Biodiversity on a small scale
Nearly everyone admires birds, bears, and Bobcats. But we also need to appreciate the vital roles played by algae, bacteria, fungi, and tiny invertebrates. These unsung heroes of nature help purify water, recycle nutrients, generate oxygen, decompose waste, and produce soil. In fact, the health of wild creatures and humans depends on the diversity of these tiny invertebrates, plants, and micro-organisms. Remember, all species — from moose to microbes — are important. So, let's hear it for those tiny creatures we usually ignore or don't even know exist!
You would be amazed at the biodiversity that thrives in a typical patch of farm soil measuring half a hectare and 15 centimetres deep. You would find:
- one to two tonnes of fungi — organisms that live on dead matter;
- one to two tonnes of bacteria — single-celled creatures;
- 90 kilograms of one-celled animals called protozoa;
- kilograms of algae — tiny water plants; and
- 45 kilograms of yeasts, which are microscopic plant-like organisms.
Did you know that you can encourage a biodiversity of small but very important wildlife species by doing absolutely nothing? It's true! Often, the less you do, the more you can help wildlife. If we stopped cutting our lawns, it would create valuable habitat for all sorts of creatures. But such a drastic step might cause a big fuss in the neighbourhood. Why not consider a few less extreme possibilities for your school property?
- Rather than cleaning up grass clippings, leave them on the lawn so they can fertilize the earth.
- Declare your lawn or schoolyard a chemical-free zone for wildlife.
- If you can't learn to love dandelions, organize regular school "weed-a-thons" to dig up unwanted plants by hand, rather than using chemical weed killers.
- Don't clean up leaves and dead plant material until spring. Seeds, old berries, and insect pupae and eggs can be important food sources for migrating birds in early spring, when the pickings are pretty slim.
- Don't burn that brush pile or put it out for the trash collector. Leave it where wildlife can use it for perching, preening, courting, nesting, or sheltering.
A liveable log pile
A simple log pile habitat is an easy way to attract wildlife diversity to your schoolyard. It's also a good project to take on if space is limited, but will fit in nicely just about anywhere. The following guidelines will help make your log pile habitat a success:
- Choose a protected spot — under a tree, beside a fence or wall, against a building, or at the edge of a wooded area.
- Spread bark chips on the ground where your logs are going to be. Make the habitat as big or small as you like.
- Find recently felled or cut logs of varying lengths from different types of trees. Then stack the logs — mostly on end with a few lying lengthwise — with taller logs at the back. Anchor the logs somehow with a stake or by "planting" the vertical ones deep in the ground so they can't be tipped over.
- Place flower pots, bricks, rocks, and lengths of pipe amongst the logs to provide hiding spots. Leave spaces of different sizes between the various odds and ends.
- Put a small pile of twigs and a heap of leaves beside the logs.
- Fence in the spot to discourage vandals. Now you’re all set!
You will be surprised at how many species this simple habitat attracts. Snails, slugs, toads, and an assortment of other creatures will use the flower pots as hidey-holes. Fungus will eventually grow on some of the logs. Spiders will make webs, small mammals, such as voles, may nest among the logs, and birds will come to hunt for insects. Small creeping critters like isopods will find food under the moist bark, logs, and leaves. Commonly mistaken for insects, they are actually crustaceans and are related to lobsters and shrimp. These harmless creatures (sometimes called sow bugs, woodlice, or roly-polies) do valuable work. Like earthworms, they chew up rotting plant matter and enrich the soil with their excretions. One type of isopod spends its whole life eating ant larvae.
Go to bat for bats.
British Columbia's Okanagan Valley provides a fantastic variety of habitats for bats — everything from deserts to temperate rain forests. Here, bats can find an incredible range of roosting spots and a great selection of insects to munch on. In fact, more bat species (14) are found in the Okanagan Valley than in any other region in Canada. If you live there and happen to see a big black bat with white spots and huge pink ears go zooming by, consider yourself lucky! You've just spotted the Spotted Bat — one of the rarest species of bats in North America. This mysterious creature was first seen in Canada in 1979.
