Latest Issue of Science News

4/18 Cover

Wild Things

The weird and wonderful in the natural world

Sarah Zielinski

Wild Things

Wild Things

Before you plant this spring, consider the birds


Cardinals were one of the most common species found in urban Chicago backyards. But the types of plants grown affected which birds made their homes there.

Sponsor Message

Cities are brimming with wildlife. There are coyotes, bats, insects and, of course, birds, to name a few. Of those groups, the birds are probably the ones that most people care about, and the species that we most want to encourage to make homes in our yards. But how much do our backyards really matter? Quite a bit, a recent study finds, even in the big city. And what you decide to plant can affect which and how many species live near your house.

J. Amy Belaire and colleagues at the University of Illinois at Chicago conducted surveys in residential neighborhoods of the city that bordered forest preserves along the Chicago and DesPlaines rivers. Belaire walked transects through the neighborhoods, walking away from the preserves and stopping every 100 meters to spot birds and listen for their songs. The team tallied up 36 different species — 20 migratory, 12 year-round native and four nonnative species. Most common were Northern cardinals, American robins, American goldfinch and house sparrows, Belaire and her colleagues reported in the December Ecological Applications.

The researchers also surveyed the people in those neighborhoods to determine what kinds of resources were available to the birds in their yards. That included types of trees and shrubs, whether there were plants with fruit or berries and the presence of birdfeeders and birdhouses. The team also asked about the use of insecticides and if homes had cats or dogs that were allowed outside. Then they matched up that survey data with the bird data to see which factors affected species diversity and numbers of birds.

Trees were very important. Their presence supported lots of native and migratory bird species, and yards that had a mix of deciduous and evergreen trees were the best. Native birds also did well when yards had plants with fruits and berries. But when cats or dogs were allowed outside, native bird species tended to avoid those areas and nonnative birds moved in. Birdfeeders and birdhouses, though, made surprisingly little difference.

“Our results suggest that urban conservation agendas would benefit from ‘thinking outside the park’ and highlighting to residents the positive collective effects of minor yard enhancements,” the researchers write. They suggest “planting fruiting shrubs or trees, increasing presence of evergreen trees and restricting outdoor activities of both cats and dogs, all of which could be promoted by homeowners associations, municipal incentive programs and conservation groups communicating with residents.”

The National Wildlife Federation has recommendations for creating a bird-friendly habitat, such as installing plants native to your area and keeping dead trees in your yard. If you’re willing to work with your neighbors, think about banding together to become an NWF Certified Community Wildlife Habitat. The program raises the profile of green communities and can help improve your neighborhood’s health and water and air quality, as well as provide more space for wildlife.

And by registering your backyard with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology YardMap project, you can help scientists collect information on how green spaces affect birds. With data from yards, parks and other green spaces across the country, researchers will be able to figure out which planting and other practices benefit birds the most and tell us how we can best help our avian friends.

Animals,, Biophysics

How a young praying mantis makes a precision leap

By Sarah Zielinski 2:56pm, March 6, 2015
Videos of juvenile praying mantises flying through the air reveal how the insects manage to always make a perfect landing.
Animals,, Climate

Insects may undermine trees’ ability to store carbon

By Sarah Zielinski 11:08am, March 4, 2015
Insects eat more leaves on trees grown in carbon dioxide-rich environments than those grown without the extra CO2. That may undermine forests as carbon sinks in the future.

Delicate spider takes down tough prey by attacking weak spots

By Sarah Zielinski 3:05pm, February 27, 2015
The Loxosceles gaucho recluse spider can take down a heavily armored harvestman by attacking its weak spots, a new study reveals.

Where an ant goes when it's gotta go

By Sarah Zielinski 12:17pm, February 24, 2015
Scientists found black garden ants defecating in certain spots inside their nests. The researchers say these spots serve as ant toilets.

Five surprising animals that play

By Sarah Zielinski 2:33pm, February 20, 2015
No one is shocked to find playful behavior in a cat, dog or other mammal. But scientists have documented play in plenty of other species, including reptiles and insects.

Cliff swallow breeding thwarted by bird version of bedbugs

By Sarah Zielinski 12:15pm, February 18, 2015
A 30-year study of cliff swallows in Nebraska finds that the birds will abandon nests, rather than have a second brood, when their homes are infested with swallow bugs.

Fertile hermit crabs turn shy

By Sarah Zielinski 11:00am, February 13, 2015
Male hermit crabs that aren’t carrying much sperm are bolder than their more fertile brethren, a new study finds.
Animals,, Ecology,, Conservation

Cats and foxes are driving Australia’s mammals extinct

By Sarah Zielinski 11:56am, February 11, 2015
Since the arrival of Europeans in Australia, a startling number of mammal species have disappeared. A new study puts much of the blame on introduced cats and foxes.
Animals,, Biophysics,, Evolution

Toads prefer to bound, not hop

By Sarah Zielinski 2:30pm, February 6, 2015
The multiple hops made by toads are really a bounding motion similar to movements made by small mammals.

Huge, hollow baobab trees are actually multiple fused stems

By Sarah Zielinski 11:54am, February 4, 2015
The trunk of an African baobab tree can grow to be many meters in diameter but hollow inside. The shape, researchers say, occurs when several stems fuse together.
Subscribe to RSS - Wild Things