Benign Neglect

On a spring day I was wandering around my New England yard to see what was blooming and I spied fresh wood chips at the base of an oak tree. Looking up, I saw a newly excavated woodpecker hole. A flicker had been drumming regularly (a bit too regularly, I must say) on the metal cap of my house’s chimney for two weeks, and I figured it might be his hole. I later looked at the hole through binoculars and, yes, there was a flicker perched at the entrance. Although I’ve seen plenty of flickers, and downy, hairy, red-bellied and pileated woodpeckers in my yard over the years, this was the first time I had zeroed in on a nesthole, and I planned to follow the drama of whether the flicker would be able to attract a mate (and stop the racket on the chimney).

Meanwhile, broad-winged hawks were nesting high up in another oak in the yard, and bluebirds had claimed the nestbox in the backyard. Cardinals, robins, titmice, chickadees, white-throated, song and chipping sparrows, catbirds, wrens, house finches, goldfinches, nuthatches, mourning doves and the other usual suspects were busy visiting the feeders in the yard or foraging for other food and bathing and drinking from the birdbath (I’ve identified about 60 species in the yard, including a turkey and a great blue heron that flew by the deck one day at eye level).
A few warblers would no doubt be coming through soon, and I was looking forward to the wood thrush’s song that I was sure I’d be hearing in the summer in the back woodlot as the fireflies blinked and a bat or two darted about above the trees.
I know that my sunflower, thistle and suet feeders, birdbaths and nestboxes (and the old Christmas trees propped up outside that sometimes attract kinglets looking for a roost) bring most of these birds into the yard, but I think some of the welcome avian activity, including the noisy flicker’s, is due to another factor as well; my benign neglect of the property. I have read a good deal about gardening for birds, but I’ve decided that it’s less work to declare that I cannot improve on Mother Nature, and I am glad to be able to use that as an excuse for not trying.
Take the lawn. First, that is decidedly the wrong word for it. My “lawn” is the patch of property around the house that I mow, and I would need a botanist to catalogue the numerous species that grow in this space and either escape below the mower blade or grow up far enough (I keep the blade at the highest setting) to get a haircut. I can identify the violets, wild strawberry, pussytoes, wood anemone, dandelions, clover, crabgrass and moss, and there are some robust grassy tufts that smell like onions or scallions, but there is plenty of stuff growing that I cannot come close to naming (I let this floral collection grow fairly high in the spring before the first cut, because I am loathe to mow down any weedy blooms). There was a true lawn on the property when I moved in 15 years ago, but my refusal to nurture it with pesticides and herbicides rushed that emerald monoculture to extinction. This was due, admittedly, to some laziness on my part, but I am also on a well and it did not make sense to me to waste money on lawn products that I feared would poison my drinking water. Today, the chemical-free ground cover I neglect is the home in warmer months to what seems to be an endless supply of grubs, earthworms and other insects that the flickers, robins, bluebirds and other birds energetically devour. I also do a mediocre job of raking leaves in the fall (yes, I rake them on to a tarp and haul them into my small woodlot to compost) and there is plenty of leaf litter for the birds to turn over with their beaks and kick about with their toes as they search for tidbits. The state of the lawn, by the way, brings flyers each spring to my mailbox from lawn care companies that have surveyed the premises from the street and determined that I am in the most urgent need of their services.
Beyond the, ahem, mowed section of the property is the aforementioned small woodlot behind the house. The rest of the perimeter of my acre-and-a-quarter is largely leafy hedgerow and mature trees. Mine is a decidedly shady yard, with all kinds of places to nest, and, I think, a rather attractive collection of bugs, buds, seeds and berries for the birds. I am also sure that the nesting hawks have taken note of the chipmunks and field mice scurrying about the weeds (when those creatures are not rummaging through my garage via a crack or two in the sagging doors), just as the occasional sharp-shinned hawk takes notice of activity at the feeders and comes tearing through to scatter the feeding birds and perhaps nab one.
I observe a lot of this natural action while birding from my deck, and often note, a bit smugly, that it takes place in my small suburban house lot not because I have worked to bring it about, but precisely because I have not. I also derive satisfaction from the fact that this bustling bird spot is a five-minute drive from decidedly unnatural Interstate 95 and that highway’s millions of cars and trucks zooming through Connecticut. On a quiet summer’s night, between the notes of the wood thrush, and despite the constant thrum of all those insects that I rear for the birds through my laissez-faire approach to yard maintenance, I can, if I really concentrate, just barely make out the highway hum.

Originally appeared in Bird Watcher’s Digest
March/April 2011
Vol. 33 No. 4