"People and their cities are as much natural phenomena as trees, streams, nests, and deer paths. It is crucial that we come to see ourselves as an integral part of the total living community."
— Kevin Lynch
You and the Global Ecosystem
You've probably seen photos of the ecosphere taken from outer space. What if you were out there focusing in on the Earth through powerful binoculars? What would you see? All around the ecosphere, you'd find the next largest ecosystems — oceans and continents. Zooming still closer, you'd notice regional ecosystems like rain forests, sea coasts, lakes, rivers, mountains, prairies, and tundra. An even closer look would reveal natural communities like wildflower meadows, marshes, creeks, and woodlots plus human communities, such as farms, cities, towns, and suburbs. And nested right in the middle of one of those human communities, you'd spot your very own ecosystem.
Find Your "Econiche"
Canada is a huge country — much too big to be considered one ecosystem. If we want to take an ecosystem approach to wildlife conservation, we have to divide the map into smaller segments. That's why scientists have developed the Ecological Classification System based on a variety of biological and physical characteristics, such as wildlife, vegetation, climate, soils, and water. The system has nothing to do with political boundaries. It's made up of layers of ecosystems, from huge ecozones all the way down to tiny ecosites, and it includes both urban and rural areas. Each ecological area could be compared to a large terrarium or aquarium, containing almost all the biotic and abiotic elements it needs to survive. Canada is divided into 15 terrestrial and five marine ecozones, which are subdivided into 53 ecoprovinces. Within those ecoprovinces are a total of 194 ecoregions, which are then divided into 1,021 ecodistricts, and so on. Scientists and wildlife managers work at the scale that best suits their needs.
Start Projects with an Ecosystem Approach
An ecosystem approach is about working with nature instead of against it. It recognizes that natural communities are always changing. A schoolyard ecosystem, for example, never stands still — it is constantly adapting to changing conditions and circumstances. An ecosystem approach aims to create a self-sustaining habitat that not only meets the needs of humans, plants, and wild and domestic animals but also brings them into harmony. Another objective includes conserving resources like water, soil, land, and energy. By obeying the laws of nature and adapting to individual climates, these objectives can be applied to any ecosystem. Here are some guidelines to follow when taking an ecosystem approach to wildlife habitat:
- Start by "reading" the natural patterns of your project site: the landscape, watercourses, boundaries, climatic conditions, and plant and animal occupants. Taking these patterns into account, plus the needs of the wildlife you want to accommodate, use as much of your site as you can.
- Copy nature. By following Mother Nature's blueprint and observing the biotic and abiotic elements of the surrounding ecosystem, you can choose the right projects for your schoolyard.
- Identify the microclimates in your schoolyard and make appropriate use of them. For instance, grow sun-loving prairie-trefoil in rocky, windswept areas, wild black currant in moist to wet conditions, and red oak in either full sun or a cool, shady corner. Depending on soil conditions, arrange plants in guilds — that is, groups with compatible roots and canopies. For example, pines, dogwoods, and wild blueberries form a guild for acidic soil.
- Promote ecological integrity. An ecosystem has ecological integrity if it can look after itself. It must be able to keep progressing through the cycle of birth, growth, death, decay, and renewal. Promote ecological integrity in your schoolyard by growing a variety of drought-resistant, native plants adapted to your area. Links between biotic and abiotic elements are critical to ensure a dynamic, self sustaining ecosystem. Every element should serve at least two functions. For example, instead of flowering shrubs, plant a raspberry or blackberry hedgerow, which provides travelling lanes and food for such creatures as chipmunks and woodchucks.
- Contribute to the restoration and regeneration of the land by controlling erosion and building up soil. Rather than trucking in fresh topsoil or manure, make every effort to work with materials on site. For example, use a mulch of grass clippings, compost or bark processed from yard waste to retain heat and moisture and to build up layers of soil. The green manure technique described in the "Plant an Alternative to a Lawn" section will also help you turn barren earth into fertile soil in your schoolyard.
