By Karen Heisz
My favourite time of year has arrived: the songbirds are returning from their winter escape to the tropics, and the native plants in my garden are slowly emerging, bigger and stronger than last year.
The birds are so colourful, and their songs brighten my day. But their arrival coincides with the annual onslaught of harmful turf maintenance practices and the spraying for caterpillars and mosquitoes. Increasingly, the needs of these beautiful birds are being ignored in favour of “insect-free” outdoor living spaces..
We have beautiful homes and gardens that we enjoy, but we often forget that those gardens are home to a huge variety of insect species that are essential not only to the health of our birds but also to our planet!
In April 2019, the journal Biological Conservation reported that a review of 73 studies worldwide found “dramatic rates of decline” may lead to the extinction of 40 percent of insect species over the next few decades, and that the extinction rate for bees, ants and beetles is eight times higher than for mammals, birds and reptiles.
Insisting that our lawns are “grub-free” and “weed-free” and that our garden beds are neat and tidy is destroying the habitat of bees, ants and beetles. Spraying to control mosquitoes and spiders harms all insects within reach of the spray. And spraying our trees with products containing Bt toxin kills ALL caterpillars, not just those that will become Spongy Moths
(formerly called Gypsy moth).
Why is all this important? Our songbirds feed these grubs, bees, ants, beetles, mosquitoes, spiders and caterpillars to their young! Our migratory songbirds make that exhausting flight each year because of the once-plentiful supply of protein-rich caterpillars, which are easy to push into the mouths of growing baby birds.
Instead of turning our gardens into lifeless spaces, consider adopting these practices to support the natural diversity:
1. Remember that not all insects are pests; they can be helpful, and most are harmless.
2. Design your landscapes with native trees, shrubs, and plants to supply food and habitat.
3. Do not use any pesticides, including insecticides, miticides, fungicides and herbicides. Even
“natural-based” products are harmful. Be patient and wait to see what natural predator will take
care of the pest in question. Will it be a skunk? A flicker? A ladybug?
4. Allow songbirds to nest on your property by supplying nesting materials like dead grass, plant stalks and leaves. The birds will feast on insects, and you will enjoy watching them.
5. Over 60 percent of insects are nocturnal. Limit the amount of nightime light around your home and garden. If you must keep outdoor lights on, use yellow bug-light bulbs that do not attract
6. Do not use bug-zappers. Mosquitoes are not attracted to light. Moths, harmless insects and important pollinators are attracted to these devices and are killed needlessly.
7. To prevent the growth of mosquitoes, remove all sources of standing water in your yard and change the water in your bird baths often or use solar-powered fountains to move the water.
8. Do all you can to prevent climate change because rising temperatures are causing
natural cycles to get out of sync, resulting in host plants and prey insects not being available for the birds when they are needed.
9. Download iNaturalist to your device and name those unusual insects you see in your yard. Learn about them and appreciate them.
Our insects and songbirds need us to care for and protect their habitat for their long-term survival. It is my hope that spring will always be heralded by the arrival of our songbird friends.