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Ask the Expert: Edwina von Gal, on How to Help the Birds

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Ask the Expert: Edwina von Gal, on How to Help the Birds

November 9, 2022

Every May, I thrill to the arrival of bobolinks singing out as they settle into a grassy neighborhood meadow. With their black-and-white wardrobe and jaunty blond caps, they instantly transform winter into spring. The bad news is that bobolinks are on the decline, according to the 2022 State of the Birds report from the North American Bird Conservation Initiative, along with more than half of bird species in the United States. But the good news is that we can do something about it.

“We are the solution,” writes landscape designer and founder of The Perfect Earth Project Edwina von Gal. “Our residential, ornamental, and recreational landscapes can provide sufficient habitat to restore the bird population.” And as the report indicates, if we help them, we’ll also be improving the earth’s biodiversity, contributing to environmental justice, and increasing climate resilience. In our second conversation with von Gal, she talks about Perfect Earth Project’s initiative Two-thirds for the Birds and the simple steps we can do at home to help. You’ll be glad you did, once you spy an indigo bunting swoping among your shrubs or catch the blaze of a scarlet tanager in the treetops.

“Hope” Emily Dickinson writes, “is the thing with feathers.”

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Bobolinks are among a group of 70 “tipping point” birds that have lost more two-thirds of their population over the last half-century and are on track to lose 50 percent more in the next 50 years if we don’t do anything to stop it, according to the \20\2\2 State of the Bird report. The Perfect Earth Project’s initiative Two-thirds for the Birds shows us how we can help. Photograph by Bruno Navasky.
Above: Bobolinks are among a group of 70 “tipping point” birds that have lost more two-thirds of their population over the last half-century and are on track to lose 50 percent more in the next 50 years if we don’t do anything to stop it, according to the 2022 State of the Bird report. The Perfect Earth Project’s initiative Two-thirds for the Birds shows us how we can help. Photograph by Bruno Navasky.

Q: What is 2/3 for the Birds?

It was an outreach idea I had after reading about the bird decline. I thought this would be great way to teach people about habitat because the two major causes for bird decline are loss of habitat and pesticide use. Around the same time, Doug Tallamy had sent me the manuscript for Nature’s Best Hope, which contained the science. If you plant 70 percent native plants, you are doing enough. I thought, this is perfect. I rounded it to two-thirds because it rhymes with birds. I can talk a lot about the loss of our native plants and our need for them, but I’m not going to get nearly as much of a response as if I tell people the birds they love at their feeders are in serious decline. We’re asking people to make a simple commitment: for every three plants you buy, make sure two are native, and say no to pesticides.

An American Goldfinch stops to drink some water in Edwina von Gal’s garden on Eastern Long Island. It’s surrounded by pale pink Monarda fistulosa, bright orange cosmos, purple spires of Anise Hyssop (Agastache foeniculum), Calamagrostis brachytricha grass, and mauve globes of Allium ‘Millenium’. Photograph by Edwina von Gal.
Above: An American Goldfinch stops to drink some water in Edwina von Gal’s garden on Eastern Long Island. It’s surrounded by pale pink Monarda fistulosa, bright orange cosmos, purple spires of Anise Hyssop (Agastache foeniculum), Calamagrostis brachytricha grass, and mauve globes of Allium ‘Millenium’. Photograph by Edwina von Gal.

Q: How do you get started in your yard?

Don’t look back. It doesn’t matter what’s on your property right now, unless it’s invasive. Get to know what plants are invasive and try to get rid of them. [See below for tips.] Instead, look forward. When you are out in the nursery or ordering plants, choose two that are native out of every three that you’re planning to buy. You’re soon going to see a difference.

Q: What if I don’t think I have space for more plants?

Take a look at your property. See that part of your lawn that you haven’t walked on other than to mow it? What if you stopped mowing it and started putting in some native shrubs there instead? Little by little, you’ll find spaces to tuck in more plants. Shrubs are the easiest because they need little to no care. Plants are designed to be food for insects, birds, and other creatures, so when an insect is eating a leaf of your plant, that’s cause for joy. It is definitely not a reason to bring out pesticides. Once leaves feed the tree, they’ll feed the rest of the food web.

Above: The white-eyed vireo flits among shrubs, gobbling up insects like caterpillars, flies, and spiders. When they’re not breeding, they’ll eat the fruit from sumac, wax myrtle, and dogwood trees. Since 1970, the US and Canada have lost three billion birds, or one in four birds, but we can be part of the solution. Photograph by Eric Ozawa,

Q: What are some of your favorite native shrubs and trees?

My all-time favorite is the native elderberry. Good old elderberry, but it’s been pretty much wiped out by deer in the wild. If your garden is protected from deer, I would strongly recommend you plant it. I also love American dogwood trees.

These days, as the planet grows warmer, our birds and insects from the south start moving north. I’m looking at assisted migration plants from the south to respond to our changing climate. There’s a shrub called Illicium floridanum (common name purple anise) I adore. It’s everything you want: it’s evergreen, doesn’t need full sun, the deer don’t eat it, and it has a really strange flower and fruit. Oxydendrum arboretum is another southern tree I love.

In terms of what’s local to me on Eastern Long Island in New York, the native Leucothoe is one of the world’s great shrubs. It’s also evergreen and deer-proof. The large variety L. fontanesiana is extremely slow-growing, but it is so worth it. It matures into the most beautiful plant. Right now, the American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) is flaunting fun purple berries. Be careful not to get the Japanese variety (C. japonica), which will spread all over your garden in a blink of an eye.

Above: A monarch sips nectar from native goldenrod during its migration south. Goldenrods provide a feast for pollinators, hosting more than 180 species of caterpillars which feed birds and fall migrants, according to Doug Tallamy in Nature’s Best Hope. Birds, like American goldfinches, grosbeaks, and Black-capped chickadees, also snack on their seeds. Photograph by Melissa Ozawa,

Q: What to do about invasives on your property?

Learn to identify them. Your cooperative extension can help you figure out what’s invasive in your area. They’re also tracking plants that are starting to escape into the wild so it’s good to be in touch. We, at Perfect Earth Project, are working on different ways to combat invasives without chemicals. For example, I recently got rid of a huge patch of common mugwort on my property by smothering it. We covered the area with super heavy, thick mulch: two to three layers of cardboard, plus a good six inches of woodchips we made from downed trees. We then watered it from time to time to make it really cook. I started by covering it in the fall, left it through the following year, so it was a total of one summer and two winters before we planted during the following spring. We removed a few of inches of woodchips, which we’ll reuse for the next patch, and planted raspberries right through cardboard. The raspberries are thriving. I don’t believe in using yards and yards of plastic to suffocate plants. Just save your cardboard boxes and old newspapers.

Japanese stiltgrass, on the other hand, succumbs well to competition. In many cases where stiltgrass has taken over, it is because deer have eaten the competition, or the competition has been somehow weakened. Mow down the stiltgrass in the summer before it sets seed. Then figure out what you can grow that the deer won’t eat that can out-compete it. It’ a challenge. In the northeast, deer-tongue grass (Panicum clandestinum syn. Dichanthelium clandestinum) is a good candidate. It is native, amazing for shade, and also great for erosion control, but it is super aggressive; you might be pulling it out of your other beds.

We are testing several different smothering practices to see what works best for what, and will eventually post our results. But we’d love to hear from gardeners. How have you successfully gotten rid of invasives without chemicals? Please email us at [email protected]

Above: At a garden in Montauk, von Gal planted a host of black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta), among pale pink Monarda fistulosa and Panicum virgatum grass. Rudbeckia attracts waxwings, warblers, and vireos. Photograph by Edwina von Gal.

Q: What are good native plant sources?

Talk with your local nursery. Even if you know before you walk in the door that the nursery doesn’t sell any, ask anyway and keep asking. That’s what’s going to lead to changes. Right now, many sources, like New Moon Nursery, are wholesale only. Homeowners can talk with their landscape designer about ordering from them. For retail mail order, I love Izel Native Plants. It’s a great resource. They grow their own stock, as well as gather plants from native specialty growers. You can also find plant recommendations for your area at Audubon Society’s Native Plant Database, Xerces Society Pollinator Plant Lists, and Pollinator Pathway in the northeast.

Also check out native plant gardens like Theodore Payne Foundation, Mt. Cuba Center, Native Plant Trust, Lady Byrd Johnson Wildflower Center, and Penn State’s new Pollinator and Bird Garden that Claudia West worked on.

Above: A Yellow-throated Warbler perches on a pine bough. This insect-loving bird makes it home in pine forests, woodlands near streambeds, and bald cypress swamps. It weaves its nest with grasses, bark strips, and Spanish moss. Photograph by Eric Ozawa.

Q: How do you know if your nursery is using herbicides and pesticides, like the systemic neonicotinoids that are absorbed into the plant’s tissues including nectar and pollen and are harmful to all insects?

Ask, ask, and then ask again. And keep asking until they can tell you. If they don’t know
but are willing to divulge their plant sources, you could contact the source directly to find
out. If they are using them, demand they stop, and shame them until they do.

Above: In von Gal’s garden, she hung a clay cavity bird house, which is often inhabited by wrens, in a bed of New York asters and mammoth sunflower that will provide seeds for hungry birds. Photograph by Edwina von Gal.

Q: How do you respond to people who say how can one person make a difference?

It all makes a difference, no matter the size of your plot. If you plant your small yard with natives, which is near another small garden planted with them, and is adjacent to another one, then you’ve created a mosaic of biodiversity. It is important that the larger areas exist too, but it’s equally important to have small ones weaving their way through our urban and suburban areas. Even if you have just one pot outside on your windowsill that is not full of chemicals and provides a moment for a bug to take a rest and get a sip, then you’re doing something.

Above: A mix of native Panicum and Bluestem grasses glow in the winter light in von Gal’s meadow that’s also planted with black cherry trees (Prunus serotina). The meadow is a welcoming habitat for songbirds and other wildlife. Photograph by Edwina von Gal.

Q: What’s the goal for 2/3 for the birds?

My goal is to become what I call an “eco-tinder,” to hook up likeminded gardeners, landscapers, and designers to become an amazing community of people sharing resources. And hopefully soon we’ll all be spending less time pruning, weeding, and suppressing stuff, and more time sitting there admiring the beauty and counting how many different types of bees we see. Sign up on 234birds.org.

For part 1 of our interview with Edwina von Gal, see Ask the Expert: Edwina von Gal, on How to Have a Healthy, Toxic-Free Lawn.

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