- Manage your water resources efficiently. Use rain barrels to harvest the abundance of water that falls in your schoolyard, reducing your reliance on tap water for growing plants. Water early in the day to minimize evaporation caused by the sun, but do so only until plants are established and able to thrive on rainfall alone. Avoid growing nonnative plants, such as hybrid roses, that need excessive water and are prone to disease.
- Divide your schoolyard into zones based on use. See that heavily used areas, such as sports fields, remain accessible.
Survey Your Site: Take Ecosystem Inventory
A critical first step in creating wildlife habitat is to take inventory of your ecological area. Keeping in mind that all species have different needs and preferences, learn which habitat requirements are missing or need improving in your schoolyard. You should not only collect data, but also try to get a feeling for the interrelationships between the species you encounter as well as their connections with different types of habitat — for example, a frog pond in spring versus a frog pond in winter; a butterfly garden versus a woodlot.
Use these observations to guide you in choosing wildlife habitat projects. Before putting up nesting structures, for instance, make sure the creatures you want to accommodate actually live in your ecosystem. What will happen to other wildlife as a result of attracting these species?
Remember, taking inventory is not a one-shot deal. It's an ongoing, four-season effort to record information on species that use your site year-round and year after year. That's why it's a good idea to enter your observations into a logbook. Consider the following habitat requirements when planning your projects:
- Food: What's naturally available in your area?
- Water: Is there a source on, or near, your site? What is the quality of the water? Are there fish or aquatic insects present?
- Shelter: Are there places where wildlife can rest, escape from hungry predators, and take shelter all year round?
- Space: Do wild plants and animals have the room they need to grow and multiply?
- Accessibility: Are the sources of food, water, and shelter within easy reach of each other? Are they available all year round?
This additional checklist will remind you of items you ought to include in, or exclude from, your wildlife habitat:
- Wildlife: Identify and list all the species of plants and animals in and around your project site. If you introduce other plants or attract other creatures, will they fit in?
- Changing seasons: Seasonal changes are an important illustration of how ecosystems evolve over time. School grounds and their surroundings provide unlimited opportunities to chart the changes that happen as the seasons come and go.
- Nuisance species: Some wildlife can disrupt your habitat projects. For example, an amphibian pond in an area that's home to a number of raccoons could be a frog's worst nightmare.
- Habitat history: How have established nesting structures, ponds, feeders, and seed-, nut-, and fruit-bearing plants already benefited wildlife? How could they be improved or rejuvenated?
- Current uses of project site: Do people walk, park cars, play, ride bikes, or dump garbage there?
Promote Ecosystem Health
- Plant trees. Celebrate National Wildlife Week by planting native trees! These leafy wonder workers provide an amazing selection of food and shelter for countless species of wildlife. They also reduce air pollution, control soil erosion, and create buffer zones against noise. Their pro per placement in relation to buildings, such as schools, can also significantly reduce the energy used for heating and air-conditioning (by reducing wintry blasts of wind and providing shade). Choose drought-resistant fruit- and seed-bearing trees that provide maximum benefits to wildlife: red oak, Manitoba maple, ponderosa pine, chokecherry, and balsam-fir, to name just a few.
- Provide micro-habitats. Providing clumps, thickets, fallen logs, and brush and rock piles is an easy way to create suitable habitat for a wide range of wildlife. A clump may consist of one or more coniferous trees surrounded by a ring of dense, bushy shrubs like raspberry, blackberry, blueberry, or elderberry. Create a thicket consisting of a tall, central tree or shrub encircled with bushy, closely spaced shrubs. A fallen log habitat — a tree-trunk left rotting on the ground and crawling with mouth-watering bugs and slugs — is paradise as far as toads and moles are concerned. A brush pile, made of debris like fallen branches held down by a log and built upon a foundation of rocks, provides shelter for small birds and nesting sites for reptiles and mammals. Amphibians and reptiles appreciate rock piles — loosely arranged mounds of rocks and stones of different shapes and sizes — placed at the edge of a pond. They provide excellent shelter and sunbathing opportunities.
- Revive old schoolyard projects. Sustaining wildlife habitat is just as important as creating it. If some old projects in your schoolyard are a little the worse for wear, why not breathe new life into them? Clean out old nesting boxes, mend bat roosts that have fallen into disrepair, weed neglected wildflower patches, and complete unfinished planting projects, such as hedgerows and windbreaks.
