Turn Your Backyard into a Wildlife Sanctuary

As spring finally arrives, our neighborhoods are quickly coming back to life after a long winter’s slumber. Each morning we wake up to birds singing outside our windows and wildlife stirring from their winter hideouts as they venture out in search of food and companionship. We have an important role in their success as we own and care for much of the space they call home.

Our yards are becoming increasingly important sanctuaries for native wildlife. With open spaces quickly dwindling to new subdivisions, commercial buildings and parking lots, there is little left for the species who have always lived here. By sharing our backyards with birds, pollinators, small mammals, amphibians and reptiles, we’re keeping the ecosystem intact and benefiting all species, including ourselves.

Birds, amphibians and bats all help keep the insect population in control, making our summer afternoons more enjoyable without constantly swatting away mosquitos and other winged nuisances. Pollinators, such as bees and butterflies, provide us with beautiful flowers and are responsible for fertilizing crops, ultimately producing one out of every three bites of food we eat. Snakes eat insects and small rodents, keeping populations in control and out of our sheds, garages and homes. To keep these natural systems in balance, we need to minimize our impact on their daily routines.

It’s relatively easy to create an oasis for wildlife while we continue to enjoy our outdoor space. Last spring, DZS staff planned and prepared a Backyards for Wildlife site near the Detroit Zoo’s American Coney Island to demonstrate how simple projects in our backyards can have a positive impact for wildlife. Volunteers from the Ford Motor Company helped to plant a variety of native flowers, grasses and shrubs in the area, and laid a wood chip path to lead guests into the space, which will soon be full of blooming flowers and busy pollinators.

In preparation for GreenFest on April 27, the site will be enhanced with signage that suggests simple things homeowners can do in their yards. These tips include:

Install rain barrels on downspouts. Collecting rain to irrigate lawns and gardens can save homeowners as much as $35 a month on summer water bills.

Keep your cat indoors to save songbirds. Wildlife biologists estimate that as many as one in every 10 songbirds are killed by domestic cats. Keeping cats indoors may also prevent the spread of many feline illnesses.

Install a bat house. Before you call an exterminator to spray for unwanted mosquitos, consider installing a bat house. A bat can eat up to a thousand mosquitos in a single evening!

Build a birdhouse. A birdhouse can be a fun project to build and paint with children. It will provide a safe shelter for birds raising their young.

Incorporate native plants in your landscape. Native plants require less water and care than introduced species, they come back year-after-year and are important food sources for birds, butterflies and other pollinators. Even if you live in an apartment and only have a balcony, a potted plant or small window box can provide many of these same benefits to native wildlife. For suggestions on where to buy native plants, visit https://detroitzoo.org/who/ and select the “Certify Your Habitat” dropdown.

Our Backyards for Wildlife site is a place for learning and enjoyment for humans, and a great example of how our personal choices can make a positive difference for our non-human neighbors. Join us at GreenFest on April 27, to learn more as we celebrate Earth Day with demonstrations from our Green Team, conservation education, citizen science projects and exhibits by local conservation groups.

– Claire Lannoye-Hall is a curator of education for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Preventing Pollution? Rain Gardens are a Solution

An average annual rainfall for Michigan is more than 31 inches, which equates to more than 52 million gallons of rainwater per year. That much rainwater can severely damage downspouts and create pollution. A rain garden is an environmentally friendly and attractive way to filter and return storm water runoff from surfaces such as sidewalks and roof tops, while protecting our groundwater and waterways. They can be created on your own property using just a few steps – ultimately minimizing the pollution that emerges from the rainwater gushing out of downspouts.

First, determine if you have a suitable site for a rain garden. The ideal spot is one that is:

  • Fed by only one or two downspouts
  • Far from a septic tank, drain field, or wellhead
  • Free from trees

Next, follow these easy steps:

  • Find an outdoor space that can absorb water, ranging from 100 to 400 square feet. A rain garden should be about 20 percent the size of the roof, patio or pavement area draining into it.
  • If there are trees in the area, make sure they can handle wet soil conditions for lengthy periods of time to ensure that your rain garden is set up for success.
  • Remove the grass and dig a hole at least 2 feet deep.
  • Lay an inlet pipe used for catching the storm water. These small pipes can be purchased at any hardware store for under $20.
  • Add native vegetation, and you’re all set!

The benefits of rain gardens are tremendous. In addition to being aesthetically pleasing, they are easy to maintain and improve water quality by filtering out pollutants. And perhaps the most magnificent benefit is that they attract wildlife such as birds, butterflies and insects who use the plants as a food source.

The Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) is working to protect storm water on the grounds of the Detroit Zoo and Belle Isle Nature Center. We built a rain garden near the Ford Education Center, which collects rain water from the roof of the 38,000-square-foot building and is maintained throughout the entire year, incorporating native Michigan plant species. The downspouts drain into the garden through a pervious pipe located 3 feet below the surface. We’re in the midst of creating a second rain garden near American Coney Island. Native, drought-resistant plants have already been planted and we plan to build a mock house with gutters and rain barrels. Signage will educate guests about how they can incorporate rainwater collection and rain gardens at their homes. In addition, we have incorporated permeable pavement within parking lots and public walkways, which also reduces storm water runoff and improves water quality by filtering out pollutants.

We all have an impact on the planet – projects like these are simple steps we can take to make sure it is a positive one.

Education: Citizen Scientists Help Study Butterflies

Butterflies aren’t just beautiful animals and important pollinators; they are also bio-indicators, which provide valuable information regarding the health of an ecosystem. Like amphibians, the butterfly is affected by even the slightest changes in the environment, signaling to scientists that something is amiss. When habitats are healthy and plentiful with food, water and shelter, bio-indicator populations are stable. When any piece of that puzzle falls away, populations fluctuate quickly and may decline rapidly.

Scientists can’t be everywhere to monitor species’ populations and keep track of changes. They count on people like us to be their eyes and ears in our communities and report this critical information. The Detroit Zoological Society is providing opportunities for our community to become citizen scientists and help the Michigan Butterfly Network collect vital information about our native butterfly species.

On April 6, a citizen science training workshop will be hosted at the Belle Isle Nature Center. The training will cover species identification, how to collect accurate data, how to report data and otherwise prepare attendees to be successful.

After the mandatory training, citizen scientists are asked to visit their census route at least six times throughout the summer field season. Each census route walk will last five minutes as the observer looks for butterflies in their immediate vicinity. Recording data is a very important part of the process; each species will be carefully documented on a form and submitted to the network.

There are many support materials and resources available and the training workshops will prepare participants for a successful season. The pre-requirements include a passion for our natural world, an interest in learning to identify up to 30 species of butterflies, and the ability to visit a census route six times over the course of the summer season.

If you’d like to learn more about the project or sign up to participate in the training workshops, please email education@dzs.org.

Claire Lannoye-Hall is a curator of education for the Detroit Zoological Society.