Celebrate Earth Day, Every DayMar 29, 2022 04:21PM ● By Doug Tallamy
Recently, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) reported that since 1970, Planet Earth has lost two-thirds of its wildlife. This jaw-dropping news joins a litany of other recent reports about our steady march toward the sixth great extinction event on our home, Planet Earth: from the global decline of insects to the loss of 3 billion North American birds in the last 50 years to the failure of the 150-nation global biodiversity initiative to meet any of its 10-year goals, and finally to the United Nations prediction that 1 million species will go extinct in the next 20 years. You could hardly be blamed for concluding that the demise of our fellow Earthlings is inevitable. But to that I exclaim, “Not in my yard!!”
Mention “wildlife”, and most people conjure up images of charismatic megafauna like lions and tigers and bears (oh my!); camels, rhinos and eagles; wolverines, jaguars, and Burmese pythons. Yet wildlife is far more than the few large mammal species that adorned our childhood picture books. The vast majority of Earth’s animal species are insects and other invertebrates, as well as the insectivores, like birds, salamanders, foxes, possums, racoons, rodents, spiders and lizards that eat them, and we humans will not survive long on this planet without these tiny creatures. As the late E.O. Wilson famously explained long ago: insects are the little things that run the world. Without insect pollinators, 80 percent of all plants, and 90 percent of all flowering plants, would disappear, as would the food webs that support mammals, reptiles, amphibians, birds and freshwater fishes. What’s more, the Earth would rot, as bacteria and fungi replace insect decomposers that rapidly recycle nutrients. Wilson’s message was clear: there will be no lions, tigers or bears; birds, bats, bunnies or other animals or even humans in a world without insects.
Despite Wilson’s warnings, we have waged war on many insects and ignored the basic needs of the rest for so long that now most insects are in trouble. By one measure, the little things that support our world have declined globally by 45 percent! Insects are not the only important forms of wildlife, but nearly all of the more charismatic species depend on them. The simple truth is, we cannot reverse wildlife losses without reversing insect declines.
For the past four years I have been photographing the moth species that live on our property (I haven’t gotten to the butterflies yet). This year, I reached 1,140 species. That’s right: at least 1,140 (and counting) moth species make their living on our 10-acre patch of southeastern Pennsylvania. Our property is not a preserve that has been protected for a century. Just the opposite. Not long ago, it was part of a small farm whose successive owners had worked the land hard for 300 years. Before we moved in, the vegetation was a tangle of invasive Asian plants that the owners had mowed and called ‘hay’. Very few trees and native shrubs grew here, and most of the resident birds were introduced starlings and house sparrows that could thrive on exhausted farmland. The caterpillars that sustain 96 percent of North American terrestrial bird species were largely absent.
But today, rather than having lost two-thirds of its wildlife as WWF suggests, our 10 acres has increased the number of its resident species by at least that much. And it did not take decades for those increases to occur. The depleted agricultural wasteland of two decades ago has become a hotspot for local wildlife. How did this happen?
The seemingly astounding rebound in species on our property was actually neither astounding nor accidental. It was a predictable response by the natural world to our purposeful restoration of nature’s foundation: native plants. The moths I am counting have returned because the native plants they require are now here, as well. And those plants are thriving on our property because along with the wind and the local blue jays, we have planted them. We also have removed the tangle of Asian invasive species so that our native plants have enough space, light and water to grow.
The loss of biodiversity is a global crisis, but it is a crisis with a grassroots solution. Somewhere along the line, we assigned Earth stewardship to just a few specialists: a handful of ecologists and conservation biologists. The rest of us have had cultural permission to destroy the natural world whenever and wherever we wanted, using oxymoronic words like ‘development’ and ‘progress’ as rationalizations. The United Nations has designated Biosphere Reserves as places of ecological significance, but that language suggests that there are places on Planet Earth with no ecological significance. Not so! Every square inch of the planet has ecological significance, including our yards.
The ecological approach to landscaping that I have described here is nothing more than basic Earth stewardship, but it is stewardship that empowers us all to become forces in conservation. Replace part of your lawn with ecologically powerful native plants; remove those ornamentals that have proven to be invasive; and plant a pollinator garden. Even if you don’t own land, you can make a difference by volunteering to help your local land conservancy manage its properties or simply by helping someone who does own property. Either as property owners or volunteers, each of us has the power—and we clearly have the responsibility—to enhance the ecological value of local landscapes. My yard’s message is loud and clear: most wildlife losses are reversable! Humans can coexist with the natural world, at the same time, in the same place. Whether we decide to do so will determine nature’s fate and ultimately, our own. In that sense, we all are nature’s best hope!
For more information, visit https://www.udel.edu/faculty-staff/experts/douglas-tallamy/.