Just Say No to Spring Backyard Habitat Destruction
Updated: Mar 10
There were no happy birds in my yard on a warm spring day last week. On Friday I watched them flitting around my neighbor’s yard desperate to figure out why their habitat was disappearing. The trees and dense shrubs where they hunt for insects, seek shelter, roost, and build their nests just evaporated in a tree company’s noise polluting shredder. I could see the birds panic as they were evicted from their home, yet I couldn’t help them.
When this sort of thing happens, there is little I can do but recommit to planting even more native shrubs and trees on my tiny naturescaped yard. Eventually I will be able to give more wildlife a place of refuge from my biophobic neighbors who treat their yards like an outside living room that needs to be sanitized of unpredictable wildlife and messy natural matter.
I gently tried to explain to one of the neighbors topping off their trees about the damage this does to the tree in an attempt to stop even more trees from being harmed. Cutting a leader branch to remove the top of the limb and the main shoot is illegal in Atlanta because it basically starts the slow death of the tree. He was already agitated because apparently other neighborhood tree lovers had been slowly driving by, taking pictures, and giving him an earful. His response to me was an angry threat not to mess with him and tell him what to do on his own property, or he would cut every tree to the ground! I didn’t argue with him for obvious reasons. The arrogant idea of man owning nature is also too complex a topic to discuss on the sidewalk.
It seems my older neighbors are pretty set in their ways to ever change and nothing I say about protecting nature seems to resonate. I learned this firsthand a couple years ago when Trees Atlanta offered to plant free trees in the right-of-way on my street and most people declined. The many unrelatable reasons included being too old to be alive when the trees would reach maturity and offer shade, fear over leaves and branches falling or tree roots harming the sidewalk, preferring a grass aesthetic, the fact that trees might attract insects and wildlife to the yard, and birds perching in the trees would poop!
The spring clean-up tradition also seems to be deeply engrained in every male homeowner over a certain age. Last week three boomer neighbors coordinated bringing sacrificial cuttings from shrubs and small trees to an immense right-of-way brush pile they created. Watching them walk from their yards with communal offerings of branches looked more like the sacred building of a funeral pyre than yard work. Unfortunately, this male bonding ritual coincides with the beginning of bird nesting season. Just when evergreen shrubs are at their fullest, trees are leafing out, and birds are looking for dense shrubs to nest in, the chainsaws come out to “clean-up” habitat.
When I talk to people about the alarming decline in the bird and wildlife population everyone agrees this is a terrible situation and solemnly shakes their heads. The conversation pivots to the clear cutting of our natural areas for development, faraway forests in trouble, or political bantering about climate change. Yet the same folks usually have a scorched earth policy when it comes to their own yards. Their Climate Action sign is sitting on a monoculture, pesticide-soaked grass lawn surrounded by invasive nandina, and privet. Their pollinator garden has no native host plants for butterflies, and pollinators are indiscriminately killed by their mosquito spraying service or neonicotinoids on the non-native flowers they buy. Their bird feeder is in a yard filled with invasive exotic plants where pesticides are used, there are no birdbaths, and nowhere for birds to hide from predators, build nests or roost. I sincerely appreciate that they're trying to do the right thing, but there just doesn't seem to be the most basic understanding or intellectual interest in how nature works.
Yet maybe there’s hope for the next generation of younger families who are not disputing that our world has finite natural resources. They may have been taught the anachronistic rituals of backyard habitat destruction, but they also know the reality of a world where we’ve lost 30% of our birds and 50% or our insects in the last 50 years. These are homeowners who might be swayed to hire a regenerative landscape company, create a habitat friendly yard, and learn ways of coexisting with nature in their yard to prevent their children from being one of the last generations on earth to be enchanted by butterflies in the garden, hear a bumblebee buzzing, look for fireflies at night, listen to an Eastern Towhee at dusk, watch a Brown-headed Nuthatch peck on a pine tree for insect treats, or chuckle at a Brown Thrasher aggressively turning over leaves looking for food.
The Brown Thrasher and Eastern Towhee are two of the many highly vulnerable bird species in my zip code that are on track to lose more than half of the geographic area where they live as man helps climate change trudge forward. (The Audubon Society has a helpful site where you can punch in your zip code and see the status of birds where you live.) Both thrashers and towhees are the at-risk ground feeding and nesting birds directly impacted by the kind of coordinated backyard habitat destruction that was done around me this week - last year I had fledglings of both species pecking through the leaves in my yard and visiting my feeders. For species survival, they both desperately need “overgrown” residential shrubs, low tree limbs, and small native "weed" trees to seek shelter, nest in, and perch.
No one is arguing with my neighbor that we’re all free to pretty much do whatever we want on our property. We’re also stewards of our own small piece of earth and every action we make in our yard is a consequential choice to create or destroy habitat. Nature doesn’t see property boundaries and we’re part of the same neighborhood ecosystem. Our actions have an impact on surrounding yards.
This spring there is no need to clean up bird and wildlife habitat by squaring off shrubs into hedges, distorting them into awkward looking orbs, or butchering them to the nubs. There is no reason for tree branches to be topped off, limbed up, or disfigured as part of a spring cleanup.
As an alternative, in addition to leaving mature bushes and trees to grow naturally and creating a brush pile in the yard for branches that die or need to be cut from pathways, I would also suggest creating a new tradition of going all in and doubling down on creating habitat by adding native shrubs and small trees to make a wildlife hedgerow to provide food and cover for wildlife. If we all work together, we can slow down and even reverse the dire fate of wildlife for future generations one yard at a time by connecting, not fragmenting habitat.
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