What are you and your family having for dinner tonight? No matter which dishes are on the menu—squash, pizza, salad, pasta, or French fries—fruits and vegetables will inevitably be a part of it. Even diehard carnivores with a distaste for greens can’t avoid relying on the plant kingdom, however indirectly.
And whether you’re eating that food at a table or on the sofa, there’s a high possibility that dead trees were used in the construction of your furniture. It’s also likely that a strong wooden skeleton holds up the walls around you.
Our reliance on plants for food and shelter is indisputable, yet for some reason we forget that other animals share that dependency. Worse, we remove those plants from the landscape on a mass scale, taking away the vegetation that animals need for their nutrition and the fallen leaves and dead trees they use to build their homes.
In celebration of Mother’s Day, we can give the gift of habitat to wild moms by planting more live plants and leaving the naturally decaying plant matter in our gardens. Here are just a few of the mothers and babies we’ll be helping when we do that.
Mother bees craft fresh leaf pieces into baby blankets
Mother leafcutter bees use leaf pieces of grapevine, roses, and other plants to line nests in logs, tree snags, brick or other materials with small cavities. They spend up to three hours making each nest for a single egg, leaving behind pollen and nectar provisions for their future children. (Photo by Christy Stewart)
Mother rabbits hide baby bunnies among fallen leaves
Rabbit moms find cozy spots among decaying leaves to create camouflaged nests. They even pull out some of their own hair to line the bed for their newborns. (Photo by Nancy Lawson)
Beneath logs and leaves, mother salamanders guard eggs
Some salamander mothers, including this red-backed salamander, coil around their incubating eggs for weeks to protect them from predators and disease. Logs, leaves, and rocks provide both shelter and food sources, including insects, spiders, earthworms, centipedes, and other invertebrates. (Photo by Michael F. Benard)
Raccoon mothers uses trees cavities as nurseries
Holes in live trees or standing dead trees offer safe, warm places for raccoon mothers, squirrel mothers, bird mothers, and countless other wild moms to raise their young. (Photo by John Harrison)
Butterfly babies need host plants like we need spinach
Most plant-eating insects evolved to eat the leaves and occasionally the flowers of only certain plant species. We can help butterfly and moth caterpillars by planting their host plants; this little beauty will go on to become an American lady butterfly as long as she can dine on pussytoes, or plants in the Antennaria genus. (Photo by Nancy Lawson)
Mother bees make baby food from pollen and nectar
Mother bees make special food for their young out of pollen and nectar collected from flowers. This early spring bee, likely in the Habropoda genus, is gathering the goods from Virginia bluebells and storing them in her orange pollen baskets. Gardeners often overlook spring and fall plants, but it’s important to remember the creatures who depend on them for their very survival. (Photo by Nancy Lawson)
Mother birds make baby food from insects who eat plants
Most bird parents, like this Carolina wren, need spiders and insects to feed their young. They need so many, in fact, that even tiny chickadees gathers thousands of caterpillars to raise just one brood of chicks to the fledgling stage. This food supply would be severely diminished without the native plants that feed insects. (Photo by Nancy Lawson)
Plants protect young deer while moms go off to forage
Deer, rabbits, and bobcats are among the mammals who leave their young in vegetation while they look for food. Without a minivan to tote around the toddlers and teenagers, mammals must find protected places to put them. Plants provide that. Do a wild mom a favor for Mother’s Day, and plant a native tree, shrub, grass, vine or wildflower. You’re guaranteed to help somebody’s babies! (Photo by Sally Fekety)
Inside our homes, if we don’t like something, we can change it without much thought. Tired of the pumpkin-colored wall? Repaint it blue. Too cold at night? Turn up the heat.
Our ability to pick and choose the elements of our indoor environments makes perfect sense. It’s our home, and we can do what we want with it.
But when we apply the same strategy to the world outside our front doors, we’re forgetting one key difference: It’s no longer just ours. It’s a space we share with billions of other living beings, from the large mammals to the microscopic soil organisms. Each has a role in the ecosystem, as well as unique needs and approaches to survival.
As citizens of this dynamic community, we can choose to move through these mutual spaces with more intention, taking the time to understand the effects of our actions on other creatures. Shifting to this perspective sometimes involves a rewiring of sorts, as we challenge our long-held assumptions and passed-down myths about the behaviors of wild species.
In my own evolution as a gardener, I’ve found that many of my initial beliefs were ill-informed at best—but more often just not informed at all. Because I love animals, I wasn’t inclined to do anything about their random acts of plant nibbling, but I also didn’t even understand who was doing it, or why.
