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Urban Jungle Offers Critter Comforts

I have been chastised by my neighbours in a lighthearted way about the jungle in my backyard. Instead of a conventional, fine trimmed green carpet, I have elected to attract as much wildlife as I can in what might be called an urban habitat.

It is a place that creatures of many walks of life call their home, either as permanent residents such as the eastern chipmunks and northern flying squirrels, or as seasonal users such as the yellow-bellied sapsucker and the pair of American robins that produced two broods of young here.Summer 2009I have been chastised by my neighbours in a lighthearted way about the jungle in my backyard. Instead of a conventional, fine trimmed green carpet, I have elected to attract as much wildlife as I can in what might be called an urban habitat.

It is a place that creatures of many walks of life call their home, either as permanent residents such as the eastern chipmunks and northern flying squirrels, or as seasonal users such as the yellow-bellied sapsucker and the pair of American robins that produced two broods of young here.

I can’t totally blame my neighbours. Their green lawns do provide the robins with a source of food in the form of earthworms for their young. Plants abound in our yard. Shrubs such as the honeysuckles and mock orange provide a dense barrier against predators that might try for an easy meal with the smaller sparrows and finches that are our ground feeders. The white-throated sparrow feeds on the ground and requires a fair amount of cover as it uproots the loose substrate of vegetation to get at the arthropods beneath. The dense foliage of the white cedars provide concealment for birds that require a safe place to perch at night. The larger white poplar on the side of the house has a series of drilled holes in its bark that makes it bleed sap. The holes were made by the sapsucker which utilizes this running fluid as a food source.

Butterflies, wasps and flies are also attracted to the sweet smelling sap for sustenance. A great crested flycatcher comes to visit the site and grabs a few flies that congregate around the holes. Shortly afterwards a ruby-throated hummingbird hovers over a hole and laps up some sap with an extended tongue. Very shortly these migrants will have to make their way south to avoid our winter.

Several years ago the mighty red maple in our yard died and the tree was angled precariously toward another neighbour. Something had to be done. I loathed losing this giant as I do not have enough years to wait for another to grow that tall.

I asked the lineman if he could cut the tree down but leave me a 20-foot stalk. After a curious look he did this, with careful work. The stalk has a width of about 30 inches. Not only has this remnant provided an interesting habitat, it has also been a huge source of entertainment.

In the first spring the yellow-bellied sapsucker made a nesting hole and reared a family of three chatty young. As the years have gone by, the stump has been used by nesting common flickers, European starlings, successive generations of sapsuckers and the northern flying squirrel. The tree stump slowly decomposes.

In the winter, visiting hairy and downy woodpeckers, and the red and white breasted nuthatches have used the tree as a food source. They search for the insects in the bark that are breaking down the wood.

I have started a Virginia creeper and some wild grapes at the bottom of the tree with the hopes that it may “leaf again” as the creepers get taller around the dead stalk. Eventually the stalk will breakdown as the fungi works its stuff.

For the moment though our family has had many years of observation and has realized the importance of dead trees in nature. It was well worth leaving the stalk as opposed to cutting the tree at its base and having nothing left.

About the writer: Chris Blomme is a member of the Sudbury Ornithological Society.

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