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Wild Ones Book Reviews
From the Wild Ones Journal

Birdscaping in the Midwest

Book by Mariette Nowak. Review by Peter H. Raven.

Editor’s Note: Most of the examples of plantings in this book are from yards of Wild Ones members, so it would be fair to say that this is a book about landscaping ideas encouraged by Wild Ones. I would go a step further, and call this a very well-illustrated “textbook” for Wild Ones in the Midwest. Good work, Mariette!

Mariette NowakEarth, as far as we know, is the only place in the universe with birds, plants, and a great array of other species, including us humans. Yet many of the organisms around us – and not just the tigers of the world – are facing extinction. With the destruction of habitats, the spread of invasive species, the selective gathering of plants and animals in nature for food and medicine, and global climate change, it is likely that a majority of all the kinds of plants and animals in the world will become extinct during the course of this century. This book, with its emphasis on habitat restoration, shows how individuals, in their own yards, and on their own properties, large or small, can begin the important steps t toward reversing the destruction.

I firmly believe that individuals can and must play an essential role in preventing the loss of species. Like it or not, we’re in the position of Noah just before the flood, looking at ongoing and worsening rates of extinction, and realizing that we alone are responsible for saving as many creatures as we can. And these creatures must be kept alive and well in many places to ensure their survival in an unpredictable world, where small, isolated populations can so easily be wiped out and lost forever. Unless we do so in our gardens, parks, and other urban and suburban spaces, the level of extinction will be much greater – nature cannot be preserved in protected areas alone. And it is mainly in our gardens, city parks, and other such spaces that children will come into contact with nature, another deeply significant contribution to the future.

Gardeners can play a vital role by restoring and preserving many small patches of native communities with their associated plants, birds, and other wildlife. As gardeners everywhere take up this enterprise, the various species will indeed have multiple chances for survival in many yards and neighborhoods and rural back forties. Ideally, these patches will, in time, become enlarged into corridors and broader expanses of native plant and animal communities interwoven within the fabric of human affairs. And the native species of every neighborhood and community will survive and thrive.

In Birdscaping in the Midwest, Mariette Nowak takes the reader step by step along the path toward habitat restoration. While the focus is on bird habitat, other animals and plants will benefit from these restorations. Indeed, birds are considered barometers of the health of an ecosystem, and as birds increase or decrease, so also do all other species within that ecosystem.

In part 1, Nowak describes the complexities of coevolutionary relationships between birds and native plants. She defines the particular geography of a plant implied in the descriptive term “native,” and explains the indispensable role that native plants play in providing habitat and resources for birds and animals. The threat posed by invasive exotic plants, especially as they affect birds, is appropriately highlighted.

In part 2, the stories behind natural habitat gardens in eight Midwestern states are presented – gardens created on small city lots, in suburban subdivisions and on old farm fields. The gardeners share their motivations and methods, their challenges and rewards.

The rest of the book provides in-depth coverage of the nuts and bolts of habitat restoration. Part 3 outlines the basics of habitat restoration, with practical hands-on information on planning, design, site preparation, planting, and seeding.

Part 4 sets this book apart from other treatments of landscaping for birds, with its specific plans and instructions for creating nine different habitat gardens for birds – the hummingbird garden, prairie bird garden, bluebird savanna garden, woodland bird garden, wetland bird garden, migratory bird garden, shrub land bird garden, winter bird garden, and water bird garden. While hummingbird gardens have long been popular, little has been written of the creation of these other distinctive and important
bird habitats.

Part 5 provides details of the physical characteristics and cultivation of recommended plant species, along with their native ranges in the Midwestern states. No other book on landscaping for birds provides as extensive coverage of the native plants of the Midwest.

Part 6 covers the maintenance of a habitat garden and its enhancement with feeders and birdhouses. Nowak also gives abundant practical advice on the problems gardeners may encounter, from plant-devouring deer and predatory cats to window collisions and bird diseases.

Many sources of further information are provided – books, pamphlets, web sites, organizations, and native-plant nurseries and consultants – all of which will be invaluable for readers.

Throughout the book, Nowak uses case histories and personal stories to illustrate her themes. And in the conclusion, she describes how the gardeners featured earlier have gone beyond their own garden gates to work for the protection and restoration of habitat on a larger scale in their neighborhoods and communities.

As I have often pointed out, ordinary people in the United States must think carefully about their own surroundings and how to preserve the biodiversity that occurs around them. The world that results will be a patchwork with bright spots, richer places, and more beautiful areas. And that will happen because
individuals took responsibility and acted.

We have relatively short lives, and yet by preserving the world in a condition that is worthy of us, we win a kind of immortality. We become stewards of the Earth, and our work lives on, generation after generation.

This readable and richly detailed book will serve as an indispensable reference for Midwestern gardeners wishing to leave such a legacy. Unlike books that are national in scope, this one presents valuable information specific to the Midwest. Every region of our country needs its own guide of this kind.

Peter H. Raven is a world-famous botanist, and President of the Missouri Botanical Gardens in St. Louis, Missouri.

September/October 2007Wild Ones Journal.

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