Why birdfeeders are not good for the environment.

Many people will probably read this and disagree or criticise me harshly, but garden bird feeders are not the favour to the environment that many people have been led to believe. Many people simply enjoy feeding the birds, and I am not judging them for their kindness. However, I was a biologist; specifically a botanist and ecologist. I studied habitat workings and population dynamics. And I tell you now that nature is not kind. It cannot be, because it is not a rational, thinking, feeling entity. Nature simply is, and whatever exists in it either survives or doesn’t.

Let me explain. Any habitat, whether an untouched old-growth forest, a desert, a swamp, or a backyard (or rather, a neighbourhood of backyards), represents and provides a certain amount of resources to the things that live in it. Many times, those living things are themselves resources. For plants, the major resources are light, water, soil nutrients, space, and sometimes pollinators. For animals, the major resources are shelter/habitat, food, water, and, eventually, mates. (We can usually assume that air is not an issue as a resource.)

Resources are, or can be, limited, and so the living things in a habitat are to some degree in competition for available resources. This in turn creates more limits on what can survive or thrive. Given time to sort itself out, the local ecosystem will eventually settle into a dynamic pattern that is more or less stable over the long run.

What does this have to do with bird feeders? Well, by providing this source of food, you are creating an artificial, and artificially high, spike in the local resources. The birds that eat from feeders become better fed and consequently stronger and healthier, and can outcompete other types of birds for territory, nesting space, and food for their chicks. Over a long time, this eventually creates a shift in the local species that favours birds that will eat from feeders vs. those that don’t. Local biodiversity therefore falls. And since a block of backyards is not exactly a natural environment to begin with, things that would normally control such a population rise, such as predators, may not be present.

However, this is exactly what is expected to happen under the circumstances. As I said earlier, in time the local ecology shifts to reflect the resources present.

Perhaps in very large gardens it wouldn’t make much of a difference overall, but most of us don’t have very large gardens.

So what happens if and when you stop feeding the birds? Perhaps you move out, or even just go on a vacation. Suddenly the food source that the unnaturally high population of birds relied upon, is gone. Some will outright starve. Some will leave for greener pastures. Some will survive, but be weakened and more susceptible to diseases and parasites. This time the populations of those bird species fall, and in the long run you have not done them a favour. This is exactly what happens when any population outstrips its resources.

Unfortunately, the potential consequences can affect far more than the birds themselves.

Most of the seeds sold for bird feeders are not native to the area in which they are used. The feeders therefore train the birds to prefer a foreign food source. With access to free, easy meals, the birds spend less time hunting for local seeds. You might therefore notice an increase in weeds.

Squirrels are notorious thieves and scavengers from bird feeders. You might be feeding them too. And frankly, as a gardener I love birds and hate squirrels. Remember also that squirrels often carry their loot elsewhere. They thus spread the seeds around your garden or other parts of the neighbourhood, and then these foreign seed species can germinate and become invasive weeds.

Even something as innocent as a piece of bread can become a health hazard if a bird or squirrel hauls it to someone else’s backyard. There it can become mushy and mouldy, just in time for a pet or small child to find it – and possibly eat it.

Now let’s look at the feed itself. Remember that bird feeder seeds and feed mixes are crops – commercially created and commercially raised crops.

How was that crop produced? Did some virgin habitat get razed for farmland? Was the crop raised in a sustainable manner, or was it doused with fertilisers and pesticides? If so, remember that you are feeding those pesticides to the birds as well. Where was this crop raised, and what are the gas miles and carbon footprint involved in getting the bird feed from the farm to your backyard? Are the farm workers fairly treated and fairly paid?

(These are all questions you could be asking about your own food, by the way.)

So despite the fact that I genuinely like birds and love seeing and hearing them in my garden, I do not use birdfeeders. If you want to do the birds a favour, another way is to create habitat for them.

