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'Plant natives' to restore, support wildlife habitat

My friend Cynthia Sarthou, director of the Gulf Restoration Network, is trying to protect hundreds of miles of critical habitat from the BP oil disaster. "We coped with Katrina," says Sarthou, "and we will cope with this." But we all fear for the long-term consequences as the fine food chains supported by coastal wetlands are smothered in oil.

In truth, North America's birds and other wildlife have been under siege for decades from the "controlled" spread of oil. Our oil-based economy has facilitated the paving over of wildlife habitat with car habitat-sprawling development, roads, malls and parking lots. While population in Erie and Niagara counties has stayed roughly the same over the past three decades, for example, the amount of urbanized land has tripled. This ever larger human footprint is based on oil, down to the fertilizer and pesticide-dependent lawns and ornamental shrubs and flowers we plant to create the illusion that the natural world is still functioning amidst the asphalt and traffic.

So what can we do? We can begin reducing the oil footprint on our own patch of land, no matter how small, by taking our stewardship to another level. We can approach gardening as something greater than simply pleasing ourselves with color and texture. We can study our local natural plant communities and begin mindfully putting back pieces of the food web for local and migratory bird and wildlife species.

On this year's spring bird count, I saw warblers, orioles, tanagers and flycatchers dining on plumes of pollinating insects rising from the native maples, oaks, viburnums and dogwoods that flowered just in time for their arrival. The plants in turn rely on these insects and birds to reproduce and distribute their seed across the landscape.

Native plants support significantly more native species than do non-native ornamentals and they are often more pest-resistant. They are generally better adapted to local conditions, reducing the need for fertilizers, pesticides and mowing.

Planting native is not necessarily easy. It requires effort not to fill that void in the yard by simply driving to the garden center for the industrially produced (cloned, chemically treated, genetically enhanced) eye candy designed to keep us driving back for more. It's best to start small, as it's surprisingly difficult to find native plants, though most nurseries (as opposed to garden centers) are likely to find a few "in the back" if we ask for them. Plants should not be collected from the wild, but propagated from regionally collected wild seeds or cuttings, which is something many gardeners do already to share favorite plants. Propagation from wild seed maintains genetic diversity.

The take-home here is simple: If we're interested in supporting healthy wildlife communities, it is increasingly up to all of us to restore habitat on our own patch of the quilt. Plant natives.

Margaret Wooster of Buffalo is the author of "Living Waters: Reading the Rivers of the Lower Great Lakes."

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