Be a Wildlife Booster
Ever thought of becoming a paramedic for wildlife? Every time you improve habitat, you are helping to build critical life-support systems for a host of wild creatures. For example, when you improve habitat for birds, you are also helping bees, beetles, beavers, bats, and bears! Diversity is the key to well-being for birds and other species. Here are some important points to keep in mind:
- A mixture of trees, shrubs, flowers, grasses, and vines will attract a wide variety of our feathered friends. The American Robin, for example, often builds its first nest of the year in the dense branches of an evergreen. That's because deciduous trees are still bare in the early spring. However, a maple, oak, or leafy bush will provide plenty of cover for the robin's second nest site.
- Shrubs are very versatile. One medium-sized bush, such as a honeysuckle, can give shelter, food, and nesting sites to several species of wildlife. Provide plants that do double duty as sheltering spots and snack bars; for example, Black Raspberry, Staghorn Sumac, and American Mountain-Ash. Spruce trees give winter cover and summer nesting sites.
- Plant seasonal treats. With a bit of research, you can provide birds and other wildlife with a continuous supply of food throughout the year. Prickly Gooseberry and Saskatoon-berry provide summer fruits. American Mountain-Ash, Dogwood, and Manitoba Maple are good for fall fruits, seeds, and shelter. Probably the most important plants you can provide for wildlife are ones that bear fruits and seeds in winter when food is hardest to find. Hawthorn, Wild Crabapple, Buffalo-berry, White Spruce, and Staghorn Sumac provide fruits, seeds, and shelter in winter and early spring.
Operation Burrowing Owl
Burrowing Owls were once common on the prairie grasslands of Western Canada. Sad to say, their numbers have declined steadily in recent decades. They are listed as threatened by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada. These winsome little sandy-coloured owls stand on long, almost-bare legs and live in the abandoned burrows of badgers, gophers, and other small mammals. They are unbeatable when it comes to controlling pests like mice and grasshoppers!
Operation Burrowing Owl is a program that works with landowners to protect this species in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta. Artificial nesting structures provide safe homes for the owls, and landowners are encouraged to protect the owls' habitat. Your class may be able to help this unique species by building a nest "burrow". Keep in mind that an Operation Burrowing Owl biologist must supervise the project. For details on the program visit the Nature Saskatchewan Website.
Give Shelter to Wintering Birds
Many species of birds wait out stormy weather inside the hollows of tree-trunks and snags. On a winter's night, when temperatures plunge, it can be hard for birds to find decent roosting spots. Even the thickest evergreen tree may not give a bird enough shelter to keep from freezing to death. As for the flocks of birds that gather at your feeder, there may be too few spots for them all to roost in the area.
Why not do wintering birds a special favour and build them a "dormitory"? Here are some tips on how to make a roosting box:
- The compartment is usually about 35-46 cm wide, 40-50 cm tall, and about 30 cm deep (the overall size is not important.)
- Make several perches out of dowel. 7 cm (1/4") or 1 cm (3/8") in diameter and mount them at varying heights inside the box.
- Locate the entrance hole near the bottom to stop heat from escaping as it rises. A box for each species is not necessary. One for smaller birds and another for somewhat larger ones will do. As in nest boxes, different sized entrance holes will attract different species.
- Make the box as airtight as possible — no drainage or ventilation holes.
- Put hinges on the front rather than the top, so the box can be cleaned easily and thoroughly when winter is over.
- A latch can be installed to keep the door shut.
- Place the roosting box in a well-sheltered spot on the south side of a building or large tree.
- When summer arrives, close the box up or put it away if you want to prevent sparrows and mice from taking up residence.
Some species of frogs are disappearing at an alarming rate across Canada and around the world — and no one knows exactly why. Common as well as rare species are vanishing. Populations of Northern Leopard Frogs, for example, keep fluctuating in Alberta and declining in Manitoba. Scientists refer to amphibians as "indicator species" because they appear to serve as an early warning system for environmental trouble. Nearly all amphibians spend part of their life cycle on land and part in water. Their skins absorb chemicals easily. So, if anything goes wrong with frogs, we should pay careful attention. It may be a sign that the environment (land, water, air, or all three) is in serious trouble. That's why scientists are now keeping track of frog numbers through a network of surveys across Canada and around the world.
Salamanders are also amphibians. Four species make their homes in the Covey Hill area of Quebec: the Northern Spring Salamander, the Four-toed Salamander, the Mountain Dusky Salamander, and the Northern Dusky Salamander. These secretive creatures eat insects and generally mind their own business. Altogether, 15 amphibian species live in the region thanks to its diversity of soggy habitats. Other unusual species in the Covey Hill area include the Wild Turkey, the Bobcat, and the Twin-scaped Bladderwort — a plant that eats tiny aquatic creatures. Conservationists are working to protect this unique habitat from development and pollution so that wildlife in the region can live happily ever after.
Stand by an Amphibian
Are there amphibians in your area? It would be interesting to find out.
- Invite an amphibian expert to talk in your class. Discover how many species live in your area. Are they common or rare? Are they disappearing or spreading? Find out why.
- Plan a field trip to an amphibian habitat. Spend a while getting to know the place. What other species live there? Is it a healthy spot or does it need a hand?
- Perhaps you can help amphibians there by cleaning up debris or by posting information signs.
- Make a presentation to your school or a community group about the importance of amphibians and what we can do to help them survive.
Create a Wildlife Watering Spot
A seep is a wet spot on a hillside. Although you may not see any water, the earth will be moist, and there will be sedges, rushes, or cattails growing there. Here's how you can help make the underground water available for wildlife.
- First get permission from the landowner on private property, or the town or government agency on public land. Explain what you want to do.
- Using a trowel, dig carefully near the bottom of the seep.
- Dig a long, narrow tunnel, angling it upwards.
- Each time you remove a scoop of earth, wait and see if water appears in the tunnel.
- Once water starts to flow, stop digging for the day.
- The next day, if the flow of water has increased, don't dig any more. If it has decreased, dig out a bit more.
- Once the water flows steadily, push some gravel very gently into the hole to keep it from collapsing; or push into the tunnel a length of pipe with holes drilled along the bottom.
- That's it! With any luck, the seep will make a terrific wildlife watering spot.
Why not plant a "native" garden? Not only do native wildflowers and shrubs attract wildlife; as a rule, they require very little water.
To discover the kinds of native plants and grasses that will grow in your schoolyard garden, check out a plot of undeveloped but similar land nearby. Make a note of what you find growing there. Does the vegetation grow in clumps or at random? Are certain plants always found near others? Do some plants seem to prefer sun or shade? Now, when you create your wildlife refuge, be a copycat. The result will be a very natural garden, easy on water, that will attract appreciative wildlife.
Some wildflower seed mixes may not be suited to the area where you live. Read the package to make sure the mix does not include a large percentage of non-native species.
Ideally, wild-flower beds should be prepared two or three months before planting to give the soil time to settle. Fall is the best time for seeding. Lightly rake the soil to cover the seeds, then water. Once the plants take hold, you can usually stop watering altogether. Be patient. It may take two seasons before some species come into bloom.
Native grasses mixed with wildflowers will form a dense cover, discouraging weeds and preventing soil erosion. Stay away from the thirsty turf grasses found on most lawns. And remember — just because you've decided to "go native" doesn't mean your sanctuary has to be totally wild and unruly. You can also incorporate pathways, play areas, and other space just for humans into your wildlife haven.
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