Some birds like dense cover while others prefer open areas. Some feed on plants, some feed on invertebrates, and some feed on both, but even the seed-eaters hunt for insects to feed their chicks (they need the high protein to grow quickly). Therefore a garden with few insects attracts few birds. And all birds need safe nesting spaces and clean water. What habitat you can provide will be a gauge of which birds you attract; no ecosystem will sustain all the birds in the guidebooks.

Plant native species of wildflowers, trees, and shrubs, especially ones that produce seeds and berries that the birds can feed on. These are self-renewing resources of a sort that could have been locally present before we plunked houses in the area. Plants that produce seeds and berries in late summer and autumn are especially important to birds that overwinter locally. This may seem obvious, but to allow such plants to create seeds and berries, you must not deadhead the flowers.

Research is important, and so is observation. Make a note of which birds you see in your area, and decide which ones you would like to encourage. Believe it or not, there may be some you don’t want to encourage – the European starling, for example, is a pest here in North America, both ecologically and commercially. Find out what sort of habitat, food, and nesting situations those birds like. Then you can go about working your choice into your garden.

If you have no particular goal in mind, or simply not a lot of space, then just make a garden that is not highly primped and fussed over, and especially one with no insecticides in use. The birds will come.

Clean water is especially vital to attract and keep birds. Providing a birdbath goes a long way toward this goal, and does so in a way that doesn’t significantly alter the environment. After all, most gardens must have water from time to time, and I’ve seen birds drinking out of the saucers that catch water draining from flowerpots. Remember that birds need water – liquid water – in winter as well, although this can be a challenge to provide consistently.

This is not intended as an attack on birdfeeders or people who use them. I’m saying there are alternatives, ones that could be better in the long term – for everyone. As a case in point, I’ve counted no fewer than fifteen species of birds in my little garden. Not just flying through, but actually here and going about their business. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are more that I haven’t noticed or recognised.

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Fall gardening.

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Well, I’ve neglected this blog for long enough, haven’t I? There’s nothing too extraordinary going on in the garden at the moment, just routine fall chores of cleaning up and clearing out.

What is a little different this year is that we had a slightly late Indian summer and then another stretch of relatively warm weather a couple weeks ago, so a lot of the things that would be going dormant now are only just getting the idea. It’s nice to have it stretched out a bit, actually, because it makes the fall chores a little more relaxed.

All of the truly tender things are inside and have been for at least a week now. I turned the heat on a few days ago. Bringing plants in well before the central heating goes on helps them to cope with the shock in stages rather than all at once. Some things (turmeric and ginger) will be allowed to dry out and go dormant, while the things that don’t have a dormant cycle will be kept going as best I can.

I think I have to face reality and invest in a light garden. I have too many houseplants/tropical plants to fit comfortably in the sunny places now, and overcrowding them is, in the long term, a recipe for horticultural disaster. I already have a few grow lights, but I will need those for starting seedlings early next year.

Updates.

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Well, the last of the monarchs (Danaus plexippus) I raised got released a few days ago. There were eight in total and I think there was a more or less even mix of males and females this time.

Also flown are the goldfish. I have no idea what happened to them; one day they were there and the next day they weren’t. The immediate suspect would be raccoons, but if it were raccoons, they would have taken the fish ages ago. Furthermore, there would have been a big mess in the pond, but the plants are all fine and the water is crystal clear. The only thing I can think of is that it was some bird passing through.

I suppose the silver lining is that it will soon be time to empty the pond and overwinter the plants, and now I won’t have to worry about overwintering the fish indoors in an aquarium. It’s not much of a silver lining, though – I really had wanted to keep the fish.

The new neighbours have put their fence in. There was a huge shock – for various reasons, for years we assumed the property boundary was in a certain spot, but when they surveyed for the fence, it turns out the boundary was four feet away. I could hardly believe it and had to get out our deed and plan of the property and have a look to confirm for myself. In a nutshell, the change is in my favour, and I now have a bigger back yard, about 144 square feet in total. It’s enough that I have to think about what I’m going to do with that strip of space; it’s too much to leave to it wild because it would soon fill up with invasive periwinkles and ivy. More land, but more work. At this point, that will be next year’s project; I’ll have winter to think about it.

