from sap upon emerging in early spring. She doesn’t linger for her glam shots either, sensing our apparently formidable presence and absconding before we even open the front door.

A tough cookie, she’s one of the longest-living butterflies, surviving the winter in tree crevices, leaf litter, and cracks in structures with the help of internal antifreeze substances. Yet she’s afraid of my shadow, often taking off into the trees when I’ve hardly yet realized she’s there. A nervous Nelly, she doesn’t float so much as flit—a common behavior among spring butterflies inhabiting the canopies.

Image of mourning cloak on swing
After watching a mourning cloak’s flight path toward this wooden swing surrounded by switch grass, I traced her path and approached quietly from behind to further observe her. Said to be named after similarly colored attire once worn during grieving ceremonies, mourning cloaks inspire anything but sadness. They’re a harbinger of spring, one of the first visible creatures to beautify the still-brown landscape.

Last year I spent a week of early afternoons in hot pursuit of my elusive friends, sitting in several locations around their favorite elm tree and waiting with what I thought was infinite patience. It wasn’t until my knee became a surprise runway for a butterfly landing—and I caught only the tail end because I was engrossed in my iPhone—that I realized how unready my spirit was for the privilege of close encounters with this shy species. (I described the experience in a post called Emergence.)

Image of mourning cloak on swing
Mourning cloaks live much longer than most butterflies – up to 10 months or so. Most adults will likely die not long after mating and laying the eggs of a new generation in the spring.

Forced to sit still, listen, watch, read and think for long stretches this past winter while writing a book, I have undergone my own metamorphosis since the last time these beautiful creatures awakened. This season, it hasn’t taken long to learn how to revise my approach—both physical and mental—to studying them. More than anything else, it helps if you put down your tool of distraction long enough to examine their flight patterns and basking behaviors. Moving deliberately is also key. In Butterflies through Binoculars, Jeffrey Glassberg provides tips that seem to be written directly to my clumsy old self: “Unfortunately, butterflies are pretty good motion detectors. So, you need to slow down. And be more graceful. The more slowly and gracefully you move, the less likely you will frighten the butterfly.”

Image of mourning cloak in wind
Trying to hold himself up in the wind, this mourning cloak shows the bark-like camouflage of his outer wings.
Image of mourning cloak in wind
After a cold winter, strong March winds didn’t deter this fellow either; he repeatedly pulled himself upright while basking in the intermittent sunshine.

The last thing I want to do is frighten any creature, so this year’s sightings of mourning cloaks and other butterflies in the brushfoot family have had me tiptoeing around the front yard as if I have tiny brushfeet of my own. When a mourning cloak landed directly in the path through our front garden as I headed to the post office last week, I postponed my outing, retrieved my camera, sat on the stoop, and waited. It didn’t take long before the return appearance, and over the next half-hour I moved my legs and arms ever so slightly to get closer to the little beauty. In the process of watching the butterflies over the next few days, I saw them blow over in high winds and then right themselves again once the gusts had passed. I noticed their wings becoming more tattered. I discovered other insects that I’d never have come across—including a beautiful painted hickory borer—without the spring butterflies as my guides.

Image of mourning cloak caterpillar
While removing what I thought was garden “debris” a few years ago, I came across this mourning cloak caterpillar, likely on his way to pupating. The experience taught me not to sweep away leaves where many small creatures overwinter, nest, and feed.

It was an Eastern comma butterfly’s repeated refills from the tap of elm tree sap that led my camera lens to that hickory borer cruising up the bark nearby. But the comma herself kept a wide berth, darting away as I tried to capture an image but then flying teasingly over my head after I gave up and decided to refill the birdbaths and weed the elderberry patch instead. One afternoon I parked in my chair and took photos from a 30-foot distance, lamenting that the Eastern comma still did not think me evolved enough to join her inner circle.

Image of Eastern comma on elm
The white comma mark on the outer wing of the Eastern comma butterfly explains her name. A related butterfly, the question mark, displays a similar marking but with a dot to complete her punctuation symbol.

But no matter; it must mean I’m not ready yet. I will keep trying, stopping and waiting to see what these butterflies have to teach me. If I’m lucky enough, I may even feel a little tickle on my knee again one day. I just hope I’m still ditching my phone long enough to enjoy the experience.

In late summer last year, this Eastern comma wasn’t nearly as bothered by my presence while I watched him puddle in the driveway. Though the species likes to inhabit woodlands, they are frequent visitors to yards that include their host plants (elms and nettles for Eastern commas and willows, elms, hackberries and birch for mourning cloaks).

Image of Eastern comma profilePhotos by Nancy Lawson



Cultivating compassion for all creatures great and small

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