Urban Birds

Tucson Audubon’s Habitat at Home program is working to build a community that flocks together.

November 11, 2017

HomesteadIssue 27: November/December 2017

The upland region of the greater Sonoran Desert is a rain-infused oasis teeming with plants and animals. Our slice of this magnificent desert, we generally assume, begins just beyond the boundaries of Tucson’s paved urban jungle. City dwellers are comforted by thinking about how lucky we are to have all that wildness just a short drive or bike ride away.

Not so. Birds in particular are willing and pleased to join us exactly where we live. Our homes and buildings, yards, patios, and decks—when properly designed—are well suited for what helps birds thrive in the city: shade, water, flowers for nectar, insects for protein, trees, and saguaros and other such green and woody places for hiding, breeding, nesting, and fledging their young.

This peaceable coexistence is possible with minimal physical or financial output, and it is exactly what Tucson Audubon Society is hoping to inspire through their program, Habitat at Home, a participatory educational DIY program—complete with workbooks, checklists, and access to experts—designed to encourage avian interaction for all who live in our sprawling valley. While focused on city residents, the program is also aimed at guiding anyone with outdoor spaces devoid of, or in need of, more natural native growth.

Tucson Audubon hopes Habitat at Home will also encourage interaction between human neighbors on behalf of our region’s birds as a first and important step in protecting and sustaining what we have long admired from a distance.

“Large needs start on a small scale,” says Maddox Wolfe, the Arizona field organizer for the national Audubon Society and a Tucson resident.

For the national organization, the Tucson Audubon-initiated program is a poster child for change it believes is sorely needed. According to Audubon’s 2014 groundbreaking study, nearly half the bird species in North America are “seriously threatened” by the impacts of climate change on their habitats. Within the study, adds Wolfe, are estimates that 41 percent of migratory neotropical songbirds are at risk.

“Many of those birds come through Tucson,” says Wolfe. “Southeast Arizona is an extremely important bird migration corridor. The question is what can we do now, immediately, to help protect them.” One answer is to expand livable habitats—to share our space through simple alterations to our human-built landscapes.

As important as it is to help protect avian populations, there is another benefit to inviting birds into our yards. Having birds singing and cavorting around us is just plain joyful, and there are plenty of opportunities for Tucsonans to reap the good cheer. Tucson and southeastern Arizona are world-famous for hosting roughly 500 bird species, hummingbirds among them, which either live here year-round or drop by as they migrate along the Central Flyway.

“Birds do good things for our psyche and soul,” says ecologist Jonathan Horst, Tucson Audubon’s director of conservation and research. As the Habitat at Home program promotes, it is as easy as choosing the right kind of plants—those with red, nectar-producing, trumpet-shaped flowers like penstemon or desert honeysuckle—to attract hummingbirds, whose hyper-flight antics and curiosity can make even the most cynical among us crack a smile.

“Plant it and they will come,” says Wolfe. “It’s uncanny how birds can find plants.”

The Habitat at Home program is organized into four tiers, from hummingbird level, the most basic and accessible in terms of cost and space limitations, to cardinal, the gold standard. Each level builds on the other in terms of modifications needed to attract birds, starting with the obvious—native plants—as well as water harvesting techniques, the addition of biomass material to replicate wild growing spaces, even outdoor lighting.

“We’re encouraging people to be dark sky-compliant,” says Wolfe, referring to recommendations from the Tucson-based International Dark-Sky Association on how to reduce light pollution. “Outdoor lights should point downward, not upward,” she says. “Light can have a disorienting impact on migrating night birds, which can be thrown off course and fly into buildings.”

For Horst, Habitat at Home allows Tucson Audubon Society to incorporate underpinnings of “reconciliation ecology,” a field of conservation that embraces in situ human-wildlife coexistence, championed by Michael L. Rosenzweig in his 2003 book, Win-Win Ecology: How the Earth’s Species Can Survive in the Midst of Human Enterprise. A biologist at the University of Arizona and the recently retired director of Tumamoc Hill, Rosenzweig cofounded the Tucson Bird Count, now managed by Tucson Audubon.

“Reconciliation ecology instantly resonated with me as it makes an intuitive leap forward in engaging people with conservation,” says Horst. “You can actually do some cool things in your yard to support biodiversity.” Like creating a minihabitat by stashing wood debris and rocks under creosote or other native shrubs and letting the natural grass, even seasonal weeds, grow.

This simple arrangement will almost instantaneously attract desert finches, small, sociable, colorful birds that gather in flocks and sing as they chase each other around. Finches appreciate these minihabitats, using them as a home base to hide from predators like hawks. Another bonus, says Horst: Debris will likely attract lizards, which in turn, depending on the layout and location of your property, attract our most famous birds, mad-dashing roadrunners.

Just as minor tweaks to our human landscapes can exponentially increase the number of birds in our yards, the same can be said of the Habitat at Home program: One household takes the Habitat at Home challenge, then another, and another. Pretty soon, an entire neighborhood could unite itself behind the concept. Neighborhoods could even band together to create their own urban bird corridors.

To help inspire community activism, the fee to join the Habitat at Home program ($35 for Audubon members and $45 for nonmembers) includes not only instruction material but also an official Audubon placard identifying individual yards for their bird-friendly landscaping—conversation pieces that just might inspire passers-by to join the effort.

“The community aspect is one of the most important aspects of the program, the deeper meaning behind it,” says Wolfe. “Birds are great communicators. They bring people together.”

Tucson-based writer Karen Peterson has written extensively on issues of sustainability and climate change adaptations.

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