Hello, for those of you who don’t already know, I am a crew supervisor for a state youth workforce development program called the California Conservation Corps. Many of my future blogs will be about the work that I do and the youth who I do it with. And a few of them may even be from those young adults. This post is an article written by one of those corps members: Karlee Jewell.

Karlee was one of two corps members who was selected to go with me to National Geographic’s BioBlitz Event to perform the BioBlitz Dance onstage at an event commemorating the centennial anniversary of the USA’s National Park Service. That’s us pictured above with the US Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell. Karlee is next to the Secretary, and corps member Sierra Preston is wearing the red hat.  Karlee’s commitment to the outdoors is not just about celebrating the outdoors with dances–although she is certainly down to the BioBlitz Dance whenever. In this article, she introduces you to some action that you can easily take to help wildlife.  –John Griffith


No Place For Birds:

And How You Can Fix That

by Karlee Jewell

Imagine that it’s a Tuesday, you’re done with work, and on your way home you stop at your local market to pick up dinner for you and your family. It’s not until you walk inside that you realize something is unusual. On sale in the meat department is poisonous salamander. This surprises you, and a quick look at the next option proves to increase your confusion: why on earth are toxic frog legs for sale? My family and I can’t eat that. Flustered, you leave the meat department and head to the produce section, you remembered seeing some lush greens on your way in, so you decide to make a salad this evening. You walk up to those same greens and read the sign above them: Poison Hemlock and Poison Oak Salad Mix. You’re baffled. You take a step back to survey the scene. With salt and pesticide laden grass blades in the chip aisle and canned sand dollar shells in the canned goods aisle, you realize the entire grocery store is filled with inedible items. And there’s nothing to drink for sale at all! Not even a water faucet in the bathroom. How can this be? From the outside, this grocery store looked like every other.

With growing hunger and frustration you leave and make your way down the block to another market. To your dismay, this store offers nearly all of the same options as the previous one. Hungry, tired, and confused you check the stores across town and in the next town only to realize there is no food around that you and your family can eat. This is the grim reality that many native bird, insect, and mammal species are faced with when they migrate through suburban America. Our yards offer little in the way of nutrition for a migrating or parenting animal.

Due to lack of adequate water sources, few places to hide, and our rampant planting of non-native ornamental plants, many insects, birds, and mammals are left without habitat. The ornamental plants most popular in American yards are usually from Asia and are advertised as “pest-free” when they should actually be called “butterfly-free.” Our native butterflies did not evolve with these ornamentals. This means, in a majority of cases, they do not lay eggs on them because their baby caterpillars cannot munch on the leaves.  Aside from their native larval host plants, butterflies also need nectar sources in order to thrive.

Most bird parents feed their nestlings caterpillars and other insects; so you could just as aptly call those “pest-free” plants, “bird-free” plants. Our backyards are the pit stops and grocery stores for wildlife. When so many of them fail to provide adequate food and water, wildlife finds themselves in the same imaginary grocery store described above. My supervisor, coworker, and I created this skit to help you see what birds may be experiencing.

As a member of the California Conservation Corps (CCC), I am reminded daily that we’re all capable of making positive impacts. Be it participating in restoration projects, wildlife conservation, using reusable bags, planting a native garden, or responding to natural disaster emergencies, we all make choices to conserve and support our communities and protect our planet. But you don’t have to join one of the many corps programs in the United States to help the environment. What if I told you that we all have the opportunity to make a difference right here in our own backyards? In fact, you don’t even need a backyard. A patio, a planter box, or any small space available outside is enough to save insects and animals.

America’s oldest and largest conservation organization, The National Wildlife Federation (NWF), has created a tool which enables all of us to take actions to do just that. By partnering with NWF, we all have the opportunity to create a Certified Wildlife Habitat. In order to certify your yard, balcony, schoolyard and/or place of work, you just need to make sure that the four habitat requirements exist in that space: food, water, cover, and places for wildlife to raise their young.

Now before you look away thinking this is an unachievable feat, bear with me. It’s easier than it sounds. Often times a native plant can provide three of the four habitat components all on its own: food, cover, and places to raise young.  Nectar, pollen, leaves, sap, seeds, fruits, and berries are examples of food that native plants can provide. Water sources include birdbaths, natural features like a frog pond or stream, a shallow dish, or even a muddy puddle for butterflies. Aside from native plants, cover and places to raise young can also be: thickets, roosting boxes, rock or stick piles, and unraked yards.

By creating Certified Wildlife Habitat, we will be able to experience, understand, and connect with the natural world we live in. Think of one of your closest friends, did you start out as besties right off the bat? Most likely not. You probably spent time with one another, grew closer through shared experiences, began to understand each other, and built bonds. Picturing life without them now invokes thoughts of sadness and loss. This is the same connection we hope to foster through creating a Certified Wildlife Habitat. You will start to care about the wildlife you watch and share space with because you will begin to better understand them.

The scenario of the grocery store with inedible food is an example of what happens when we plant “pest-free” plants in our gardens. Fortunately, we can easily solve this problem. Take for instance the beautiful monarch butterfly; it depends on flowering nectar plants for food and milkweed as its larval host plant. Due to current cultural practices, both are in decline throughout its migration range, and as a result, the monarchs’ population has suffered greatly. But we can help them! We can plant milkweed, their larval host plant in our outdoor spaces. By creating wildlife habitat we can take steps to mitigate some of the challenges that monarchs, and other wildlife, are facing.

Chances are that if you plant natives then you are planting a larval host plant for some butterfly species—the native plant they evolved to lay their eggs on.  Not sure which native plants grow in your area? No problem, The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center has an online collection of native plants by state.

Imagine all the wildlife that would benefit if every member program of the 21st Century Corps took advantage of the opportunity to become a Certified Wildlife Habitat through NWF.  We’ve already started. As seen in When Mountain Lions Are Neighbors, a book written by Beth Pratt-Bergstrom, director of NWF CA, the CCC residential centers of Ukiah and Fortuna have certified their campuses. The process included corps members building a relationship with their wild roomies by planting drought tolerant native plants that serve as larval hosts for native butterflies and colorful nectar sources for native bees and other pollinators. And that was just the beginning. Now, members of the 21st Century Corps, NWF, conservationists, wildlife lovers, and nature nuts alike must continue to engage others, speak with our actions, and raise awareness for the betterment of all our community members—furry, fuzzy, and feathery alike.