PEC works to turn backyards into native wildlife habitats

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PEC works to turn backyards into native wildlife habitats

Who doesn’t love looking out the kitchen window at all the feathered friends Central Virginia’s backyards have to offer? Unfortunately, due to declining grassland and shrubland areas in the region, a number of native Virginia bird species, like the bobolink and bobwhite quail, are in danger of becoming extinct. The Piedmont Environmental Council’s James Barnes, who recently came on as the sustainable habitat program manager, devotes his time and energy to restoring the area’s natural wildlife habitats. He divides his time between nine Central Virginia counties, encouraging landowners to think outside the box and manage different types of natural habitats in their backyards.

“A lot of what I do is try to get landowners to accept that messy is not really messy—messy is good,” Barnes said. “Landowners have a tendency to over-manage.”

A well-manicured lawn is something any suburban neighborhood association can appreciate. But most people also have at least a general interest in wildlife, Barnes said. Barnes works with individual landowners and encourages them to transform clean-cut yards of short grass into natural areas, with native grasses, wildflowers, and shrubs, which serve as habitats for species in danger of going extinct.

Many property owners are used to mowing their lawns right up to the edges and clearing debris like fallen leaves and branches from the yard, eliminating food and homes for birds and bees. But a backyard full of native wildflowers and shrubs will harness more pollination and breeding, contributing to the conservation of native flowers, birds, and bees.

“And you can still have your yard,” Barnes said, pointing to a photo of a backyard full of native grasses and wildflowers with a tidy pathway cut though it.

On a larger scale, Barnes would like to facilitate collaboration between conservation groups and neighboring landowners. Establishing native grassland and shrubland across a span of properties would create more habitat area for species like the eastern meadowlark, and Barnes pointed out that larger, shared projects are more economical as well.

For landowners with smaller properties, Barnes said there are still ways to maximize yard space without converting it into a full-fledged meadow. Adding flowering plants to a backyard landscape, including vegetables, allows more pollinators to do their job and thrive. Providing homes for native Virginia birds can be as simple as planting bushes and shrubbery along the edge of a backyard and allowing them to grow naturally, Barnes said.

Barnes always emphasizes to landowners that maintaining natural habitats has other benefits as well, environmental and non. According to the Xerces Society, a nonprofit wildlife protection organization, he said, pollinators like bees are necessary for the reproduction of nearly 70 percent of the world’s flowering plants, including more than one-third of our food supply in fruits and vegetables.

Barnes has only been in his position for nine months, but he hopes his work will allow more Virginians to enjoy watching the birds from the kitchen window.

Want to learn more? Check out these upcoming PEC events:

  • Grassland & Shrubland Bird Symposium, Saturday, September 15. Join the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, the American Bird Conservancy, and the Piedmont Environmental Council at the Front Royal Virginia Campus for lectures and roundtables on the ecology and preservation of grassland and shrubland birds in Central Virginia. Presentations will focus on wildlife, particularly native birds.
  • Albemarle Wildlife Farm & Forest Tour, Sunday, September 9. the Piedmont Environmental Council will host an afternoon of visits to Albemarle properties that have established wildlife habitat improvements. For $15, you can tour local farms and end up at Blenheim Vineyards for a post-tour glass of wine.
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