Finally, the vegetable patches are empty now and I’m making my first foray into cover crops. I’ve seeded winter rye (Secale cereale), flax (Linum usitatissimum) and crimson clover (Trifolium incarnatum) over the veg beds. They’ve already sprouted, but the clover probably wanted warmer conditions and hasn’t germinated so well. In spring I’ll turn the growth over into the soil as green manure.

Hops.

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So this year I finally got hops (Humulus lupulus) from my bines*.

I wanted a plain hop, not one of those highly bred fancy varieties they use for making beer, so I ordered seeds a few years ago. Of ten seeds, only three germinated; abysmal as that sounds, it’s actually not too bad for hops.

Hops plants are either male or female, but only the female plants are generally considered desirable. The female flowers develop into the structures that humans use. Unfortunately, a hop plant grown from seed takes three full years (that’s four growing seasons) to flower. So it’s taken this long just to find out if I had any female (useful) plants.

Thankfully, I got my ideal mix from the three plants: two females and one male. Although one can use only the female structures, the male plant at least ensures that if I want/need any, I can get seeds from the female plants as well. Two female plants should produce enough strobiles for my needs. I expect/hope that as time goes by and the plants get more mature, they will produce more flowers.

As for why I planted them: I have mild seasonal insomnia. It’s not as bad as it could be, but irritating enough. Hops are a gentle, natural, but quite effective sedative. Hops pickers were notorious for being vague and sleepy all the time. And no, I did not plant them for making beer. I’m not particularly fond of beer.

As an aside, hops can also be decorative; there are ornamental varieties available too.

*Yes, bines. Vines climb by clinging to other things with tendrils; bines climb by using stiff bristles that catch and stick. Hops stems are so bristly that just dragging one across your skin can cause really painful abrasions; it’s almost like sandpaper.

Monarch.

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I released my first Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) of this season today. The first in a couple years, actually, because I didn’t find any to raise last year or 2015. There are seven to go, but one of them worries me because the chrysalis looks damaged. The last one only started pupating today as well. It feels good to be raising them again.

Also, a friend came by to drop off a large piece of rhubarb (Rheum rhabarbarum) from her garden. I did ask for it, but I’m not sure where to plant it now. I’ll probably keep it in a container.

Black pansies.

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I love growing plants from seed. When I see my seedlings growing, I get such a charge out it that’s hard to explain. I love growing things from cuttings too. The charge I get out of that is slightly different; I can’t really articulate it. Really, both are little miracles of life.

The garden industy depends on taking cuttings of various types to propagate identical cultivars for commercial sale. Seeds, on the other hand, are variable.

I’m rambling about this because I got a case in point example of seed variability within the commercial garden industry this year. I got seeds of an heirloom variety of pansy called ‘Black King’. As the name implies, the flowers are supposed to be very dark purple, almost black. I didn’t need a whole lot of plants, so I only sowed a few seeds; I now have five plants in bloom.

Interestingly, the bloom on the plants are slightly different. Most looks exactly as described: an incredibly deep, rich, velvety purple with a yellow eye. But there’s one that’s a lighter purple, which a white picotee (a white edge on the petals) and a paler underside, and it’s beautiful in its own right. And there’s one that really is almost black; in all my time hunting down black flowers, I’ve never found one that’s such a deep matte black.

Now this is something I really want to preserve by cuttings.

Changes.

It was a sad day here. My marvellous next-door neighbours of twenty years moved out today. Even after so long it was sometimes hard to believe how great they were; they were like the quintessentially, stereotypically nice Canadian family. I used to joke it was like living next to the von Trapps (the ones from the sugary movie, not the real ones; apparently the real Maria von Trapp was something of a harridan). I’ll really miss them.

But I digress; none of that has anything to do with the garden. However, neither they nor I ever felt the need for a fence between our two properties. The planting there is mostly shrubs and small trees, which provide privacy, and the lack of fence made it easy for one or the other of us to nip across for a chat. In fact, when I designed and planted that end of my backyard, I did it so it would blend in with the planting they had there already.

