Synergize With Your Community
The key to creating, nurturing, and sustaining wildlife habitat is to make the most of the people and resources in your entire school and community:
- Remember, student leadership and initiative are both essential in establishing a sustainable project. Start with a clear and workable vision of what your efforts can achieve.
- Inspire the community — inside and outside your school — by sharing your students' vision. Extol the ecological and social benefits your project can accomplish.
- While students should have a sense of directing the project, teachers can offer invaluable inspiration as mentors, facilitators, resource persons, and cheerleaders. Maintenance staff, with their stewardship skills and familiarity with the schoolyard, can also be crucial to the long-term success of a project.
- Recruit parent volunteers by sparking interest through their children's enthusiasm. Parents can constitute a vital force throughout the course of a project as well as a critical link between the school and community.
- Engage the support of resource professionals. The technical expertise of wildlife biologists, horticulturists, foresters, conservation officers, and landscape architects can greatly assist you in planning and establishing habitat.
- Appeal to local businesses, nurseries, horticultural societies, civic organizations, seniors’ clubs, naturalist groups, and fish and wildlife agencies for funding, volunteer assistance, and technical and material support.
- Once your community is committed to developing wildlife habitat, it's time to establish a project team. Encourage a sense of partnership between younger and older students, teachers and parents, your school and community by focusing energy on a shared purpose. The project team will act as a driving force in achieving your goals.
Share the Wealth
Once sustainability bursts into bloom, it's never long before its roots spread wide and its seeds scatter to the winds. Your schoolyard plantings will reach a point in their growth where you can easily share their riches. Perennials, for example, must be divided now and then, or they'll become overgrown and choke themselves out of existence. Your schoolyard tree nursery also has to be thinned out to prevent overcrowding of the seedlings. Then there's the surfeit of nuts and seeds that fall by the wayside, never to experience the miracle of germination. Instead of tossing these treasures into the compost heap, why not swap them for other herbaceous gems?
Here's how you can spread the roots and seeds of sustainability beyond your schoolyard:
- Organize a plant exchange with your students or your whole community. A good time to hold the event is early autumn, when many perennials have to be divided and seeds are ready for harvesting.
- Advertise the event in your community newspaper and invite parents through your school newsletter.
- Encourage participants to bring native plants, seeds, and tree seedlings to trade with your own. Remind them to bring dry seeds in labelled envelopes and plants in containers like plastic bags or yogurt cups, with moist earth packed around the roots.Transplant your acquisitions right away. Recruit student and parent volunteers to help.
Set Your Sights on Moths and Butterflies
If not for insects, the Earth's ecosystems would soon collapse. Like other insects, moths and butterflies (lepidopterans) fulfil a vital role in pollinating plants, including the food crops we need to survive. They're also important indicators of ecosystem sustainability. Along with other insects, lepidopterans face the widespread threat of insecticides and, even worse, herbicides, which kill the food plants they need to survive. For example, monarchs, whose larvae eat milkweed, are probably declining due to herbicide use. But the greatest threat to lepidopterans is habitat loss because of our mushrooming civilization.
Why not try monitoring butterflies, such as the monarch, painted lady, and mourning cloak, plus the luna and polyphemus moth? Simply spend time in your schoolyard butterfly garden, in a park, or by a porch light and record your sightings.
Cater a Lepidopteran Luncheon
The loss of countless hectares of native plant habitat to human development has made moths and butterflies refugees in their own land. Help offset some of the damage by inviting lepidopterans into your schoolyard habitat. Make the invitation irresistible by providing a lepidopteran luncheon in the form of nectar plants for moths and butterflies and leafy vegetation for their larvae:
- Choose a corner of your schoolyard that's sunny and sheltered from wind.
- Consult a field guide, visit a nearby meadow, or talk to a local naturalist to learn which lepidopterans frequent your area and which plants they prefer.
- Make sure the plants you intend to introduce are suited to the local soil and growing conditions. Remember, pesticides and butterflies don't mix.
