Jimmy Rogers

Three years ago, when I was hunting for a new place to live, one feature drew me to Laurel more than any other: the people on their porches. I saw folks sitting out, enjoying the weather and perhaps chatting with neighbors. Nearby towns seemed to have just as many porches, but I rarely saw them in use.

In 2020, as I settled into my first season of porch sitting, I was aware only of the geometric perfection of my front lawn and the sweating cider in my hand. There may have been a few birds flying overhead, but none in my yard. I was untroubled by this, as I lived in a house, and nature lived somewhere out in the woods.

native gardening july
A gray catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) in front of blue vervain (Verbena hastata)
Courtesy of Rujuta Narurkar

Now, in 2023, I spend much more time on the front porch. I’ve traded cider for beer, and yesterday I recorded 10  bird calls with the Merlin Bird ID app. Robins and cardinals sang continuously, interrupted by the squawks of catbirds, starlings and grackles. Blue jays and chimney swifts swooped through the sky, and a rare cluster of red-winged blackbirds took up residence across the street. Sparrows and house finches visited the birdbath, and goldfinches stole a few seeds from my fading coreopsis flowers. Was I merely unobservant three years ago, or has something changed? Perhaps both.

When I purchased my house, it resembled most suburban homes, with a broad expanse of grass and a thin border of ornamental flower beds against the foundation. Just over a year ago, I smothered my grass with enough mulch to begin the hot composting process and turn the grass into mud. Today, that original lawn and garden have been replaced with lush native plants. I have  a birdbath, but no bird feeders or birdhouses. Yet the birds come because I am feeding them.

Visit any wild bird store, and you will see rows of bird feeders and enormous bins of every conceivable birdseed. The average visitor to these shops could be excused for thinking that birds are primarily seed eaters, and in fact, many adult birds subsist on seeds during the winter. However, most baby birds are completely carnivorous and must be fed insect prey by their parents. Bird feeders support the current generation of birds, but not the next.

When I was growing up, my mother, like most of her peers, was intent on giving me  enough to eat. If my plate was lacking, she would remark, “that’s not enough to keep a bird alive!” Neither she nor I knew the weight of that statement. To keep a nest of baby Carolina chickadees fed, the parents must feed them between 350 and 550 times a day. This continues for 16 days, on average, which can total between 6,000 and 9,000 caterpillars. Foraging parents must carefully conserve their energy, so all of this insect biomass must come from an area no larger than two acres.

Despite this incredible feat of parental devotion, fewer birds are born each year. We have disrupted or destroyed about 95% of the original habitat in the United States. Additionally, pesticides and non-native invasive organisms have made it difficult for our native animals to persist. As a result, we have seen a 45% reduction in invertebrate abundance since 1974 and a reduction of almost 3 billion birds, roughly a quarter of the population, since 1970.

These staggering numbers hit close to home. Our beloved Baltimore oriole population is down 40%.. Blackbirds, sparrows, finches, starlings and other familiar birds have taken a similar hit. Then again, in our world of ever-growing suburbs and sprouting rows of town homes, where are our birds meant to live, and what are they to eat? If we continue as we have so far, some experts predict species extinctions of 70% or higher.

One solution is planting, growing and stewarding bird habitats on the vast private lands we directly control. Rather than delegating wild bird management to our ever-shrinking wilderness refuges, we can take up the work in our own hands, at our own homes and businesses. The largest part of that work is to grow more bugs for our birds.

I have met some Laurelites who wrinkle their brow when I mention the bugs that live in their gardens. There are fears of stings, of unsightly insects and of damage to their plants. The reality is that most homeowners never see the vast majority of insect life they host among their plants. Even leaf damage is typically invisible — a 1996 study found that most people do not even notice when as much as 10% of a plant’s foliage has been eaten away.

If a vibrant, bird-filled garden appeals to you, there are steps you can take. First, think about what you want your garden to look like and from where you might observe birds (a porch, a window or an office). Next, plant native plants, which you will find  organized by characteristics at nativeplantcenter.net. Only native plants will grow the numbers of insects our birds need. In addition to going for flowering perennials, consider adding a mix of canopy trees, understory trees, shrubs and native grasses for cover. (mdflora.org is a good place to find native nurseries near Laurel.) Lastly, place a water source wherever you wish to observe your birds. A stone birdbath, refreshed daily with clean water, and a solar bubbler is the simplest solution.

The facts and figures in this article come mostly from Bringing Nature Home and its sequel, Nature’s Best Hope, by entomologist Doug Tallamy. You can learn more about which backyard birds have been hit hardest and other steps you can take to protect them at 3billionbirds.org. If you need help planning changes to your garden, consider joining the Maryland Area Gardening for the Environmentally Conscious Facebook group, where close to 10,000 members share information and advice and arrange native plant swaps.