By: Zach Steinhauser
It seems as if all you hear about in the news today is one environmental crisis after another. That gets pretty old pretty quick, however the gravity behind each one of those issues is very real. A lot of people grow apathetic because these crises occur halfway across the planet & don’t directly affect their daily lives, so why should they care? Even worse, there are more people who don’t even know about these issues because they tuned out a long time ago. Some people tune in for the sake of entertainment by turning on their television & watching a nature series on Netflix, but that’s about it. There are people & organizations out there that will even shame & condemn you for not knowing anything about the world’s environmental problems. This post will not do that. I hear comments from people every day not involved in the environmental field about how they care about these issues, they just don’t know what to do or where to start. For any readers who can relate, let’s get started.
I work as a Retail Naturalist at a garden center in South Carolina doing environmental education about backyard wildlife. Not the most glamorous environmental job. Trust me, I’d rather be a biologist in Africa shooting tranquilizer darts from helicopters at large game under study. However, what I enjoy about my job is that I have a platform that allows me to work directly with home & landowners who want to attract different wildlife species to their property. I basically “commercialize conservation” via sales of wildlife products (birdfeeders, seed, houses, etc.) & native plants, as well as offering experiences like bird walks & eco-tours to allow people to potentially have their first connection with mother nature.
A lot of my work revolves around birds & pollinators. People want to see birds like a Cardinal come to their feeders which is great. Then I show them a picture of their really cool looking cousin, the Summer Tanager who doesn’t like feeders. I tell them to plant native Serviceberry Trees & Elderberry shrubs that produce the fruits they like to eat, and then these birds suddenly start showing up in their backyard. When the Monarch Butterfly migration occurs, my customers want to plant milkweeds from SC in their yards, which is the only plant Monarchs will lay their eggs on. They do this to aid butterflies on their migration to & from Mexico every Spring & Fall. You see the native plant restoration going on here? While suburban yards can’t entirely restore habitats to their former glory, they can become a new category of habitat that still allows wildlife to thrive. What we don’t realize is that there are a handful of species that can be found in our backyard that are in quite a bit of trouble. There are some bird species that are nearly entirely dependent on manmade structures to nest & raise the next generation like Purple Martins & Chimney Swifts. There are a plethora of ways people can conserve wildlife from the luxury of their own homes. Installing a “Frog Pond” for amphibians, putting up nest boxes for cavity-nesting birds, designating a “Native Plant Bed” or scattering native plants around all of your flower beds for Pollinators, leaving dead trees standing at safe heights for birds, insects, lizards, bats, etc., the list goes on & on. All that being said, your yards can still be manicured to look civilized but be wild at the same time.
One of the biggest conservation victories I see is when a customer comes to me & tells me they had caterpillars on their Milkweed this year or when they had all their Bluebird babies fledge this year. I appreciate the fact that they’re aiding wildlife around their homes now, but the fact that there’s now a connection these people have to nature will make tremendous waves farther down the road. Now that they care about one species, they may see they want to help conserve another species they could see in their yards. Hoping they’re like me, I experiment with every kind of “backyard wildlife species” around my home trying to see what I can do to create habitat for them. The sky is the limit. While we need research & political action in many cases, the thing we need most right now are people who want to have that connection to nature & the knowledge about what they can do in their daily life. The point I try to emphasize with my customers is that Conservation doesn’t have to be across the world or in a true wilderness setting. It can be as simple as putting up a birdhouse or planting a native plant in your garden. Give it a try & I assure you, you will be astounded at what you find around the house.
All pictures taken by Zach Steinhauser.