- Make waves for wildlife. Simply introducing a source of water to your schoolyard can have an amazing "ripple effect" and benefit a whole web of interdependent creatures, including amphibians, reptiles, songbirds, mammals, and insects. A great alternative to a full-fledged pond is a birdbath. It should slope towards its middle and be no deeper than six centimetres. It’s important to add fresh water every day.
Plant an Alternative to a Lawn
More than just a feast for the eyes and nostrils, a native wildflower meadow is also a magnet for wildlife. It provides nectar, food, and cover for a multitude of insects, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and small mammals. Your meadow could fill a small corner of your schoolyard or several hectares. With luck, you'll start a whole new trend in your area. You could also adapt this project and plant a patch of prairie grass.
- Choose a site that could serve as a transition zone between wild and conventional areas or as a replacement for part of your schoolyard.
- Till it to 20 centimetres deep in spring or fall.
- If you start the project in fall, you can plant thickly with buckwheat after tilling the soil. Rake the buckwheat under before the sprouts get taller than 15 centimetres — two to four weeks after planting. Immediately reseed with another crop of buckwheat, also tilling it under before the seeds set. Make sure an adult is present if you use a rototiller. Then let the area sit for the winter. (This technique, known as green manure, adds nutrients to dry, sandy soil that allow native grasses and wildflowers to flourish. Skip this step if your schoolyard soil is fertile and rich.)
- After spring thaw, cover the tilled area with heavy black plastic for two or three weeks, so the weed seeds will germinate and die. Of course, this method is only practical for smaller areas.
- Remove the plastic and plant your wildflower seeds as well as grass seeds or seedlings. You may wish to arrange them separately. Include a variety of native plants to ensure that nectar, seeds, and fruit are available from spring through fall. Biennials and perennials take longer to establish than annuals, but are longer lasting.
- After seeding, mulch the planted area very lightly and tamp it down.
- To protect the plot from human traffic, surround it with string tied between posts, and put up a sign explaining the project.
- Maintain a moist soil until the plants are well established, weeding out undesirable growth.
- Mow or cut the meadow in late fall to help nature reseed it.
- Be patient! It may take two seasons before some wildflowers come into bloom.
Modify Lawn-Care Practices
A terrific way to help wildlife and promote ecosystem health is to modify your schoolyard lawn-care practices. Even if you choose only one of the suggestions below, wildlife and humans will benefit.
- Rather than growing the usual turf in your schoolyard, consider a mixture of native grasses, fescues, and wildflowers. Such blends require less mowing, are drought tolerant, and please both humans and wildlife.
- Plant ground covers. All sorts of low-growing plants and shrubs are available that make great alternatives to grass. Some, such as bunchberry and Solomon's-seal, grow well in shady areas, where grass usually does poorly.
- Use organic fertilizers, such as grass clippings, compost, well-aged manure, and blood and bone meal.
- Never spray a wildlife-friendly lawn with pesticides. Instead, sow hardy native grasses that tolerate drought and competition from other plants. Some varieties actually resist attacks from aphids, cutworms, and other lawn-loving pests.
- If your lawn grows on heavy clay soil, or is packed hard from heavy use, it may need aeration or ventilation. For large areas, a rented lawn aerator will do the job. On small lawns, use a garden fork to perforate the soil repeatedly at a slight angle.
- De-thatch your lawn. Thatch is a compacted layer of organic debris, such as roots and stems. A thin layer of thatch helps shade grass roots and retain moisture. However, if it becomes more than one centimetre thick, it should be removed with a heavy rake or de-thatching equipment. The best time to do so is in early spring, after the lawn is dry enough that you can rake it — prior to the first cutting.
- If a conventional lawn is your only option, just water it every three to five days, but give it a thorough soaking. This strategy produces a deep root system and stronger grass. As a rule, taller grass holds water better, provides shade for roots, and looks richer. So trim — don't scalp — your lawn to a height of 10 to 15 centimetres.
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