There were a few snowflakes in the air when I took to raking our side yard a couple weekends ago. It was cold, and heavy rains and wind in the days before had taken down a lot of leaves. A Red-breasted Nuthatch squeaked its call as I set about clearing the yard of hundreds and hundreds of yellow maple leaves.
But should I have been raking those leaves? As a relatively new homeowner, I feel a responsibility for having a well-maintained property. I take pride in mowing the lawn each week, sweeping up grass clippings and trimming around the fire hydrant in the parkway.
When Cornell Lab of Ornithology released its “3 Billion Birds Gone” study in 2019, it suggested that one of the things that could bring birds back would be reducing lawn and planting natives. Last year I spoke with Allison Sloan, Co-Lead of Natural Habitat Evanston, a program of Citizens’ Greener Evanston, who has written extensively on this topic. She describes grass lawns as “ecological dead zones” that emulate wealthy European estate owners. Manicured yards that hew to societal norms around lawns and landscaping are contributing to the problems facing bird and insect populations. Here’s what Allison shared with me:
“Most of us think of birds as eating seeds and berries, but in reality, 96 percent of terrestrial birds need insects at some point in their life, especially caterpillars to feed nestlings. Unfortunately, however, most lawns do not have enough insects and caterpillars to allow birds to successfully breed there because our culture has destroyed most of the native plants these insects need to eat.”
I originally reached out to Allison because I had some questions about what to do with leaves last fall. Raking and bagging leaves destroys potential habitat for insect eggs, larvae or cocoons in winter. That means one less food source that’s available to birds. Brown Thrashers, Dark-eyed Juncos, Eastern Towhees and Fox Sparrows are among the many species that forage in leaf litter. Here’s more from Allison:
“When we clean up leaf litter, especially if we blast it away with a leaf blower, we are destroying all of the life within—the cocoons of butterflies and moths, the roly polys, centipedes, and the eggs and larvae of fireflies and other bugs—and we are removing important bird habitat, as well as the organic matter needed to fertilize and insulate tree roots and to build healthy, insect-rich topsoil. We call it litter and throw it away as if it is garbage, but in fact it’s packed with life.”
So I tried this out last year, and left a portion of the yard covered in leaves. It resulted in a thick, grass-killing muck more than anything else. It was messier when we installed a children’s playset in the area (actually a Ninja Line) so we’ve now gone back to raking again. And, in all honesty, I saw only a few robins flip the leaves there.
Still, leaving the leaves combined with planting native trees, shrubs, forbs and grasses generally means much more in the way of insect life. Restoring a few Chicago-sized lots to native habitat may not seem like much, but if ever it could be done at scale, and societal attitudes toward yards would change, growth in bird populations presumably would follow (despite my own fits and starts toward this approach).
Says Allison, “With 86% of land east of the Mississippi now privately owned and mostly being developed, farmed or landscaped with turf grass and exotic plants, it’s no wonder we have lost 3 billion birds in the last 50 years. That they are running out of food has to be one factor.”
Watch the trailer for “The Magic Stump”
If you’re a regular reader of this space you know that I’ve been working on a new birding documentary, “The Magic Stump.” Well, now we have a trailer! The Magic Stump tells the story of a pair of Prairie Falcons and birder Tyler Funk's quest to understand them. An extraordinary array of raptors have been attracted to one small plot of farmland in east-central Illinois. At the center of it all is a mysterious tree stump from a bygone era. Visit www.themagicstump.com to sponsor this project (due out Spring 2022)!
I was walking through LaBagh Woods in April when I saw a large bird alight in a cottonwood tree beside the North Branch of the Chicago River. I took me a moment to figure out what I was seeing when it occurred to me I was looking at a Wild Turkey. It turns out that it was the first turkey seen in LaBagh Woods and maybe one of the first on the Northwest Side in at least several decades. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!