The new neighbours want a fence. Actually, they need a fence, because both of their children have special needs and are flight risks. I can’t say I’m looking forward to having a fence, but of course I understand.

The fence will have advantages as well as drawbacks; it will break the view up and make the garden feel more closed in, but it will also help keep the rabbits out and, if it’s sturdy enough, provide opportunities for trellising or even a vertical garden. I’m not sure how much shelter it will provide; the topography of the area makes things a little weird with respect to wind. It won’t affect my light/shade a lot because it will be on the north side of my garden – their side will get more shade, but it probably won’t impact the planting that much.

Actually, there’s one more thing I’ll miss about the old neighbours: their cat. They had this fiesty little cat that used to hunt and kill rabbits and I LOVED her for that. Unfortunately she never let me play with her unless I gave her drugs (i.e., catnip, Nepeta cataria).

Oh well. Life goes on and new things await.

The butterfly sagas.

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As anyone who follows this blog knows, I raise caterpillars into butterflies every summer, namely the Eastern Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes) and the Monarch (Danaus plexippus). I raise those two because they’re the ones that show up in my garden, I have larval host plants for them, I can find the eggs/caterpillars, they’re native species, and I like them. This is in contrast to the cabbage white (Pieris rapae), which also shows up because I have larval host plants for it, but is an exotic pest here (and I destroy the caterpillars whenever I can find the little bastards).

Over the years I’ve noticed some interesting trends. For example, the EBS first showed up on my carrot plants (Daucus carota). In fact, I started raising caterpillars because of these, as a way to manage the damage to the carrots while preserving the caterpillars. At that time, I didn’t grow dill. Now, however, I’ve noticed that the EBS females prefer to lay eggs on dill (Anethum graveolens) rather than on carrots. Despite the fact that dill leaves are so feathery and fine, the caterpillars seem to draw a lot more nourishment from dill than from the much more substantial carrot leaves – I find they eat much less of it before they pupate. It’s amazing to think that on some level, the EBS females are aware of this.

This year I’ve raised two generations of EBS so far, and this year I’ve noticed that the first batch (about a month ago) was mostly female and the second batch (just released) was mostly male. I don’t know if this is coincidence or just something I never noticed before.

Moving on to the monarchs: well, I haven’t raised monarchs in two years and it’s nice to be doing it again. Last year was very hot and dry and my milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) patch wasn’t really up to scratch, so I guess any monarch females that came visiting weren’t impressed. The year before that was the year of no monarchs, for some reason.

This year it’s been better. I even had the rare opportunity to see a monarch couple in a courtship dance. Right now I have seven monarch caterpillars in captivity and going strong.

I did have a bit of a scare with them, though. When I was gathering eggs, I found a caterpillar on one leaf. It wasn’t a monarch; if anything it looked more like a rose slug (larval form of a type of sawfly; Hymenoptera sp.). At any rate, it didn’t look like anything I knew feeds on swamp milkweed. It also didn’t react to being poked, which in most larval insects usually signifies one of three things:

  1. It’s in ecdysis, i.e. about to moult and shed its skin.
  2. It’s sick.
  3. It’s been parasitised.

…turns out it had been parasitised by a wasp. There are many species of parasitoid wasps that lay their eggs inside caterpillars (and other things, such as spiders) and the wasp larvae literally eat their hosts from the inside out. In fact, I rely on them to control tomato hornworms (Manduca sexta). However, I just put all the leaves with the monarch eggs and this mystery caterpillar inside one box because I didn’t have an extra container to isolate the mystery caterpillar and didn’t know at the time why it was non-responsive. Until a few days later when I saw the adult wasp in the box and the mystery caterpillar was just an empty shell.

Normally this wouldn’t bother me, because just one of anything can’t reproduce, so my monarch babies were safe, right?

