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Gardening is for the Birds

A mother's reflection of nurturing birds and children and seeing both fly away at maturity.

"Garden as if life depends on it!"

Doug Tallamy's words will echo in my mind always. If we garden with this in mind, we'll make better plant selections that help foster wildlife.

Tallamy, The University of Delaware Professor and author, has been conducting research that shows that the higher the percentage of native plants, the greater the number of native nesting birds, butterflies and moths. Gardens with more exotic plants (Asian, European, etc.) had far fewer native nesting birds and butterflies.

When native plants disappear, insects disappear, and so do the birds and other wildlife that depend on them for sustenance. Everyone can make a difference, even those that garden in containers and small patches of land.

Songbirds have been in decline since the 1960s, having lost 40 percent of their numbers so far, according to information from Audubon. Most songbird species require insects to rear their young. The protein obtained from insects is not available in any other form. Without the plants, insects can't thrive, and without the insects, the bird population declines.

I have been turning my garden around by eliminating some invasive exotic plants (Japanese spirea, for example) and adding more plants that are native each year. I am pleased to say that each year we get more and more nesting songbirds. Our family has witnessed the annual broods of house wrens, robins and now cardinals on our one-third of an acre property. We have witnessed them collecting insects around the property and feeding baby birds.

I can't help but parallel the brood of cardinals on our property to our daughter's leaving our nest soon. We noticed the cardinals hovering around an evergreen bush only a few feet away from our back porch recently. I heard some tiny chirping sounds, and to my delight, I noticed two recently hatched cardinals! They looked like extraterrestrials with their glistening scrawny bodies and bulging bluish eye sockets, but there they were, right in my own backyard. The birds were about six or seven days old I surmised from examining images on the Internet.

I noticed that both the female and male cardinals hovered around the area. The male came back with a mouthful of insects to feed the baby birds. I think the female also had some food in her mouth.

When I did some research, I found out that after the mother cardinal builds the nest and lays the eggs, the father usually feeds the birds, while the mother gets ready to build a new nest and start the process all over again. After about 10 days, the baby cardinals fly off to start their new life.

This short 10-day process is a microcosm of each parent's experience over the course of 18 years of child-rearing. I fed my daughter as an infant during the first few weeks, while my husband made sure I was comfortable in my "nest," a.k.a. the recliner. He was the CEO (chief executive officer in charge of diapers and bathing) and I was the CFO (chief feeding officer).

Four days later, the male and female cardinal hovered around the nesting area more than ever. They darted back and forth feeding their young, all the while communicating by making their distinctive "chipping" sounds.

When I tiptoed outside to check on the nest, it was empty. Oh no! Had I missed their exodus? I looked around the shrub and found one of the babies staring at me with its beady eyes while perched about two feet from the nest. Blink, blink. We looked at each other. I marveled at its remarkable growth, since it had become a "teenager." The bird had a look that seemed to say, "Hmmm ... she doesn't look like mom or dad."

That afternoon my daughter came home from school and asked, "Where's Elmo?" Through the years any baby creature on our property is christened "Elmo" for some reason. Years ago she tried to feed carrots to "Baby Elmo," a baby groundhog. As we peered at the young bird, now getting a bit fluffier and sporting an emerging mohawk-like crest, we ooohed and aaahed.

As I watched these birds nurture their newly hatched family, I remembered my daughter's early days fondly. The baby cardinals will fly off soon to start their new life. In a few short months, my daughter will fly away to college to start a new chapter of her life.

As parents, we do the best we can for our children with what we have. As gardeners, the best that we can do for our gardens and the planet is to plant responsibly: "Garden as if life depends on it!"

Try to plant things with high biological value. According to Tallamy, native species support 29 times more biological diversity. Oak trees, river birch, blueberry bushes, asters, goldenrod and milkweed are all native plants that support a great deal of biodiversity in our region, according to Tallamy. Garden organically. Don't buy an armload of chemicals for a couple of dandelions.

The birds thank you in advance for gardening responsibly. Especially the baby birds that hatch this spring. Happy spring gardening to all. It's for the birds!

You can download a free copy of the book, "Guide to Gardening for Life in Southeastern Pennsylvania" produced by Audubon at Home.

Put Doug Tallamy's book, "Bringing Nature Home" on your summer reading list. It has now become every responsible gardener's bible. You can find an abbreviated list of what to plant here.

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