By Paige Brown
Owls softly hoot as they settle down for a nap. It’s a cool spring morning and the
sky is just beginning to lighten in the east. Cardinals chirp as Carolina chickadees
and tufted titmice take turns at the birdfeeder. Wrens leave their nests to forage
and a mockingbird sits in the top of a dogwood tree, singing a sweet melody.
Spring progresses and bluebirds take turns feeding their young. Green anole lizards
lie motionless, warming their bodies in the sun while squirrels scamper about and
chase one another. In the aftermath of a spring shower, a box turtle ambles across
Spring turns into summer and clouds of butterflies drift through the garden, drinking
nectar and laying their eggs. Warm summer nights bring out ‘lightning bugs’ searching
for mates. Frogs begin their nightly serenade while bats swoop through the landscape
with military precision. A possum climbs down from a tree, her babies hanging on, in
search of dinner.
Southeastern North Carolina is blessed with an abundance of wildlife species. Development
continues to creep across the landscape and the habitats of our wildlife shrink to perilous
levels. Each one of us has the ability to practice responsible stewardship of our natural
environment and at the same time, enrich our lives with the enjoyment, education and family
experiences that come with wildlife interaction.
Birds, small mammals, amphibians, and insects require food, water, and shelter in order to
survive and thrive. These items are often lacking in urban and suburban areas. This is where
we can make a difference by lending a helping hand.
Native plants attract native wildlife. Acorns of the southern live oak (Quercus virginiana)
provide a nutrient packed source of food for small mammals and deer. The fleshy fruit of
flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) and American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) are a
favorite of many songbirds. Nectar of wild azalea (Rhododendron periclimenoides) and trumpet
vine (Campsis radicans) is irresistible to the hummingbird. Much of our native plant material
provides ready sources of fruits, nuts, and seeds for birds, squirrels, and other small mammals.
Because these plants are well adapted to our coastal soils (the most nutrient poor in the country)
and to our climate, their inclusion in the landscape also has the benefit of reducing maintenance
requirements and plant replacements.
A wide diversity of flowering plants provides a ready source of nectar for insects, many of
them beneficial and endangered. The honeybee, critical for agriculture, has seen a drop of
more than fifty percent since the 1940’s. Two main causes of this decrease are Colony Collapse
Disorder (CCD) and the widespread use of insecticides. The continued decline of the species has
the potential to put the world’s food supply in jeopardy. Use insecticides and other pesticides
only as a last resort and very sparingly, spraying when there is little or no wind during the
middle of the day when bee activity is at a minimum. Fruits, nuts, berries, and nectar are not
the only sources of food for our local wildlife. Insects provide essential protein for birds,
small mammals, and amphibians. A healthy population of beneficial insects also helps mitigate
the need for insecticides by keeping the numbers of damaging insects down.
The Monarch butterfly, with its orange and black ‘stained glass’ wings, is known for its
remarkable mass migration to Mexico (3,000 miles) each winter. The eastern population of
these regal butterflies has plummeted ninety percent over the past twenty years. Genetically
modified seeds (GMOs), bred to be resistant to herbicides, allow commercial agriculture to use
herbicides on a massive scale, wiping out 150 million acres of milkweed habitat. Milkweed
(Asclepias sp.) is the host plant for the Monarch, providing the main source of food for its
caterpillars. Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) and swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) are native
to our region. Ask for this showy perennial at your local garden centers and plant generously.
Diversity is key when using bird feeders to attract the widest variety of birds to the landscape.
Tube feeders attract sparrows, finches, and chickadees, while suet feeders attract woodpeckers
and wrens. House and window feeders attract a number of birds, but an open tray feeder (placed
in an open area) attracts the widest variety of birds. Black oil sunflower seeds attract many
birds (and squirrels), but providing an array of different foods is best. Cardinals love
safflower seeds, finches flock to thistle, and mealworms are a favorite of bluebirds.
Leonardo da Vinci said, “Water is the driving force of all nature.” Fortunately, this essential
life force is easy to provide in the landscape. Birdbaths are the simplest and quickest way to
provide a water source. For butterflies, place a few stones where they are just barely covered
with water or fill a container with sand and keep it moist. A pond or rain garden makes a
beautiful addition to the landscape, providing habitat for birds, butterflies, and amphibians.
In addition, a rain garden collects and filters storm water runoff, may improve drainage, and
recharges ground water.
Many of the native trees and shrubs that provide food sources also provide ideal nesting habitat.
Southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora), pine (Pinus sp.), live oak, (Quercus virginiana)
American holly (Ilex opaca), and eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) trees are welcome
nesting grounds. Shrubs such as Wax Myrtle (Myrica cerifera) and devilwood (Osmanthus americanus)
also provide solid cover for nesting birds such as cardinals, robins, and mockingbirds.
Cavity nesters, birds that make their nests in tree holes and birdhouses, make up the most
diverse group and include bluebirds, finches, flycatchers, kestrels, martins, nuthatches,
owls, and woodpeckers. Human activities have eliminated a significant percent of dead trees
available for the cavity nesters. This is why it is so important to provide houses to support
these birds. If you do happen to have a dead tree on your property that is not a danger to any
structure, please leave it for the birds.
What a treat, to watch young bluebirds leave the nest or a swallowtail butterfly emerge from
its chrysalis. It matters little where you live or how large your property is, even a small
balcony can attract wildlife.
Paige is a landscape designer and consultant, gardener, photographer, and freelance writer.
She holds a degree in horticulture from Brunswick Community College and has been a master
gardener for close to twenty years. You can reach Paige at email@example.com.