News From Terre Haute, Indiana

July 15, 2012

Welcoming Wildlife

Jane Santucci
Special to the Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — Birds chirp while water trickles down the side of rocks. Meanwhile, a baby bird calls to its mother for help after it fell out of the nest. While this may seem like the last time you visited a park, it is in fact the setting of many homeowners’ back yards here in the Wabash Valley.

Dozens of people in the Terre Haute city limits, and those who live way out in the country, are committed to making their yard welcoming to wildlife.

One doesn’t have to live out in the country to enjoy nature’s finest. Ellen and Tony Urbanski get their fair share of nature while living in the heart of Terre Haute. When they first bought their house back in 2000, the property was covered in weeds and was robbed of all plants. With a little encouragement and plant starts from their former neighbor, they began giving their yard a makeover. Today, their backyard is where they can get away to relax.

“It is our little piece of woodsieness out here,” Ellen said.

While their yard may be considered the size of a postage stamp to country dwellers, it is home to many types of wildlife. Butting up against their garage is a woodpile, used for lighting up their backyard fireplace. While the logs look stacked nicely, they have also become the home of chipmunks.

“We have lots of little critters; they climb over the wall and aren’t scared,” Ellen said.

Their yard also has an area where bees, butterflies and hummingbirds can fodder for food. On one end is a stack of sticks and various plants providing ground cover for smaller wildlife.

“If the cats are around it gives them a place to find shelter,” Ellen said.

On a visit to their property, a baby bird had fallen out of a nest from a tree that shades part of the Urbanski’s back yard. The baby bird kept calling out, most likely to his mother from above. Without using his hands, Tony nudged the bird back onto the tree. Perhaps the mother was teaching her kids to fend for themselves, because the next day another bird got the boot from the nest. These types of wildlife rescues happen often for the Urbanskis.

“One day I heard a bullfrog in an old drainage pipe. I got a sheet, tied a bunch of knots in it and put it down in the hole with a stick to get him out,” Tony said.

One of their most memorable stories involves an owl. Below the tree where the baby birds fell from is a small koi pond. Last fall Ellen went out back to check on the pond filter and she noticed one of their big koi fish lying outside the pond. A week later 10 of their fish were dead. After looking up into the tree, they saw the culprit — an owl.

“We borrowed our friends’ trail camera to catch him in the act,” Ellen said.

On a different occasion, one of their neighbors kept finding fish tails on their property. Knowing that the Urbanskis have a koi pond, they called them and asked if they were missing any fish. Sure enough, a different owl had helped himself to the Urbanskis’ fish supply.

It is these types of stories that make turning a small back yard into a home for wildlife worthwhile.

Wildlife habitat on a larger scale

In the early ’90s Brenda and Phil Milliren moved out into Vigo County. The property they purchased was home to large fields of grass where horses used to graze and feed. Before they ever finished working on the house they began to plant trees and native plants. Their intention is to re-establish the property, restoring it to how it was 100 to 200 years ago. One of the first things they did was to reduce the size of their lawn to cut back on mowing.

“We have no weeds in our front yard. That is our way of saying we don’t mind them. The weeds make it green and add texture,” Brenda said.

The second step they took was to get involved with the Indiana Native Plant and Wildflower Society. By doing so they were able to be a part of a team that rescued native plants from areas that were set to be bulldozed.

“People go to the nursery to find things to plant around their house, why not plant native? Native plants have lived in this area for millions of years. They are well adapted to growing in this area,” Brenda said.

The native theme carries throughout their back yard. A pathway as wide as a mower is filled with native plants and flowers. The pathway does not appear manicured or planted; it only appears the way nature intended, rough and rugged. The path leads the Millirens into their woods. Sprinkled through the woods are benches.

“While we are sitting on the benches we are looking at wildlife,” Phil said.

An important component to having a wildlife backyard habitat is supplying a place where animals can drink and bathe. Fortunately the Millirens also have a pond in their back yard. The pond is frequently visited by Great Blue Herons, Kingfishers, Wood Ducks, Mallards, Green Back Herons and bats.

While Phil was listing the types of birds he most commonly sees, attention was diverted to a beautiful bird with a red head and a white patch on its backside. It was a pleasant sight to see something different than the normal sparrows and cardinals that visit a regular bird feeder.

“The way you reacted to the red headed woodpecker out here, we see that every day, maybe we don’t react the same, but we really enjoy it,” Phil said.

They also have a footpath they created to go through their woods. They use it to exercise their dogs and as a form of entertainment when guests visit.

“The little kids imparticular enjoy it. For them, it is learning and having fun at the same time,” