In the Garden:
Middle South
June, 2006
Regional Report

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2153

''Huh, just last summer I fit into this 4-pack.''

Bluebirds and Brown Bats and Toads, Oh My!

I saw my first Japanese beetle yesterday, which means that hordes of these and other plant-eating insects won't be far behind. What's a gardener to do? There are all sorts of insecticide sprays available, but if you shy away from applying too many pesticides, as I do, then you'll need to take a multifaceted approach to managing these garden pests. One often overlooked option is to call in the reinforcements by inviting insect-eating wildlife into your landscape.

Toads
Lumpy and lethargic as they are, toads catch and consume a remarkable number of insects and slugs. The amphibious version of man's best friend, toads are (according to an article in Mother Earth News) the most intelligent of the amphibians. They can be taught to come when called and will show up on time if you begin a regular feeding schedule. They eat only moving prey, so you need to place your treats on the end of a twig and wave it in front of them. (They're not that smart, I guess.)

We are blessed with an extraordinary population of toads at our house. (Well, it seems extraordinary.) My yard is filled with the habitat they love -- lots of moist, shady spots and loose bark mulch so they can burrow. We also are near a stream where toads can lay their eggs.

They nestle into the moist potting soil of my transplants every evening. They also, oddly enough, hop around on our porch at night, often stopping in front of our glass doors and -- I swear this is true -- looking in. This can be a little unnerving, frankly. I tell myself that they are drawn to the light because their potential insect meals gather there too, and that they aren't really peeping toads. "Toads are good," I remind myself.

Birds
Insects are an important component of many birds' diets, so our feathered friends are natural allies in the garden. According to the National Wildlife Federation, purple martins, vireos, sparrows, woodpeckers, warblers, bluebirds, nighthawks, phoebes, wrens, cardinals, chickadees, and orioles all include insects in their diets and/or feed them to their young.

How can you entice these birds to call your yard home? General guidelines include providing a variety of vegetation, including trees and shrubs, to provide both cover and food. Many birds eat fruit, pollen, and nectar in addition to insects, so providing an enticing habitat is as important, if not more so, than setting out nesting boxes or feeders.

Also, different birds nest in different ways. For example, some nest in cavities, others on a flat surface. Some will only build nests in deciduous trees. Woodpeckers excavate dead trees to make room for their nests. So provide lots of opportunities for nest-building in your landscape. A source of water is also a magnet for birds thirsty after a bug-filled meal. And remember that any insecticide you spray on your plants will likely end up in birds' bellies, so use sprays judiciously, if at all.

Insects and Spiders
I just learned that this is National Insect Week in the UK, so it only seems fair to look at our insect allies as well as the foes. In addition to the familiar and photogenic ladybug (or lady beetle or ladybird beetle), lacewings and some species of ground beetles, hoverflies, wasps, and centipedes aid gardeners by consuming a variety of insect pests. In fact, there are many more beneficial or benign insects than pest ones, so it pays to get a good insect identification guide so you'll know which is which.

Add plants that attract beneficial insects to lure them into your landscape: members of the aster family, which also includes daisies, calendula, cosmos, and zinnias; and members of the carrot family, such as dill, lovage, parsely, anise, and fennel. (Allow the herbs to produce flowers to attract the beneficials.) And always, always identify an insect before smashing, squashing, spraying, or otherwise sending it to the hereafter.

Bats
According to the Natural Resources Conservation Service, there are no species of vampire bats in the U.S. or Canada. And a single little brown bat can catch more than 1,200 mosquito-sized insects in one hour. So, friend or foe? Friend, most assuredly. The loss of natural places to roost -- such as cavities in trees and caves -- has led to these mammals seeking shelter in attics. To encourage these beneficial flying mammals to inhabit your yard but not your house, provide alternative roosting areas in the form of bat houses. The Bat Conservation International Web site (www.batcon.org) has bat house plans and lots of other info on these fascinating insectivores.

Oh, and as a person with a headful of unruly hair, I must add that it's a myth that bats are prone to getting caught in people's hair. Foraging bats may swoop low over your head, but they're looking for insects, not a human roost. And their erratic flight isn't due to intoxication, but rather to the agile pursuit of their quarry. They won't bump into your head by accident. That being said, a recent fashion magazine has announced that ponytails are back in vogue, so even though I know better than to worry, I'll still take pains to be fashionably coiffed if I go bat-watching.


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