Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXI, No. 26
Wednesday, July 4, 2007
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Tips for Backyard Bird-Lovers From Audubon's Steven Saffier

Linda Arntzenius

To hear bird enthusiast Steven Saffier tell it, there is no better place to observe birds than your own backyard, especially if that backyard is in the heavily wooded New Jersey, Pennsylvania region.

Mr. Saffier shared tips on how to encourage birds to make return visits in a presentation hosted by the Delaware & Raritan Greenway Land Trust at the Johnson Education Center last Thursday, as part of the "If It's Thursday, It Must Be Birding" speaker series.

In his talk, "Enhancing Backyard Bird Habitat," Mr. Saffier, who coordinates the Audubon at Home program for the John James Audubon Center in Mill Grove, Pa. gave the following general advice for a bird-healthy backyard: "Get rid of pesticides and cut down on your lawn."

Having spent his childhood and youth developing a fondness for the flora and fauna of the woods near his home in northeast Philadelphia, Mr. Saffier relocated reluctantly with his family to Nevada in 1978. The move spurred the 14-year-old to join the local Audubon Society and he recalled the moment he saw his first bald eagle. "It was on March 10, 1980," he said.

After a sojourn in Los Angeles, where he was an environmental educator in the Santa Monica Mountains, he jumped at the chance to come back to Pennsylvania to work at a nature center in Abington. In 2003, he joined National Audubon to help develop material for a new national initiative, Audubon At Home.

Since the start of this year, he's been promoting the Audubon At Home program with individuals, municipalities, universities, and other groups to encourage the implementation of "bird habitats" on private and public lands.

At the Johnson Education Center, Mr. Saffier opened his talk with some statistics. Eighty percent of the nation's wildlife habitat is in private lands which makes reaching out to landowners and homeowners one of his priorities. A whopping 37 percent of all living creatures are insects that eat green plants and 90 percent of those insects live on only one or two plant lineages. All this is important to know, he told the audience, when you consider that 96 percent of birds feed their young on insects.

"Studies have linked bird fitness to the quality and quantity of their insect food supplies," he said, showing a slide of a huge McMansion surrounded by acres of pristine and sterile green lawn. "Birds are not looking for the green, clean, and manicured lawn. Insect bio mass is what they are after.

"Birds need cover, nest sites, food (including berries that appear at different times of the year, seeds and insects), water, and space." Equally important is that these needs are met in a lasting sustainable way. Rather than simply attracting birds to your backyard for one season, he suggested plantings that provide a hospitable year-round habitat.

To this end, Mr. Saffier suggested that homeowners "free their lawn" by replacing turf grass with native grasses or mixed meadow. For those reluctant to get rid of their entire lawn, he suggested reducing lawn size. Eliminate pesticides and water only when necessary, he said, encouraging the use of a water barrel to capture rain water. An image of Mr. Saffier's own lawn showed a healthy crop of clover, which, although not a native species, adds valuable diversity.

Pesticides accumulate in the food chain and reach birds through even trace amounts in the insects on which they feed. As a result of these changes, said Mr. Saffier, bird-loving gardeners may need to tolerate some damage to their plants. To ameliorate the damage, Mr. Saffier suggested using plants that attract natural pest enemies. Asters, for example, invite benign wasp varieties that act as "policemen of the garden," disposing of other more harmful buglife.

Native Plantings

Besides being a bird enthusiast, Mr. Saffier is an advocate for the use of native plant species. He suggested the following natives as alternatives to traditional landscape shrubs: witch hazel for forsythia, chokeberry for burning bush, spicebush for privet, and possumhaw for leatherleaf viburnum.

When it comes to trees, white pine instead of blue spruce, fringe tree instead of Bradford pear, and catalpa instead of mimosa, were a few that he mentioned.

Ferns are preferable to hostas, he said, and have the added advantage in this area that deer leave them alone. As to flowers, he recommended cardinal flowers and blueflag iris instead of the ubiquitous daylilies that, although beautiful to look at, are passed over by hummingbirds.

For more on native alternatives, visit the website of the Native Plant Society of New Jersey:

The D&R Greenway Land Trust speaker's series continues at the Johnson Education Center, One Preservation Place (Off Rosedale Road), on Thursday, July 12, at 7 p.m., when documentary filmmaker Gil Domb shares his global experiences in search of birds in his presentation "Wings of Change: Birds in Film."

Admission is $10 and includes light refreshments served at 6:30 p.m. To register, call (609) 924-4646.

The talks accompany the exhibit: "It's a Bird's Life: Avian Art & Science," work by area artists together with information about the work of D&R Greenway and partners to preserve avian habitat. The artwork will be on view until Friday, July 13, with the science display continuing until mid-August. Hours are: Monday through Friday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The art is available for purchase, a percentage going to support D&R Greenway in habitat preservation. For more information, visit:

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