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.

Education: Spring has Sprung!

Phenology is the study of seasonal changes, especially in relation to plant and animal life. Plants and animals depend on these predictable changes to know when to migrate, nest, bloom, leaf out and so much more. People celebrate phenology-related events, such as cherry blossom festivals and monarch butterfly migrations. Before weather predictions were delivered to our email inbox or through an app on our phone, people used to watch for signs in nature to know just the right time to plant their crops or harvest their fields.

Phenology is an essential part of life on earth. As our global climate changes, some cyclical changes are becoming out of sync. Pollinators such as bees and butterflies may respond to earlier-than-usual warm temperatures and find the flower blooms they rely on for nourishment may not be blooming. If birds follow warmer temperatures and return to a nesting area before the bugs emerge, they could go hungry.

Scientists are studying these changes and collecting as much data as they can from all over the world. They are counting on citizens like you and me to help. The USA National Phenology Network is a great resource to learn about phenology and how you can report observations that will help scientists track long-term seasonal changes. Project Budburst is another great resource. This online repository is limited to plants, but it has a wide selection of plant species that you can observe, record data on, and report your findings about to help scientists. Chances are you can find a plant or tree in your yard or neighborhood that Project Budburst would like information on. At the Detroit Zoo, we’re observing and reporting on the flowering crabapple trees that line the walkways by Rackham Fountain.

Each year since 2013, the Detroit Zoological Society has participated in the Journey North Tulip Test Garden project. We plant red emperor tulip bulbs in the fall and mark the area. As spring nears, we watch for the tips of the tulip plants to emerge and then we report our observations to the Journey North Tulip Test Garden database. Animated maps on the Journey North website compile data from observers all over North America to show us when spring is on the way.

The best part of participating in any of these projects is that you’ll find yourself noticing more about the world around you. Even very young children can participate with the help of an adult, creating a new generation of people relying on signs in nature, not just the daily weather report.

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