Backyard Habitat

Miracle monarchs

by cathym on September 14, 2020

by Liz Magnanti

September is a key time to see one the most interesting animals in our region—the monarch butterfly. The monarch makes an amazing migration down to Mexico every year—a journey that can be more than 3,000 miles! The best thing is, the monarch is relatively easy to attract to your yard.

Monarch Butterfly on New England Aster. Photo courtesy Flickr: Greg Thompson, US Fish and Wildlife Service Northeast Region

Monarch butterflies are in the insect order Lepidoptera—an order that consists of butterflies and moths. Lepidoptera literally translates to “scale wing,” and for good reason: These creatures’ wings are covered in tiny scales, which give them their beautiful colors. All butterflies and moths go through a complete metamorphosis throughout their life cycle. This means that each stage of their life is physically very different from the last. They begin their life as an egg, the egg hatches, and out comes the caterpillar. The caterpillar has chewing mouthparts that allow it to spend its life eating, and then it pupates, forming a chrysalis (or cocoon for moths.) The butterfly will hatch out of the chrysalis and readily visit gardens to drink nectar with a straw-like proboscis and start the egg laying process all over again. 

Most butterflies need a specific “host plant” on which to lay their eggs and have their hatchling caterpillars eat. Once they are adult butterflies they will feed from completely different plants. The monarch butterfly, however, could live its life exclusively on milkweed plants. The female monarch will soar over fields and gardens on the hunt for milkweed. When she lands on a likely candidate, she can “taste” that she is on the right plant with specialized chemoreceptors on her legs and abdomen. In her lifetime, a female monarch will lay about 500 eggs, but only about one in twenty of these will make it to adulthood. The egg is laid on the underside of the milkweed leaf and will hatch after three to four days. The whole lifecycle is temperature dependent, with warmer temperatures speeding up the process. After hatching, the caterpillar will eat milkweed leaves religiously for another ten to fourteen days. Once nice and plump, the caterpillar morphs into a light green chrysalis where it will stay for another ten to fourteen days. The chrysalis will begin to turn dark, and the pattern of the black and orange monarch wing will show through it once the butterfly is about to emerge. When it emerges, its wings are wet and crumpled. The monarch will pump its wings and blood from its abdomen will fill the veins in its expanding wings. 

Monarch butterflies and caterpillars are toxic to most predators. They acquire their protective toxin from the milkweed plant, which has a milky sap containing cardenolides that are poisonous to most vertebrates.  The bright orange coloration of the monarch is its way of telling possible predators that it is not a good meal. This type of warning coloration is known as aposematic coloration. 

Arguably the most impressive feature of monarchs is the ability to migrate long distances. In the fall monarchs begin their migration southward to Mexico. This journey can take months and thousands of miles. While most monarchs only live for two to five weeks, the migratory population will live for eight or nine months. Once in Mexico, the monarchs will congregate to oyamel fir tree forests in high, mountainous elevations. They will spend the winter in these forests until March, when they begin the journey back north. These monarchs will mate and lay eggs along their journey and ultimately die off. Those eggs will continue their whole life cycle and turn into adult monarchs, called the first generation, and will continue the journey north, laying eggs all the while. This process continues for four generations. The monarchs that first make their way up to New York tend to be the third generation. It is the fourth generation that migrates back down to Mexico, meaning that those monarchs that migrate are the great-great grandchildren of the monarchs who migrated south the year before. It is a true spectacle of nature!

Monarch butterflies are relatively easy to attract to your garden. Planting nectar-producing plants like blazing star (liatris), Joe Pye weed, purple coneflower, New York ironweed, aster, and butterfly bush will attract adult monarchs. The one plant you definitely need to plant, of course, is milkweed. 

In Upstate New York there are three milkweed species you are likely to find: common milkweed, swamp milkweed and butterfly weed. The common milkweed is very often found in fields, along roadsides, and parks. It has large leaves that are great for monarch caterpillars but can spread and get a bit unruly in the garden. Swamp milkweed can often be found in garden centers, especially if they have native plant sections. Its leaves are smaller and thinner but will still provide monarch caterpillars with the nutrition they need. The same goes for butterfly weed, which can also often be found in garden centers. Its bright orange, nectar producing flowers are a great treat for butterflies and it looks beautiful in the landscape. 

The peak dates to see monarchs in our area are in early to mid-September. Monarchs travelling south from Canada are passing through here on their migration southward. Fields of asters and goldenrod are a great place to look. Planting for monarchs can be very rewarding, especially when you get your first visit of the season floating into the garden. These long-distance migrants are not only beautiful, but like many other pollinators, are facing population declines. So consider making your yard more monarch friendly! 

