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Wildlife in Suburban Gardens, Yes or No?

GMU Student Studying Wildlife in Suburbia

Surburbia is a land of cul de sacs, colonials, split levels, grassy lawns, driveways, sidewalks and a few critters. Or maybe a lot of critters.

Katie Busch is studying which wildlife species use which yards in several Northern Virginia communities for her George Mason University (GMU) master’s degree thesis. She is comparing 40 residential yards, 20 that are certified by the National Wildlife Federation as a wildlife habitat and 20 that are not certified.  She has sites in the Mount Vernon, Alexandria, Arlington, Great Falls, Herndon, Fairfax, Vienna and McLean areas. The targeted properties are between one-quarter and one acre in size.

Throughout October and November, Busch is installing cameras a foot or so above the ground and capturing images of mammals that pass by the cameras.  The camouflage tones of the cameras’ casing help them blend in with surrounding vegetation and trees. With infrared night vision, the cameras can snap pictures during the day and night. She is also trapping small animals like moles, voles and mice and releasing them once she has recorded them.

Busch checks her traps at dawn and dusk. She has already trapped flying squirrels, chipmunks, jumping and deer mice, shrews and a house mouse. She expects her cameras will also photograph deer, red and gray foxes, red and gray squirrels, raccoons, opossums, cottontail rabbits and maybe coyotes.

Mount Vernonite Amy O’Donnell volunteered her yard. “My hope is to make people aware of things like the decline in bees and to encourage them to plant something other than fescue, as clover is essential to bees’ survival. Bees are essential to pollinating our crop plants,” she said recently. “I hope more people will stop using lawn chemicals that kill every insect, including butterflies, ants and bees that are vital to the survival of plants and birds, and become runoff into the Potomac.”

Under the NWF program, people volunteer their property to become an official Certified Wildlife Habitat, create a garden to attract wildlife and help restore habitat. Generally, a wildlife-friendly garden must provide food, water and cover for wildlife and give wildlife a place to raise their young. NWF encourages property owners to plant native plants that, for example, provide seeds, berries, nectar or pollen for wildlife.

Grassy lawns provide little value for wildlife, NWF contends, and turf areas require herbicides, fertilizers and mowing by gasoline-powered machines that pollute the air. Native plants make for a healthier environment and are “important to native wildlife, such as pollinators, that may have co-evolved with a particular species,” says NWF’s website.

Busch, a graduate student in GMU’s Department of Environmental Science and Policy, hopes to complete her thesis in the spring of 2013.

Why did she choose this subject? “This project is important because it
could help clarify if creating wildlife-friendly urban habitats impacts the use
of the areas by mammals and could affect how communities and homeowners' associations set up their property regulations,” says Busch. “While common sense may indicate the answer to this question for many people, this study may help to provide the evidence that organizations often require to make regulation changes.”

For information on NWF’s backyard wildlife habitat program, visit http://www.nwf.org/get-outside/outdoor-activities/garden-for-wildlife.aspx. For the similar National Audubon Society program, visit http://athome.audubon.org/healthy-yards.

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