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Gardening for Wildlife

September 2006 | download Microsoft Word Version HERE

Living Gardens - Keep Cats Indoors
Lorrie Preston, Penn State Master Gardener - Cumberland County

We’ve all seen it before…the telltale pile of feathers near the bird feeders that let you know there’s been a violent altercation in your backyard while you weren’t looking. You wonder what predator took out one of your feathered friends and look for clues…hawk….owl…or is it that neighborhood cat that you’ve seen around lately? You look closer at the feathers to try to make a postmortem ID. In my case, the bright feathers that lay scattered across the ground were unmistakable. One of the cardinals was gone. I had my suspicions about who was responsible, but it wasn’t until I saw it with my own eyes that I had the facts. As another bird landed at the feeder, a black and white blur pounced out from under a nearby plant, did a half twist in the air and grabbed! Feathers flew, but this time, the bird got away. And now, I knew for sure who the culprit was….the same one that I had caught lurking in that general area a dozen or more times over the summer, the one I have chased home on numerous occasions, and the same one that I now knew was responsible for the other piles of feathers I had found nearby over the last month. It was a Felis catus, a cute, furry, and most likely described by his family as loveable, domestic cat.

Once I discovered his hiding place and how he was accomplishing his dirty work, I immediately cut the plant back to the ground, only to discover a bowl-like indentation in the soil he had made smooth by his frequent use under my old fashioned bleeding heart near the feeder. Although the plant was only 18” high, the cat had found a way to position himself under there, completely unseen, and wait for the right moment…the moment to kill.

It is estimated that over 90,000,000 pet cats live in the U.S, and most of them spend at least some time outdoors. About 30% of households own cats, and they have surpassed dogs as our nation’s favorite pet. Millions more cats are free-ranging cats that have been abandoned or live on their own. Cats hunt and kill by instinct, as their ancestors did. It doesn’t matter whether they are hungry or not. Two separate parts of their brain discern hunger and the desire to hunt. Nationwide, cats kill well over a billion small mammals each year and hundreds of millions of birds. Sometimes they are common backyard birds that can be replaced, but sometimes cats kill birds and mammals that are already experiencing population decline due to habitat destruction, pollution, and pesticide poisoning. Studies have shown that a bell hung on a cat’s collar to alert wildlife to danger does not reduce the number of killings, as cats learn to stalk their prey silently, and wildlife may not associate the bell with danger.

The American Bird Conservancy, the Humane Society of the U.S. and the American Humane Assoc. teamed up in 1997 in a campaign to educate cat-owners and others about the dangers to both wildlife and cats when cats are allowed to roam outdoors. It is called Cats Indoors! The Campaign for Safer Birds and Cats. They have excellent publications that can be ordered or downloaded and used to teach others the facts about this important subject. I am sending my neighbor a letter requesting that she keeps her cats indoors, along with an excellent pamphlet called “Keeping Cats Indoors Isn’t Just for the Birds” and a fact sheet entitled “How to Make Your Outdoor Cat a Happy Indoor Cat.” Check out their website at www.abcbirds.org/cats/

By the way, I have two, loveable furry cats myself that enjoy living in a house surrounded by a National Wildlife Federation certified Backyard Wildlife Habitat. Misty and Patches spend a lot of time watching birds out the windows, and long summer afternoons laying on the screened porch watching butterflies, frogs and other interesting creatures pass by.

May 2006 | download Microsoft Word Version HERE

Lorrie Preston, Penn State Master Gardener - Cumberland County

Since this is the last Kingfisher edition for the current Appalachian Audubon season, I am going to do something different this month and touch briefly on several different subjects.

Backyard Wildlife Garden Field Trip Postponed
The backyard wildlife field trip which I had proposed last year is being postponed for one more year because I am organizing the “Forever Wild – 2006” concert with Walkin’ Jim Stoltz that will be held in our area on September 23 rd. I hope you will all come out for this exciting event. Hopefully, we can reschedule the field trip for June 2007, so keep on planting those native plants and improving your wildlife habitat. E-mail me at mitandpak@aol.com when your property is certified by the National Wildlife Federation or is ready to have our AAS members visit your special backyard wildlife habitat.

Speaking of Native Plants…
The more we understand about the relationship between native plants and the way they support our native birds, beneficial insects, butterflies, moths and other wildlife, the more valuable and essential we understand these plants are. Visit native plant sales and nurseries this gardening season, but also ask your local nursery managers and plant buyers for native plants. Let them know that you are interested in using native plants. Garden centers will carry whatever will sell most readily, so we have to educate others about the value of native plants.