- Provide a combination of plants to ensure a continuous supply of food throughout the season. Some excellent nectar plants are bachelor's button, blazing-star, dandelion, day-lily, dogbane, fireweed, fleabane, goldenrod, hawkweed, meadowsweet, peony, peppermint, phlox, selfheal, vetch, wild cherry, winter cress, and yarrow. Willows and elms will attract the mourning cloak; butterfly bush will beckon the red admiral and painted lady; Queen Anne's lace will beguile the black swallowtail; poplars will fetch the white admiral and red-spotted purple; and plum will tantalize the tiger swallowtail.
- Woo moths into your schoolyard by planting bee-balm, blue flag, dame's rocket, ground ivy, and thistle.
- Don't forget about lepidopteran larvae when planning your butterfly buffet. Caterpillars generally like alfalfa, aster, black-eyed Susan, clover, hollyhock, lupine, marigold, sedum, aspen, birch, and oak.
Milkweed (the sole source of food for monarch caterpillars and an important source of nectar for many butterflies and moths) is usually classified as a noxious weed. However, you can lawfully grow three close cousins of the banned common milkweed: butterfly-weed, red milkweed, and swamp milkweed. All three are also good hosts to monarch caterpillars and won't raise the wrath of your municipal weed police.
Sustain Salt-Marsh Habitat
Salt-marshes are among the most productive habitats on earth. These coastal wetlands form where nutrient-laden freshwater and salt water blend into a rich biological stew. Plant life thrives in salt-marshes, filtering pollutants from the water and providing food and cover for a plethora of wildlife, from single-celled protozoa to large mammals.
These habitats also serve as spawning grounds and nurseries for myriad species of fish and shellfish. Migratory birds like geese, ducks, and shorebirds are utterly dependent on chains of salt-marshes for stopover points, where they can refuel while travelling between their nesting and wintering grounds. All these species intermingle in an intricately woven food web.
The most vital element in a salt-marsh is plant life. Specialized grasses tolerate high concentrations of salt and the impact of rising and falling tides; their roots bind loose mud into a mass, collecting and holding organic material by forming a network. They also provide many wildlife species with food and cover. Sad to say, they are in trouble — literally losing ground.
Natural forces like high waves and tidal surges, human impacts like agriculture and urban and industrial expansion, and rising sea levels due to global warming are killing and uprooting vegetation and wearing away muddy soil. The continuing loss of salt-marshes puts migratory waterfowl and many other species in jeopardy.
Since plants play such a critical role in these ecosystems, the best way to help sustain salt-marsh habitat is to provide supplemental planting. Choose native plants adapted to life in the salt-marsh environment — ones that anchor muddy soil while providing ample food and shelter for a variety of species. Your choice will vary from region to region, as indicated below:
- For the East Coast: seaside gerardia, hedge-bindweed, brass-buttons, swamp rose-mallow, inkberry, winterberry, sea-lavender, glassworts, seaside goldenrod, salt-water cord-grass, salt-meadow grass, sea-blite, and wood-sage.
- For the West Coast: spearscale, sedges, dodder, hairgrass, gumweed, baltic rush, salt rush, devil's-club, western dock, low bulrush, and cow clover.
- For both coasts: redtop, spike-grass, red fescue, sea-milkwort, spike-rush, black grass, reeds, seaside-plantain, alkali grasses, ditch-grass, seacoast bulrush, salt-marsh bulrush, slough-grass, sand-spurrey, starwort, and arrow-grass.
Lend Wings to Osprey
The return of the osprey to Canada's rivers and lakes is as remarkable as the rebirth of the mythical phoenix from its own ashes. Once threatened with extinction due to the harmful effects of pesticides on its eggs, the osprey has made a phenomenal comeback since DDT was banned in North America in the early 1970s. But now this magnificent fish-hawk faces another challenge: the loss of nesting sites in tall trees and snags along shallow bodies of water because of human development.
To compensate for this habitat shortage, schools, Scouts, and community groups from coast to coast are providing artificial nesting platforms — with remarkable success. There are various ways to erect nesting structures, depending on the terrain. On hard terrain, for example, platforms are usually mounted on single poles, which are bolted to rock. Quadrupods — four poles lashed together — are used to support platforms in wetlands with muddy bottoms.
The scale of these projects requires that you tap into the resources of your community. Here’s how to erect a single-pole structure on soft terrain:
- Remember, location is everything. Since ospreys feed almost exclusively on fish, nesting sites should be no more than 3 km from shallow wetlands; 50 m is ideal. Choose open areas, at least 300 m apart and 100 m away from human activity.
