A Native Mess Is Best

A Native Mess Is Best

By Margaret DiBenedetto

There’s them that mow and cut every bit of scrubby brush, field edge, and wetland they can access with brush hogs and chainsaws. They remove limbs and leaf litter from patches of woods to neaten and straighten and “clean it up”.

But Nature isn’t generally “clean”, “straight”, or “neat”. Nature has evolved to strategically make use of scrubby and messy habitats. Indeed, when you remove the mess, you alter the habitat – and usually not for the good.

Areas that are “cleaned up” support fewer birds and other wildlife. Removing the leaf litter and vegetation also removes insect habitat. To many people, fewer bugs sounds like a positive. However, insects are at the base of the food pyramid. They are the sustenance of frogs, salamanders, dragonflies, and birds. There are insects and fungi that can only reproduce in leaf litter. Remove leaf litter and dead wood from the forest floor, and fungi can no longer perform the ecological task of decomposition, which provides nutrients to the trees. Thus, the very forest that people are trying to “straighten up” to look nice becomes depleted of nutrients and over time becomes unhealthy and dies.

Removing scrubby areas from fields and wetlands also wipes out habitats. Fireflies and dragon- and damselflies live and reproduce there. Birds rely on these habitats for food – both the seeds produced by the vegetation and the insects that thrive there. Removing these “bird restaurants” pushes the birds to look elsewhere for food; the amount of available food overall has been decreased, and the bird populations suffer. Another assault on insects and birds is the planting of non-native flowers, trees, and shrubs. Particularly harmful are Japanese barberry, Norway maple, and burning bush, which spread prolifically and crowd out native plants. Many states have banned the sale of these three species.

Combined with the rapid increase in the use of Roundup and other herbicides, pesticides, and lawn treatments, birds face depletion in their food sources…which leads to a depletion in bird populations.

Birds and many species of insects and bats rely on mosquitos as food. But with the balance out of whack, we will see an increase in the least desirable insect species such as mosquitoes and ticks because there are fewer birds, bats, and insects to eat them.

A single pair of chickadees must catch 7,500 caterpillars to raise one nest of young, and hummingbirds can eat 2,000 mosquitos and other tiny insects a day! Our Catskills insects evolved with native vegetation, and they often cannot feed on introduced plants. A native oak tree supports 534 species of butterflies and caterpillars. A non-native tree, such as the ginkgo, supports 0. Understanding that insects are an important food source, rather than viewing them as irritating pests, is the beginning of seeing your yard differently and treating it as the huge restaurant it is.