The “Invasive Dirty Dozen”
A new brochure has been published by the PA Dept. of Conservation & Natural Resources listing the top 12 worst plants for landscaping. Many of these are currently available to purchase at your local garden center, but these plants have proven to be invasive, meaning they will self-seed or spread rapidly to take over native habitat for wildlife. The twelve “dirty” plants are: Burning Bush (Euonymous altus), Japanese Barberry (Berberis thunbergii), English Ivy (Hedera helix), Japanese Honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica), Butterfly Bush (Buddleia davidii), Norway Maple (Acer platanoides), Oriental Bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus), Autumn Olive (Elaeagnus umbellata), Bradford Pear (Pyrus calleryana), Japanese Stiltgrass (Microstegium vimineum), Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima) and Privets (Ligustrum species.) The brochure lists native alternatives to use in place of these invasives. I will try to have some of these brochures available at the May AAS banquet and meeting.

You might be surprised to see Butterfly Bush on that list, since it seems to be a great plant that does attract butterflies by the dozens. If you have this plant, please take the time to deadhead the blooms when they are faded and before the seeds have time to mature. In some areas, Butterfly Bush is now growing rampant as a woodland understory, taking over valuable habitat for our woodland wildlife.  

Words of Inspiration
The following letter came to me over the Monarch Watch listserve. It appeared in the Record Newspaper in Kitchener, Canada, in early April. It was written by a nine year old girl named Mattea Haga. I couldn’t have said it better myself and hope the words will inspire you to make a difference today and every day. Have a great summer!

”Soon I will be turning 10 and what I want most for my birthday is to make a difference. I want to do something to save nature. I asked my friends not to bring birthday presents to my party, but instead help me adopt an owl by donating to the Long Point bird recovery program. I picked an owl because I am a "night owl."

I want to ask the mayor not to spray pesticides in our city. Did you know milkweed is the only plant the monarch butterfly will lay its eggs on and the only food source that the monarch caterpillars will eat? Don't you think it's strange that the monarch butterfly is on the protected list because it is endangered but that the milkweed plant it needs to survive is still being sprayed? Now does that really make any sense?

If we all did just one small thing each and every day to make the world a better place, what a difference we could make. So think of something you can do today to make the world a better place; maybe it's as simple as a smile or a kind word. Maybe it's volunteering time or donating money. Whatever it is, big or small, it does make a difference. It's not so important what you do, but that you actually do something.

It would be nice if there were space in the newspaper for kids to write in about what they are doing to "nurture nature." I am sure there are lots of kids doing great things."


April 2006 | download Microsoft Word Version HERE

Lorrie Preston, Penn State Master Gardener - Cumberland County

Spring has sprung! It’s time to get back out in the garden. Before you head out to the nursery this year to buy plants, let’s talk about an issue that is beginning to get attention in some gardening circles – hybridized plant cultivars that may look attractive, but do not offer nectar and/or pollen for wildlife.

A “plant cultivar” is produced by man, by taking a plant that occurs in nature and making changes in order to develop a completely new variety of that plant which looks or behaves differently. Plant hybridizers can scientifically cross-breed a plant possessing certain qualities with another plant possessing other qualities, to produce a totally new cultivar that has never before existed.

Plants are cultivated and hybridized for a number of reasons – in an attempt to create a new color, a larger size, a sturdier plant, disease resistance, longer bloom time, etc. However, nectar and/or pollen production is sometimes lost in the process and plant breeders and growers are paying very little attention to this fact. It results in plants being sold that look good to us, but offer little or no value to wildlife. Both native plant cultivars and ornamental plant cultivars are being affected. It is a double whammy to our suburban landscapes that are already being over-planted with plants from Asia and beyond that are useless to our native birds, insects, and wildlife.

Here are a couple of examples. The straight species Liatris spicata, commonly known as spiked gayfeather, is a native plant that is enjoyed for its nectar by bees and butterflies. In one trial planting, it was found that the Liatris spicata cultivar ‘Kobold’ was ignored by butterflies. The conclusions were that either there is no nectar, very little nectar, the nectar is out of reach for butterflies, or the nectar is not as sweet in this cultivar as that of the true species.

The flower Lantana is a tropical plant that is native to the south, but it is grown as an annual here in PA during the summer months, and is a favorite of butterflies and bees. I have grown various cultivars of it over many years and it has always been a dependable nectar plant in the summer garden. Last year, however, I planted a new cultivar in an attractive new color – Lantana Patriot Pillar ‘Marc Cathey.’ Not one bee, not one butterfly – nothing paid any attention to those 5 vigorous and profusely flowering plants in my garden. They looked pretty to me, but without being able to feed or support my wildlife, they were a waste of space in my garden.

The lesson is this: Straight natives consistently receive more wildlife visitors than cultivars. They can be harder to find in the nursery trade than cultivars, and you may have to ask about them or shop through a native plants nursery. It has been noted that flowers possessing a strong fragrance usually have nectar which attracts pollinators. If you purchase a flowering cultivar or hybrid, observe it to be sure it is being visited by pollinators. And if you discover a flowering cultivar or hybrid that does not attract pollinators, please e-mail the information to me at mitandpak@aol.com so I can continue to study and collect information on this new phenomenon.