Welcome to Subirdia

The President’s Hoot
by Richard H. Baker, Ph.D.
March 2015

Will Johnson, age 14, sent a wonderful email describing the birding opportunities he has discovered in his new Indian River County neighborhood . He describes his area as having “many small houses with very little vegetation” with “only a couple of oak trees that probably are too small to attract birds.”  Fortunately, “three empty lots nearby have Sea Grapes, Strangler Figs, Hercules Club and various grasses and other plants.”  Will says the bird diversity in these lots is astounding!”  Will noticed that the lots have different habitats which attract different birds:  “For instance, this fall, the weedy areas attracted Indigo Buntings, Painted Buntings, Common Yellowthroats, and a White-Crowned Sparrow while the trees and bushy areas attracted three types of thrush, two types of Vireo, Scarlet Tanagers and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, around seventeen species of warbler, two species of flycatcher, and other miscellaneous migrants such as cuckoos. I was really surprised how these small areas can funnel in so many birds! I have also had some really good sea watching since our neighborhood is near the beach. I have seen more scoters (Including my first White-winged Scoters!!), jaegers, gannets, and other migrating waterfowl over the ocean than I have ever seen before!”

Will’s observations are similar to John Marzluff’s book entitled Welcome to Subirdia: Sharing Our Neighborhoods with Wrens, Robins, Woodpeckers, and Other Wildlife. While we humans have caused a great loss of biodiversity by our actions removing natural habitats for monocultures and development, the greatest variety of birds are often found where there is diversity of plants, and that can be in suburbia.  In an article published in the February/March issue of Nature Conservancy, Marzluff states “Subirdia…is a richly interwoven mixture of residential, commercial and wilder land.  Houses, allotments, and gardens, derelict and vacant land, golf courses and other outdoor sport sites, cemeteries, schoolyards, highway and railway verges, municipal utility stations, business parks and shopping centers occur among places dominated by natural vegetation such as greenways, river and stream corridors, parks and nature reserves, pipelines and power lines, steep slopes and quarries.  Functionally, subirdia is the confluence between city and country that promotes a mutual exchange of plants and animals.”

Over 40 million U.S. acres (nearly the size of Wisconsin) are non-native lawns.  At the U.S. current growth rate, 2.1 million acres will be lost to residential landscape yearly.  Just think what we could do in Indian River County if we removed most of the St. Augustine grass lawns and planted native shrubs and trees to increase our bird and butterfly populations. Plants provide both food (fruit, seeds, and beneficial insects) and shelter for protection and nesting. Many birds feed on insects, which feed on various native plants.  Cornell Lab of Ornithology lists seven important plant groups at www.allaboutbirds.org/Page.aspx?pid=1143 and other suggestions to attract birds to your yard.

To create a Bird-Friendly Yard (and healthier for us humans too):

  • Eliminate or use minimal amounts of pesticides and herbicides.
  • Where safe, let dead trees stand to attract insects and woodpeckers and provide bird roosts.
  • Provide a variety of seeds in bird feeders, put up bird houses, and provide a water source via a pond, bird bath, or mister. Bird feeders are for us to learn about birds, not for the birds’ sake.
  • Plant a diversity of native plants (exotic plants often host no native insects and grass reduces diversity of plant species and provide little food for birds – see “Bringing Nature Home” by Douglas Tallamy for more information).
  • Keep cats indoors only.  Indian River County’s estimated 37,000 pet cats, and its additional 29-49,000 stray/feral cats may kill locally a half million birds annually. Scientists estimate that cats are responsible for killing 1 to 4 billion wild birds nationally. Protect your cats. They are safer indoors. Pet dogs may also kill birds.

Some references that give more information about birds and gardens:

In addition, here are local plant resources so we can get started right away to enhance our yards by finding plants that grow in Florida and attract birds through their seed and fruit production:

See our website for these links, and booklists, and ideas on how to enhance your yard to attract birds: pelicanislandaudubon.org

Our goal at our Audubon House is to provide examples of native landscaping plants. We also encourage you, our members, to enhance your yard to attract birds.  Based on Will’s experience in his local neighborhood, we could enjoy more wildlife if we kept some areas of our yards wild.

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