Liz Magnanti is the manager of the Bird House in Pittsford. 

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Attracting birds 101

by cathym on July 4, 2020

by Liz Magnanti

COVID-19 has had a huge impact on people across the globe and locally. People are spending more time at home, and in turn, have developed new home- and yard-based hobbies. This year more than ever, people are working in their gardens and starting backyard birding. The birding trend has really taken off, and in turn, there are a lot of beginners out there! This is the perfect time to review the different things you can do in your yard to attract more birds. Birds, like most other animals, have basic needs to survive and thrive: a source of water, food, shelter, and a place to raise young. By providing a mix of these you’ll be quite surprised at the diversity of birds you are able to attract!

Bath time. Photo courtesy Flickr: Judith Klein

Water is one of the simplest things you can put out to attract more birds. This can be in the form of a birdbath, pond, or moving water feature. Moving water brings in more birds than standing water. They are attracted to the sound and movement it causes. It also helps keep mosquitoes out! If you have a birdbath, I highly suggest adding a solar fountain to it. When the sun hits the solar panel, the water begins spraying upwards, creating a small fountain. Birds will drink from water features and hummingbirds may even fly through the mist that the moving water creates. Birds need water to drink from as well as to clean their feathers. Not all birds will come to a bird feeder or birdhouse, but they all need a source of water. Robins, for example, do not nest in a house and typically do not come to feeders, but they will spend the better part of a day enjoying a dip in a birdbath. Water is also a great way to attract migrating birds like warblers and scarlet tanagers. 

Food is another common way to bring more birds into your yard. Birdfeeders and native berry-producing shrubs are a great way to do just that. If you are adding a birdfeeder to your yard make sure you have at least one that provides black oil sunflower or a black oil sunflower mix. Black oil seed will get you the most diversity of any one type of seed, and the more diversity of foods you add the better. Cardinals, chickadees, finches, grosbeaks, and nuthatches are just some of the birds that will eat sunflower seed. Nyjer, or thistle seed, is great for the bright yellow goldfinches. Adding peanuts to the mix will help to attract blue jays, nuthatches and titmice. Suet cakes are blocks of fat that go in a square cage feeder. Suet will attract woodpeckers like the downy, hairy, red-bellied, and, if you’re lucky a pileated! Oranges and grape jelly are favorites that will attract orioles in the spring, and homemade nectar will bring in hummingbirds. If you are feeling adventurous, mealworms can attract bluebirds and other songbirds, especially once their young have hatched. There are many different species of birds that feeders will bring to the yard!

Birdhouses are a source of shelter and a place to raise young. They come in all shapes and sizes.  The size of the bird house and especially its hole will dictate what kind of birds can use it. The smaller the size of the opening, the more it limits what birds can fit inside. Not all birds will nest in houses, but many do. Bluebirds, nuthatches, chickadees, woodpeckers, wrens, swallows, and even screech owls will nest in houses. Other common backyard birds like cardinals, goldfinches, blue jays, mourning doves, and robins will not nest in houses. Offering nesting material like natural cotton, pet fur, and sewing scraps can sometimes entice them to nest in yards. Stay away from dryer lint, however, as the dust and perfumes may be harmful to birds.  As winter approaches you can put up habitats called roosting boxes and roosting pouches to give birds a place to stay out the snow, wind and cold. 

The more you learn about backyard birding the more you realize how much more there is to learn! There are many tips and tricks you will pick up along the way. The different species of birds coming in and out of backyards varies with the season, which is another exciting part of backyard birding. It is a fun and rewarding hobby to participate in all year long. 

Liz Magnanti is the manager of the Bird House in Pittsford. 

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by Liz Magnanti

Cloudless Sulphur Butterfly Moth on purple coneflower. Photo courtesy Flickr: C Watts

The past couple of months have been a stressful new challenge for all of us. Navigating the new social norms while keeping ourselves and others safe has been at the forefront of most of our lives. While we all navigate through the new normalcy of life, spring is sneaking up on us! Even though life as we knew it for most of us is on pause, nature is showing us that life goes on! Plants are springing up, birds are singing, insects are beginning to fly. One thing is for sure. Spring is here and thriving! 

I think it’s fair to say that this year is unlike any we have ever experienced. We are facing sobering news stories, job losses, working from home, separation from our friends and family, and so much more. At the same time, we are seeing some beautiful acts of kindness that people are showing one another. This new lifestyle has created a different type of busy, but at the same time has slowed life down. I, personally, have found I have more time to take walks in my neighborhood, and enjoy my little patch of land. Each day, I’ve been able to see the little changes that are happening as spring descends. With that has come a renewed appreciation for the diversity of wildlife that I’ve been able to attract to my yard. Making your yard wildlife-friendly doesn’t have to take a lot of effort. With all of us spending more time in our personal patches of nature, now is a great time to take an overall look at the different types of wildlife that can be attracted, and how to do so.

