At lunch during PEC’s Wildlife Friendly Habitats and Gardens Tour in Clarke County, the group was joined by a barn owl, a screech owl, and a red tailed hawk. The sharp-beaked raptors sent smaller birds darting in agitation among the nearby trees, even though they were perched on the hands of their human keepers. The three raptors—called Lamont, Fiona and Briar—were rescued by the Blue Ridge Wildlife Center in Millwood, but unlike most of the animals rehabilitated at the center, they couldn’t be released because of injuries that leave them incapable of surviving in the wild. So, they’ve become part of the center’s educational programs—in this case, giving people who are interested in building wildlife habitat on their land a look at some of the species that might thrive there.
Most of the injured or orphaned wildlife that come into the center have been harmed as a result of development, Dr. Belinda Burwell told the tour participants. Wild animals are struck by vehicles on the road, or harmed when a tree is cut down at a construction site, or injured by lawnmowers or pets.
But people can help to reverse the damaging effects of landscape fragmentation by enhancing wildlife habitat where they live. For example, Dr. Burwell said, it helps when landowners leave trees standing, even dead ones. People can cut off the dead limbs for safety, while leaving the trunks to provide roosts for owls—which, in turn, help to control rodents. To a considerable extent, as Dr. Burwell said, “The future of wildlife habitat is what we preserve around our homes.”
Since PEC launched our expanded Sustainable Habitat program a year ago, over 150 people have consulted with us directly to discuss their goals for increasing habitat on their land—whether that means shading streams for brook trout, opening migration corridors for black bears, planting grasslands to bring back bobwhite quail, or growing wildflowers to boost pollinator populations. In May, PEC held our habitat tour to showcase places in Clarke where people are improving their land for the good of wildlife, including two private homes and the Blandy Experimental Farm at the State Arboretum of Virginia.
Starting with Pollinators
The tour paid close attention to some tiny but essential wildlife—pollinators. A bee buzzing deep in a enclosure of petals or a butterfly perched on bright orange blossoms are lightweight but ecologically, they are heavy lifters. Plants—from trees and wildflowers to farm and garden crops—need pollinators in order to reproduce themselves or to bear fruit and seeds for food. About a quarter of the world’s flowering plants rely on wind pollination, while the rest partner with insects and other small animals to fertilize their flowers, by carrying grains of pollen from bloom to bloom. A fertilized flower will go on to develop fruit or seeds—but a flower missing the pollinators that it needs will simply open and later wilt.
People depend on pollinators to produce much of our food—including apples, peaches, cantaloupes, tomatoes, cucumbers, squash and berries. In fact, a third of all the food that we eat would not exist without successful pollination. Wild animals also need pollinators to produce the seeds and fruit that they feed on. And, pollinating insects themselves feed the food chain, as these bugs are consumed by birds, frogs and other creatures.
In recent years, Colony Collapse Disorder among honeybees has called attention to the interdependence of the agricultural community with pollinating bees. This spring, PEC worked with partners across the state to advocate for the designation of Virginia Pollinator Week, and we succeeded! Governor McDonnell designated the week to fall on June 20-26 this year—building awareness so we can better support healthy and abundant populations of all species of pollinators.
A greater appreciation of pollinators makes clear that you don’t have to transform a large tract of land if you want to contribute to more vibrant wildlife habitat. You can start with a small garden or even a flowerpot on a balcony.
Wildlife Friendly Gardening
A designer who created gardens for Queen Elizabeth helped to select plants for the grounds at what is now Carolyn and Mazen Farouki’s home in Boyce—but after the previous owner passed away, the elaborate gardens deteriorated. Now, Mrs. Farouki is restoring them, with an interest in supporting the wildlife that share her land.
“When this is in bloom, there are so many wonderful bugs out here,” she says of her flowerbeds, which open to a view of the Blue Ridge, an undulating line of unbroken forests on the eastern horizon. To draw more pollinators, she has been increasing the number of native species in her plantings. Because native plants evolved alongside many of the insects that pollinate them, they attract, on average, five times as many insects as non-native plants. Old-fashioned varieties can be good choices too, because they still offer the rich fragrance, nectar or pollen that, in some cases, has been bred out of modern varieties.
In her vegetable gardens, Mrs. Farouki uses an organic technique called companion gardening to draw beneficial insects while deterring pests. For example, basil and tomatoes grow well together; radishes, potatoes and peas make a good team; and marigolds help everything. This method allows Mrs. Farouki to raise an abundance of produce without using chemicals—so both animals and people are spared the exposure to toxins.
In addition, Mrs. Farouki provides houses for bats, bees and owls on her land, and welcomes rehabilitated animals from the Blue Ridge Wildlife Center.
In nearby Millwood, Charlie and Sandra McIntosh have worked with various state and federal cost-share programs to create a patchwork of restored habitats on their farm, among the pastures that offer an idyllic home for retired horses. Both the Faroukis’ and the McIntoshes’ properties are protected by conservation easements, adding to a total of over 20,000 acres of protected land in Clarke—an enduring legacy of open space that will benefit wildlife, as well as people.
The McIntoshes went beyond protecting their land from development, and initiated a number of projects to replenish its natural vitality. Working with five different cost-share programs over the years, they fenced livestock away from streams, established riparian buffers along waterways and planted meadows of native warm-season grasses.
Native grasses provide habitat for once abundant bird species that have been declining in Virginia—including bobwhite quail, bobolinks, meadowlarks, loggerhead shrikes, and Henslow’s sparrows. Unlike imported fescue, which is now the most common grass in our yards and fields, native warm-season grasses grow in bunches, which allows baby quail, among other animals, to move along the ground so they can escape predators and find food. The seeds of warm-season grasses also nourish wildlife, unlike fescue, which most wild animals cannot eat.
The riparian buffers that the McIntoshes established provide vital corridors for wildlife—whether aquatic, terrestrial or avian—while also protecting the water supplies that people rely on. Now, at their streams and pond, Mr. McIntosh said, they regularly see snapping turtles, otters, bald eagles, herons and egrets. He told the group, “The wildlife here is really something now.”
The habitat tour was completed at Blandy Experimental Farm, where participants explored a colorful pollinator garden, a native plants trail winding through green woodlands, and a wide meadow of native grasses—with expert biologists and botanists on hand to explain their goals, challenges, and observations about creating habitat.
PEC’s Sustainable Habitat Manager, Dr. Kim Winter, says, “The goal of the tour was to show people some extraordinary properties that can serve as inspiration. On a small or large scale, just about everyone can apply these ideas where we live, and create pieces of habitat that will connect across the landscape to support more robust and diverse communities of wildlife.”
Take the tour in pictures. Our photo gallery lets you see what people on the tour saw, and learn how you can make your home more wildlife-friendly.