(1) The value of wildlife gardens

And so we come to a new gardening year and more opportunities for making our own small or large home patches welcoming to wildlife. We will get to what has been happening in this garden shortly (snow mostly ) but it’s an opportune time for us to pause and consider the value of what we are doing. Does being a “wildlife gardener” actually have an impact on wildlife survivability or does it just make us all feel good? The British Trust for Ornithology has written about this and it seems that their conclusions are universally applicable. They do not restrict their comments solely to birds …

“ … our gardens do not exist as a single continuous entity but are, instead, highly fragmented and often embedded within other habitats. Despite this, there is plenty of scientific evidence to support the assertion that gardens have a value for wildlife and a role to play in the maintenance and conservation of biodiversity.”

“ … Many species show a peak in their use of gardens late in the winter, something that is particular apparent for … farmland species that utilise rural garden feeding stations at a time of the year when seed supplies elsewhere have been depleted.”

“ Many people dismiss the wildlife value of domestic gardens, describing them as artificial, full of introduced plants and managed by intrusive management practices. While it is true that we manage gardens for our own ends (and that they contain a high proportion of introduced plant species) it is worth remembering that much of our countryside is also heavily managed, as our many of our nature reserves. Gardens, then, are one component of a wider spectrum of land management practices and it is becoming increasingly apparent that they do have a benefit for wildlife.”

“Most garden-visiting mammals are less mobile than their bird counterparts, something which restricts their penetration into urbanized landscapes and it is likely that the range of mammal species visiting will be strongly influenced by the nature of the surrounding habitat.” (so encourage your neighbours to garden for wildlife also)

“Several of our amphibian species thrive in the garden and … can reasonably be expected to be found in the garden for at least part of the year. Amphibians spend a great deal of time on land, which surprises many people, so it is quite possible to find amphibians in gardens without pond”

“Invertebrates make a larger contribution to garden biodiversity than any other group of macrofauna. They can be found living within our trees and flowers, in our soil, compost heaps and buildings and appear as winged visitors, often in great numbers. Despite this, they are easily overlooked and it is only the largest, brightest and most readily identifiable species that we tend to notice. Many species are easily ignored, dismissed as being some form of generic ‘fly’ or ‘moth’. “

In conclusion, the BTO notes that “A garden that is good for wildlife is likely to be a stable ecosystem in its own right, integrated with the landscape around it and providing a diversity of micro-habitats within its boundaries. Such stability has advantages for you, the gardener, as well. A stable, diverse system is unlikely to be over-dominated by any one species or group of organisms. In practical terms this means that you should have fewer problems with pest or weed species and be less prone to outbreaks of disease among the plants that you grow. Working with nature should also reduce the amount of management work that you have to do within the garden.”

(2) Which brings us back to this garden in this first week of 2018.

New Year’s Day brought temperatures of -25C and we don’t even want to think what the windchill brought it down to. The heated bird bath on the deck did a lot of business, especially from American Goldfinches coming again and again to take short and delicate sips of available water. The AMGOs do seem to have a greater “thirst” than many other species. Other primary users of this resource have been Mourning Doves who gather around the rim at twilight to warm their rumps (they sit there facing outwards with tails over the water)  before flying off to roost. MODOs in general though have not been as evident this year as some previous ones with fairly small numbers while in some years we have had flocks of a dozen or more in winter. Is this down to efficient predators, poor breeding season, better facilities in someone else’s garden? We can only speculate. Anyway, the year started with a garden day list of eight species.

Our feeders provide a range of food and types of presentation. By far the most popular food is black sunflower seed which we offer in tower feeders, a dome-sheltered tray feeder and a reverse-cone mesh feeder with a perching tray at the base. Suet is available in wire baskets and peanuts in the tray feeder and a specialised peanut feeder in metal with multiple holes. Niger seed is also offered. We have lost count of the number of different niger seed feeder designs we have spent money on over the years – some seed has always been taken but really very little given the number of birds we see here that have beaks adapted to the small seeds – the various finch species etc. This season, however, niger seed is being consumed in remarkable quantities from our latest feeder  (see photo) – this one is a column feeder with several very small holes to allow the birds to get at the easily spilled seed and below each hole there is a perch … the difference, and it seems to be important, is with this feeder each perch is covered with a soft rubber/plastic sleeve that makes it easier for small birds to perch while feeding. Whatever it is, this feeder design is a winner. The AMGOs like it a lot but also Dark-eyed Juncos seem to favour it as well. Talking of DEJUs, friends have told us, and we have read, that they like millet seed but our experience is that very few birds at all will take millet if there are any alternatives available … so we have stopped buying it.

On 2 January “our” eastern cottontail rabbit appeared for a hop around the garden – we like him but with this cold and the depth of snow we rather fear he may be interested in stripping bark off some of our choicer shrubs. Wouldn’t be the first time.

There was a short period of warm (-8C) weather mid-week before the arctic vortex returned and the number of Mourning Doves increased briefly.

Montreal was fortunate to be only on the edge of the “weather bomb” that seems to have flattened the maritimes but we certainly got the cold winds it brought in its wake as well as more blowing snow. Conditions were pretty tough for any creatures out there trying to make a living – the feeders were busy but only four species of birds ventured forth (AMGO, NOCA, DEJU, BCCH). The Goldlfinches in particular were tiny balls of fluff with snow sticking to their feathers. Even the ever-active squirrels took a break and hunkered down somewhere out of the wind for the duration. By mid-afternoon the blowing snow had created small white balls on the outside of the windows we watch the garden from – just like the cotton-wool blobs old-fashioned shopkeepers liked to use around Christmas as window decorations.

Lastly … a few weeks ago we were all talking about the reasons for many trees not forming proper abscission layers and so hanging onto their leaves into the winter … dry, brown leaves, admittedly, but they should have dropped long ago. The leaves are now being blown off by the strong, cold northerly winds but I confess to never having seen drifts of leaves in my front drive in January before …

Featured Images

(click to enlarge)

The niger seed feeder that birds actually choose to use

Tardy leaf fall

4 January – Eastern Cottontail Rabbit