In the hands of humans who are less sympathetic toward other species, such lack of knowledge can, of course, lead to tragedy for our wildlife. People still shoot opossums for the mere crime of existence. They pour poisons down mole holes and trap and relocate groundhogs to their inevitable doom. They call in “nuisance” wildlife control operators who have been known to do all these things and worse.
Stopping this madness by learning to see the world through other species’ eyes has been central to the work of John Hadidian, senior scientist for wildlife at The Humane Society of the United States. During his career, John has radio-tracked raccoons to study their behaviors, rescued box turtles, foxes, and groundhogs from the path of demolition, helped develop humane geese and pigeon population control programs, and guided research for evaluating deer impacts in urban parks. He launched one of the nation’s first services to offer compassionate solutions when wild animals take up residence in attics, walls, and other parts of human homes. And he wrote the book on all of it. An invaluable resource, Wild Neighbors: The Humane Approach to Living with Wildlife has helped me repeatedly in my own yard, turning it into a frontier of constant discovery.
As many times as I’ve talked with John over the years, I always learn something new, as I did again during a recent presentation he gave to a group of master gardeners. Below are some highlights.
The scenario: Who done it?
A squirrel? A raccoon? A woodchuck? Those were a few of the responses to the question of who ate the tomato (shown below). In the crowd of plant-protective gardeners, John’s big reveal of the true identity of the drive-by snacker in his garden—a box turtle—elicited a collective, affectionate gasp. The reaction was far more sympathetic for the herp perp than it likely would have been for other animals, and that was part of the point. When we assume too much about what’s going on in our yards and initiate a blame game against various species for stealing the fruits of our labors, it can be humbling to learn how wrong we’ve been.
The solution? Tolerance and understanding. Take the time to determine who’s really in your garden before deciding on a course of action. And grow more plants—there’s plenty to go around, especially for turtles, who can’t even reach very high. “Let the box turtle have that first row of tomatoes,” John advises. “That’s fine. Share.”
The scenario: Help, there’s a raccoon in my trash/chimney/birdfeeder!
Spilled garbage could easily be the handiwork of neighborhood dogs or other animals. But even when it has the pawprints of our favorite furry bandits all over it, it’s ultimately not their fault either. “It’s not a raccoon problem,” says John. “It’s a trash problem.”
And why wouldn’t members of this tree-based, generalist species take advantage of their surroundings? They’ve been adapting to every U.S. biome for the past million years. By contrast, we didn’t come along in our current form until 800,000 years later. It’s no wonder our trash cans are their food, our chimneys are their dens, and our bird feeders are their local drive-thrus.
The solution? “Don’t create opportunities when you don’t need to have them,” says John. Secure your trash can with a bungee cord, buy an animal-resistant container, or store garbage in the garage at night. Seal chimneys with chimney caps once you’ve verified they’re empty. If a mama raccoon has already taken up residence there, she and her babies will be gone soon enough. If for some reason you can’t wait, a humane service can help encourage the family to move to an alternate den site.
Protect raccoons from becoming too habituated to bird seed buffets by limiting seed amounts, adjusting feeding times so there’s little left at night, or simply shutting down the restaurant for a while.
The scenario: Rooftop squirrelliness
It was party central for the cute rodent set: “One weekend squirrels got into the room where all the expensive computer-ware was and kind of did some rewiring,” John says of one of the buildings occupied by his previous employer, the National Park Service. “And all of a sudden the problem was elevated to an actual crisis.”
Before that, unbeknownst to agency biologists, property managers were simply trapping and relocating—an ineffective method that invites more squirrels to the property to fill the vacuum. The practice can also mean a death sentence for relocated animals, who must compete for food and shelter in unfamiliar territory.
The solution? Change the environment. “We went out and walked around, and the first thing you see, of course, is the squirrel highway,” says John of the branch hanging over the roof, “and a building that’s probably not too climbable otherwise.”
A tree crew came to cut the branch that afternoon. “And there was never another invasion by squirrels in the time I was there.”
The scenario: Groundhogs Being … Groundhogs?
Once they dig in, groundhogs can create elaborate burrow systems that last for generations. John has seen some in Washington, D.C., that he believes have been in existence since the Civil War.
Yet instead of admiring their industrious ways, fear-mongering wildlife control operators grasp at straws when trying to persuade homeowners to kill them: “Groundhogs are deceptively pleasant-looking creatures with chubby bodies and squatty legs,” reads the website of one large company. “When cornered, however, they are aggressive defenders of their territory, another reason why you’re loathe to see one in your yard.”
Who isn’t an aggressive defender of their territory when “cornered”? That’s called survival.
The solution? A dose of understanding and, if necessary, humane exclusion. The best approach, as always, is to try to live alongside these animals, who mean us no harm. But for gardeners who’ve lost plants to groundhogs and want to take effective, humane action, a fence with an L-shaped footer in the ground will do the job. Since groundhogs can also climb, John recommends fencing that wobbles in a way that makes scaling it nearly impossible.
