Protecting pollinator populations is essential for phoebes and other birds
As spring reluctantly arrives in the Pioneer Valley, we once again welcome the birds, bees and other insects that were missing from our winter wonderland.
A few weeks ago I noticed a pair of Eastern Phoebes (Sayornis phoebe) digging a nesting site atop a cone-shaped fixture under the eaves outside my study . There had been a nest of phoebes there several years ago, but it had been totally destroyed by another bird, probably a barn swallow.
I cleaned up the wreckage, sadly thinking that I would never see the phoebes nesting there again. I was delighted to see that the birds had returned, but I doubted that they would choose to rebuild their nest in the same place. For the level of difficulty I would give this site a 10, but they decided to give it a try. They’re putting the finishing touches on it even as I’m writing this.
According to the Cornell Labs website, allaboutbirds.org (a great source of information on birds, by the way), phoebes build their nests with moss, twigs, and pieces of dried grass held together with mud. As a fiery feminist, I was not surprised to learn that the woman does the real work of collecting the building materials, bringing them piece by piece to the site, and putting them in place.
His companion just hangs out and keeps him company. I guess it’s the avian equivalent of the wife doing the dishes while the husband reads the newspaper aloud.
Phoebes are part of the gnat family (Tyrannidae), but despite their name, flies make up only a small part of their diet. They mainly eat wasps, butterflies and moths, beetles, cicadas and dragonflies.
This list of delicacies reminded me of all the welcome efforts made to create pollinator-friendly habitats. Nurseries label plants that are pollinator-friendly, gardening publications are full of tips for attracting and supporting pollinators, and many groups, including the Western Massachusetts Pollinator Network, promote affirmative pollinator practices through the through conferences and gardening projects.
While many people (including me) think of bees and butterflies when they think of pollinators, there are many other pollinating insects out there, including wasps, midges, and beetles. Considering the plight of pollinators, I realized that we are not just trying to maintain a workforce of insects that pollinate our gardens and crops so that humans can eat. We also strive to maintain the creatures – birds, reptiles and everything in between – that feed on pollinators and are a crucial part of the planet’s ecological life cycle.
In a recent conversation with Peggy MacLeod, co-founder of the Western Massachusetts Pollinator Network, I mentioned my enthusiasm at the phoebes nest. We talked about the importance of supporting the insect population that phoebes feed on.
She cited the research of Doug Tallamy, an entomologist at the University of Delaware who advocates for the protection of hardy insect populations in order to maintain a balanced ecosystem. Among other practices, Tallamy urges planting native species to promote insect populations.
“According to Tallamy, it takes between 6,000 and 9,000 caterpillars to raise a brood of chickadees,” MacLeod said. “That’s why we have to love moths and butterflies.” Referring to the Pollinator Network, MacLeod added, “I have found something ‘work’ that benefits my hobby as a birdwatcher.”
One recent evening, my husband and I watched with delight and awe as a pounded woodpecker rip through a rotten log in the woods behind our house, an area where I throw all kinds of garden debris. Shards of dead wood flew as the bird wandered off in search of bugs for its supper.
This sight reminded me of the importance of leaving the gardens a bit messy, at least at the edges. Dead trees are nesting sites for woodpeckers and bluebirds. Tree stumps and fallen logs are full of insects that feed all kinds of creatures. The piles of fallen plant material are excellent sites for bees that nest on the ground as well as for small rodents that become prey for raptors, owls and other predators.
There are so many valuable activities out there, most of them invisible to the human eye. I’m learning to like clutter.
As phoebes soar through the air in pursuit of their insect prey, I like to think that some of their food comes from that neglected patch of nearby wood.
A major ongoing effort of the Pollinator Network has been to support the creation of a Pollinator Pathway in Northampton. The goal is to connect pollinator-friendly habitats across the city to mitigate the negative effects of pollution and development on pollinator populations. The project was inspired by Pollinator Pathways in other cities, including Seattle.
The pollinator network has coordinated with city authorities to plant public gardens “anchored” throughout the city with pollinator-friendly plants. These sites include the gardens of Pulaski Park, Crafts Avenue, Northampton Senior Center, and Forbes Library.
In addition, three Northampton Community Gardens plots have been donated for the cultivation of plants preferred by bees at risk. The garden plots will support bumblebee research by Rob Gegear of UMass-Dartmouth. This year, several private gardens will be added to the pollinator route.
Pollinate Northampton !, a group that joined the Pollinator Pathway project, offers landscape design toolkits for people who want to create their own pollinator-friendly habitats. The kits are put together by Evan Abramson of Landscape Interactions, who has done extensive research on pollinator habitats.
Abramson has planned five different native plant kits for various growing conditions, including sunny and shade gardens, wet gardens, sidewalk strips, and bee and butterfly lawns. The kits contain 38 plants, about three each of 13 different plants, and will cost less than $ 100. The plants will also be available a la carte for gardeners who already have pollinator-friendly gardens but need to fill in empty spaces.
This year the kits are only available to residents of Northampton, but people around the world can assemble their own kits using the information on the Pollinator Network website, wmassbees.org.
Mickey Rathbun, an Amherst-based lawyer turned journalist, has been writing the “Get Growing” column since 2016.