No. Some of these parasitoid wasps are parthenogenetic, i.e. the females can reproduce without the males (usually via a form of cloning; aphids are notoriously good at this). I’m certainly no expert on these wasps, so I had no idea what species it might have been. On the other hand, I actually was freaking out about nothing, because the monarch caterpillars then were so small that the wasp simply couldn’t have laid eggs in them (at least, I hope so).

In case you’re wondering about the famed monarch resistance to predation because of the toxins in milkweed, well, it actually doesn’t stop predation by other insects or spiders. I’ve never looked it up, but it’s certainly possible for milkweed caterpillars to have a wasp that parasitises them.

Anyway, it’s been a few days now and all the caterpillars seem to be fine, so thus endeth the saga.

Summer continues.

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…I think I’ve used that post title before.

It’s so easy to fall out of the habit of blogging. Really though, there isn’t too much going on in the garden at the moment, at least out of the ordinary. The big project right now is one of the pebble paths. Over the years it’s gotten really silted up, so it’s a long tedious process raking (scraping) it up and washing all the compacted mud out of the pebbles. And putting the pebbles back.

It’s been a pleasant summer – rainfall has been decent for summer, certainly much more than the drought we had last year…and the year before that. Temperatures have been nice as well. Pests have been low, overall. All in all, this has been probably the best season I’ve had in five or more years.

I’m slowly expanding my collection of home-grown bonsai. It takes two years before most seedling-raised trees can be started on bonsai training in earnest, although minor training can begin in its first season, especially the root training. The laburnum (Laburnum anagyroides) seeds I started last year have begun training, and I’ll start on some honey locust (Gleditsia triacanthos) saplings as well.

I also have a few willow cuttings (willows being extremely easy to propagate from cuttings) – a few dappled willow (Salix integra) and “weeping” willow, most likely the white willow (Salix alba) (true weeping willow is Salix babylonica and doesn’t grow around here). It also seems some cuttings from a cutleaf Japanese maple (Acer palmatum var. dissectum; forgot the cultivar name and lost the tag) I took back in spring are doing okay, and I got some beech (Fagus sylvatica) cuttings from a colleague last week. The beech might be a waste of time – beeches are apparently pretty difficult the start from cuttings, but that won’t stop me from giving it a try.

I’ll have to harvest the garlic soon. The rain meant that they’re not drying up as fast as they ought, but it’s time they were dug up anyway. Other than that, it’s just standard summer garden maintenance.

Oh, wait. The peanut plant (Arachis hypogaea) that some squirrel planted in one of the containers last year and sprouted in winter (brought the pot inside), is blooming. Interesting little yellow flowers. It should be interesting to see if anything comes of it.

My first snapdragon ever.

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I’m not big on most annuals, especially bright, garish bedding plants, so I never tried growing snapdragons (Antirrhinum cv.) before. Actually, it might be a tender perennial, but I’d need to check up on that. In either case, it’s functionally an annual here. However, earlier this year when I was doing a seed order, there was a snapdragon called ‘Black Prince’ with dark red flowers and very dark foliage, so I thought what the heck.

I didn’t get good germination with the first sowing and there’s only one plant survived from it. I had better luck with a second sowing, but the plant from the first batch flowered several days ago. It’s not dark enough to warrant going on the Black Flowers page, and it never had any pretensions of being a black flower, but it’s still beautiful. Despite also being rather tiny, it still needed to be staked up because of the f**king winds we’ve had this year…and the past four years, it seems.

This one, and eventually the ones from the second sowing, is in a planter box. I usually grow heliotropes in there, but never got around to getting any this year. Some nicotiana ‘Chocolate Smoke’ is popping up in the planter, though, so it will be interesting to see what sort of combination they make. I have a feeling the nicotiana will probably swamp the snapdragons, though.

Snapdragon ‘Black Prince’

However, I did update the Black Flowers page with my new pansy, ‘Black King’. I got the seeds from the same source, and oddly enough, it flowered at around the same time as the snapdragon. I sowed them at the same time, but I guess pansies just take longer to get to that point, despite usually being spring flowers.