Digging up burrows to a depth of three feet once animals have vacated is also an option for preventing new arrivals. (It’s not one I would pursue, as I enjoy the presence of groundhogs, but it’s far preferable to the killing methods employed by so many. One local politician I met at a recent event took great pleasure in relaying how he’d shot a groundhog family living under his deck, though he couldn’t name any actual damage done yet by the animals. It hadn’t occurred to him to explore more humane approaches before launching his outsized preemptive strike.)
The Scenario: What scenario?
Among all the maligned animals in our landscapes, opossums may top the list, simply because some people find them aesthetically displeasing or frightening. “I don’t know how many people I’ve had call me up excited about a giant rat they just saw,” says John.
But these animals are much more afraid of us than we are of them—and for good reason. They are subjected to relentless abuse: set on fire, doused in boiling water, sprayed with insecticide, attacked with bricks, and intentionally hit by cars.
North America’s only marsupial—and a denizen of this planet since the age of dinosaurs—deserves better. Because the moms give birth to live young who nest in their pouches, they need no established home range and will leave as quickly as they’ve arrived. Their passing presence should be welcomed. “Ecologists call them terrestrial gleaners,” says John, “which means they eat a lot of carrion and insects and other things that could be injurious to gardens.”
The solution? Chill out.Since there is no problem, other than misplaced hatred from humans, there is nothing to solve here. They’ll move along soon enough, and so should we.
“Chances are if you have a problem—and I don’t even really know what a problem with an opossum even looks like—it’s going to be gone the next day,” says John.
When I first met urban wildlife expert John Hadidian, I was already concerned about paved-over landscapes and lifeless seas of turfgrass, but primarily because they were boring and chemical-laden. I had antipathy toward lawn mowers and leaf blowers, but mostly out of fear for the ears of gardeners and animals exposed to the loud grind.
It would be years before I fully understood the implications of denuded landscapes stripped of the native plants that many animals depend on for survival. But John, the senior scientist for wildlife protection at The Humane Society of the United States, introduced me more than a decade ago to the serious impacts of our lawn-crazed culture on nesting and migration patterns.
It was the early 2000s, and some communities were waging war with Canada geese. The story John relayed was a sad and familiar one for wildlife protectionists: After hunting geese to near-extinction (twice), humans did what we so often do, launching misguided recovery efforts that moved them to regions they hadn’t previously inhabited. Once there, the geese stayed—and did exactly what we’d asked: they proliferated. And pooped. A lot. So much so that we decided to get rid of them again, initiating government-sponsored killing campaigns that even included mass gassing in improvised “euthanasia” chambers.
By the late ’90s, hope had come in the form of proven humane alternatives, including oiling eggs to prevent development, enlisting border collies to patrol ponds, and—most intriguing of all to me—adding native plantings around bodies of water. Geese, John explained, are attracted to areas where turfgrass abuts ponds and lakes and provides easy lines of sight. Especially in summer, when they are molting and can’t fly while raising their goslings, the visible route into the water is essential for escape from predators.
“It’s a self-inflicted wound,” John said of the goose-related problems experienced by homeowners, businesses, and park managers. The geese who’d been relocated, bred in captivity, and put in unnatural settings now “hang around here all year, and we complain about it, but you know, we did this to them.”
The message was clear: We’d created the artificial landscapes, so why couldn’t we use that same ingenuity to reverse course and restore what had been lost? And I had to wonder: If we’d done this to geese, who else were we doing it to?
Those questions would eventually inspire me to devote all my time to creating and promoting wildlife-friendly landscapes. It’s a passion I share with many others. But in spite of the growing reach of the sustainability ethic, all of us who have joined the burgeoning movement over the past decade still face formidable challenges—and not just in the realm of encouraging more wildlife-friendly plantings. For some people, banishing wildlife entirely, through any means necessary, is a primary goal. As John wrote in a recent essay for the Biophilic Cities newsletter, “Every year, many thousands of wild animals living in cities are killed for simply being perceived as ‘nuisances,’ often for no more of an offense than being seen crossing a yard.”
It doesn’t have to be this way. So many animals—including those in our own backyards—are mistreated out of fear or a lack of understanding of their natural behaviors. Our species can and should do better. And thanks to the work of John and his colleagues, we already know how. It’s up to every one of us to act on that knowledge now.
An upcoming blog will provide highlights from a recent talk John presented about humane solutions to conflicts with wildlife. But first, can you name the animal who nibbled on this tomato from his garden? The first correct response entered into the comments section will receive a free copy of John’s book, Wild Neighbors: The Humane Approach to Living with Wildlife.