Let’s start with pollinating and beneficial insects. Butterflies, bees, ladybugs, lacewings … there are so many! To attract butterflies, nothing beats planting a butterfly garden. Keep in mind butterflies require nectar-producing plants for their adult stage, but they also need plants for their caterpillar stage to eat and grow. Blooming flowers like beebalm, joe pye weed, phlox, and goldenrod are great for adult, flying, butterflies. Planting a diversity of plants that bloom early spring through late fall are key. Caterpillar plants are a crucial and often overlooked way to attract butterflies. These are the plants that adult butterflies will lay their eggs on. The eggs hatch, and the caterpillars will eat them in order to grow and reach their adult stage. Each butterfly species has different requirements, but a great start is planting milkweed for monarchs, dill and parsley for black swallowtails, and keeping things like nettle and plantain in the garden; those are larval plants for Angle Wing and Sulphur butterflies. Butterfly feeders provide nectar and rotting fruit that can help attract more of them as well. Butterfly puddlers are the best addition besides plants that you can add to your landscape to attract butterflies. These are reservoirs that provide a place to add some mud, sand, pebbles and water. Butterflies will siphon off the water that contains minerals from these elements. Mason bee houses are a super easy way to attract non-stinging, native pollinators to your garden. They are simple houses constructed of small bamboo, wood or paper tunnels. Female bees will lay their eggs inside these tunnels, fill them with nectar and pollen, and then cap them off. The eggs inside will hatch, the larvae will eat the nectar and pollen packets, and then pupate. The pupa stay in the house all winter and then hatch out in early spring to pollinate your garden. Many mason bee habitats are included in “beneficial insect houses” which also contain pinecones for lacewings to lay their eggs and hollowed out holes for ladybugs to hibernate in.

A variety of birds are easy to attract to your yard. They need the same things every other animal needs to thrive, food, water, shelter and a space to raise their young. Birds are probably the most diverse form of life you can attract to your yard, especially during spring migration. Food can be provided with berry- and seed-producing plants or bird feeders. Putting out a bird feeder that holds sunflower seed, or a mix containing sunflower seed, will give you the best diversity of birds per any seed type. If you expand your food offerings to seed blends that provide peanuts, safflower, or shelled sunflower, you will get even more diversity. Nyjer feeders will attract birds like goldfinches and suet feeders will attract woodpeckers. Birds like orioles eat jelly and hummingbirds drink nectar. Water in the form of a birdbath or moving water feature is key. The sight and sound of moving water brings in more birds. If you have a birdbath, consider adding a solar fountain insert. The birds will love it! Bird houses, shrubs, and trees provide a place for shelter and a space they can raise their young. When selecting a bird house, keep in mind most birds like a house that is secure and doesn’t move around. Attaching a bird house to a pole is your best bet to get birds to inhabit a house. 

Bats, despite their recent bad press, are animals that are not only beneficial but also struggling and should be considered when making you yard wildlife friendly. Bats are a great way to safely control insects, especially mosquitoes, without using pesticides. One bat alone can eat 200 insects every hour! When putting up a bat house make sure that they are mounted high, 10 or 15 feet up, and without any obstructions underneath. In our climate its best to paint the bat house black. That will absorb heat, which the bats prefer in a roosting site. Once occupied, the bat house will be a place for bats to spend the spring and summer and will provide entertainment at dusk when they begin to chatter and leave the house to hunt insects. Bats do not carry rabies any more than other wildlife, and they do not get caught up in people’s hair. Those are two misconceptions that often make people wary about encouraging them to a yard, so fear not!

Throughout the next few weeks, or possibly even months, I’m taking it upon myself to take a step back and enjoy the things I sometimes take for granted or don’t always have the time to appreciate. The lovely songs and sights of spring are rolling in fast and furious. I’ll be looking around my yard and considering how I can make it more wildlife-friendly. Not only will the wildlife appreciate it, but it comes with a sense of joy and entertainment that can’t be taught or bought. Wildlife, as well as the rest of us, will prevail. Instead of thinking of the things or opportunities I have lost during this time, I’ve decided to keep track of all the experiences in which I’ve grown and gained. This is an opportunity to get out, enjoy spring, nature and my garden. It’s chicken soup for the soul.

Liz Magnanti is the manager of the Bird House in Pittsford. 

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