- Before you begin, contact your ministry of natural resources to see if you need a permit to build platforms along rivers or lakes in your region.
- Find a solid utility pole, 7 to 9 m long and 15 or 20 cm in diameter. Your local hydro or telephone company may give away used poles.
- Secure a sturdy 1.2-m x 1.2-m shipping pallet (preferably with a 25-cm-high fence attached) to one end of the pole, using lag bolts and metal braces. Wire a few sticks to the platform to make it more appealing.
- Drill a hole, 1.5 to 2 m deep, in the earth with a power auger. Set the pole in the hole, then secure it with cement.
- Attach guy wires to the pole if necessary to make it more stable.
- Nail a sheet-metal predator guard around the base of the pole to protect osprey nestlings from raccoons.
- Inspect the structure at least once a year. Remove a layer of sticks if nesting material gets deeper than 50 cm.
Develop a Sustainability Database
A computerized inventory of species and spaces can help sustain wildlife and ecosystems by providing critical information to scientists and conservationists. Building a database means spending time outside and learning to identify different species and habitats.
For example, you might keep track of the wildlife that visits your schoolyard amphibian pond or the occupants of a local woodland. The data you gather will act as a barometer for ecological sustainability. For instance, an abundance of breeding bald eagles on a Labrador coast may mean things are improving; an absence of bullfrogs in an Ontario marsh may mean something is amiss. By sharing your data, you can help researchers find out which species and spaces are at risk, find ways to protect them, or keep them out of trouble in the first place.
- Identify and record as many species of plants and animals as you can in your schoolyard and community. A set of field guides on birds, mammals, reptiles, wildflowers, and so on, will prove invaluable.
- Seek assistance from experts like ornithologists, herpetologists, and botanists in identifying rare and endangered species.
- Collect information on interrelationships between species as well as their connections with different habitats. For example, if you see a red-spotted purple butterfly, on which type of plant is it feeding?
- Share your information with Canada’s Conservation Data Centres — a network of data banks that monitor species and habitats at risk.
- Take part in a biological survey.
- Remember, collecting data on species and spaces is an ongoing, four-season effort.
Folklore tells us that the 17th century cure for a sore throat was a frog. "Take a small frog and, holding it by the hind legs, retain it in the mouth for several minutes. During this time it will suck out the poison, and the patient will recover."
The cure for a headache was almost as strange: tie an amulet to your left foot or big toe, and the pain will disappear. Maybe these remedies worked. Still, folks living in the 1600s probably would have preferred antibiotics to frogs and aspirin to amulets, given the choice.
Ancient societies needed to look only to plants in the forests for "wonder" drugs. Many did, which eventually led scientists to the discovery of aspirin, antibiotics, and treatments for malaria, cancer, and heart disease: drugs that have revolutionized modern medical practice.
- Between 35,000 and 70,000 plant species are used in traditional medicine.
- Around 80 percent of people in developing countries rely primarily on traditional medicine for health care.
- In modern medicine, 40 percent of all prescriptions are based on, or produced from, natural compounds found in certain plants and animals.
- Experts predict that as many as 25 percent of all plant species — 60,000, at least — could become extinct by 2050.
- Human development speeds up the rate of species loss by as much as 1,000 times the natural extinction rate.
- The Malaysian rain forest held a tree whose leaves and twigs were found to stop the HIV-1 virus from replicating — a potential cure for AIDS. The tree was cut down, however, and scientists haven't found another. Compounds from related species, which luckily still exist, are now being tested. So far, they are proving to be equally effective against HIV.
- Less than 10 percent of known plant species have been screened for their medicinal value; only one percent have been thoroughly studied.
- Most of the plants that have not been investigated are found in tropical rain forests, which are being destroyed at an estimated rate of 17 million hectares a year.
Wonder Plants Chart
Forests are filled with undiscovered miracles. But they're being rapidly destroyed. As sustainable actions work to conserve natural resources like forests, every individual step counts. Just think about what life would be like if any of the wonder plants in our chart had disappeared before their medicinal value was discovered.
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