I met Steve Cary on August 19. It happened like this. I had decided to check out the Randall Davey Audubon Center in Santa Fe to see if perhaps the staff might be involved in native plant gardens for birds and pollinators, the project I’m writing about for Audubon on the road.
We’ve read Bringing Nature Home by Doug Tallamy and we’re inspired by his empowering message. Every one of us can play a tangible role saving wildlife by planting native species, whether in a window box or filling a yard.
To read Tallamy reminds me of what it must have felt like to read Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962.
I am reverent about Rachel Carson whose message changed the world. We banned DDT because she stepped up and confronted big corporations and she won over the American people too.
The bald eagle returned and so did the peregrine falcon, the osprey and the brown pelican too, and many more bird species, once the DDT toxin left the ecosystem, no longer causing thinning of eggshells.
Then, like Rachel Carson who offered a solution, he proposes a pathway with a clear destination. We can change the staggering statistic of 40+ million acres of lawns that are deserts for wildlife.
What about cutting that in half? We can change the planting of exotic (non-native) plants that offer little for the birds we love. How? Plant native species that host wildlife.
Here’s a Tallamy fact to ponder. A native oak tree supports 557 species of moths and caterpillars and a non-native gingko tree only 3! Steve tells me that while Tallamy’s oak research is from the east, it turns out native oaks everywhere are powerfully rich for insects that in turn support songbirds. In New Mexico, the oak is the Gambel’s oak.
Steve knows New Mexico butterflies. He gives talks, leads walks, and guides students on educational activities to help them personally experience the complex habitats of butterflies.
Before meeting Steve, I visited a splendid native plant garden at the center that since 2002 has continued to grow, flourish and deliver life to birds and butterflies alike. The Santa Fe Master Gardeners have taken on the project with zeal. In addition to watching black-chinned hummingbirds and lesser goldfinches, I was treated to a white-lined sphinx moth that mimics a hummingbird.
Since reading Tallamy’s book, Steve has become a spokesman in Santa Fe for what it takes to keep butterflies in our lives, and birds too. Native plants are the key. That’s step one.
Step two? Steve has compiled all the host plants for caterpillars that will metamorphose into butterflies in New Mexico.
His message to people is this:
If you want to attract butterflies to your yard, go beyond the flowers they sip, and focus on the plants that support the caterpillars.
While butterflies can enjoy nectar from many flowers, the caterpillars have evolved to overcome the toxicity of plants that seek to prevent insects from chewing their leaves. The caterpillars can chew only certain plants successfully. Their choices are limited. To support the butterflies, then plant the caterpillar host plants.
Steve says his talks are going over well. People are excited. They want to participate and get started right away. The crossover to birds is an easy one. Birds need caterpillars —lots of them, to feed their nestlings and give them the ultimate dose of protein. When caterpillars thrive on native host plants, birds do too.
Another Tallamy fact to chew on: It takes from 390 to 570 caterpillars per day to feed four to six Carolina chickadee nestlings!
Together, Steve and I sizzled with ideas, with passion, with making a difference there at the picnic table outside the adobe historic home that is part of the Audubon Center. Then Steve showed me the pollinator garden.
Here, boy scouts and students from local schools have crafted bee homes —-blocks of wood with holes for nesting solitary native bees.
They’ve planted pollinator plants like New Mexico wild sunflowers, blanketflowers, bee balm and penstemen.
We stepped into the garden and the first insects we saw were wasps. They seemed so slim, so deadly with their stingers. Yet, they reminded us of the importance of predators to keep the prey in check. Then, we gazed like voyeurs at a pair of soldier beetles copulating on a leaf. In the heat of the day, the small garden pulsed with insects.
Meeting Steve felt like I’d met more than a fellow believer. He, like Rachel Carson, is embracing a journey that takes fortitude, commitment, and wonder. While big issues like climate change seem insurmountable, we can take simple steps today in our own yards, parks, boulevards, churches or vacant lots. I might not have yard right now as the traveling gypsy, but I can at least share with you what I’m finding.
Plant native species. It’s that simple.