Bats are important for biodiversity and are an excellent form of pest control. Some can gobble up to 600 mosquitoes in an hour. Around the world, human activities have caused a decline in many bat populations. Half of the 16 species of bats in British Columbia are considered to be at risk.
You can help these valuable creatures by constructing a simple bat roost. It won't attract the rare Spotted Bat, but some common species, such as the Little Brown Bat and the Big Brown Bat, may move in. The instructions to make a bat roost are as follows:
- Start by choosing a tree or pole in a sunny "edge" spot. Bats need space for landing and taking off, preferably near water and the cover of trees.
- Wrap a 1-m-wide piece of tar paper around the tree-trunk or pole, between 2 m and 5 m above ground.
- Nail it around the top edge, like a tight-fitting skirt.
- The bats will make their home under the "skirt". To regulate their body temperature, they can crawl around the tree trunk as the sun moves.
Give butterflies a break
Did you know that butterflies absorb the mineral salts they need from moist sand or mud? You can easily make a special soggy spot or two in your schoolyard garden to help butterflies. Probably other creatures will find this spot useful as well! See the instructions in the image below.
Link up locally
Some troubled habitats are as vast as the Prairie grasslands. Some are much smaller, like the Garry oak meadows of southern Vancouver Island. More than one-fifth of British Columbia's rarest plants are found there; for instance, Macoun's Meadow Foam, which grows nowhere else on Earth. Human development has been the biggest threat to this unique ecosystem. Introduced exotic plants, such as English Ivy, Gorse, and Scotch Broom are also crowding out the native species that make up these oak meadows.
Some habitats that need a helping hand, like Purdon's Bog northwest of Ottawa, are quite small. Here you can find one of the largest colonies in Canada of the Showy Lady's-slipper, a beautiful wild orchid. In the past 60 years, the colony has spread from just a handful of plants to about 16,000! (Most colonies range from a dozen to about 300 plants.) That's because it was carefully protected and tended by a landowner, who thinned away underbrush to provide just the right amount of light, while controlling the water level with the help of a nearby beaver dam.
Since the plant yields no nectar, it doesn't attract insects, and so can only be pollinated with great difficulty. It can take up to 14 years to flower! When the landowner died, protection of the wild orchid colony was taken over by a local conservation authority.
Here are a couple of tips to keep in mind if you want to help out a spot in your own community:
- Track down a small habitat near you that needs protection — a marsh where an unusual species of turtle lives, a stand of old trees, or a patch of special plants.
- To find such a spot, talk to naturalist and conservation groups, your government wildlife agency, teaching staff from a nearby university, or the environmental reporter from a local newspaper. Talk to a lot of people. One person may not give the best advice, but could suggest others to talk to. At the same time, you will be building a network of useful resources.
What kind of habitat produces a greater diversity of species? Check it out for yourself with a controlled experiment right on your school grounds. Here's how:
- Mark off 3 equal plots of lawn, side by side. They should each be a minimum of 1 m square. Make them larger if you have enough space.
- Continue to mow one of the plots as usual.
- Leave a second plot alone, and let succession (the natural changing of one type of habitat into another) do its work.
- On the third plot, create a mini forest floor with a 4-cm-thick blanket of leaves. You may need to anchor a piece of netting over this patch to stop the leaves from blowing away.
- Mark the areas clearly so the second and third plots won't be mown accidentally.
- Monitor each plot regularly. Notice any differences. Measure the grass growing on the "succession" plot. Identify any new plants. How long does it take before they appear? Does one plot hold moisture better than the rest? Identify insects with a magnifying glass. Are more species of insects or worms attracted to one plot than the others? On the "forest floor" plot, lift the leaves carefully to see what's going on underneath. Then gently replace them. Do birds or other creatures seem more interested in one particular plot?
- Keep an eye on these areas throughout the school year — even in winter, to observe any activity under the snow.
- Draw up charts so you can compare your findings more easily.
- Keep a journal of all your observations. This information will be very helpful if future classes continue to monitor the plots.
- Do a report on your findings at the end of the school year.
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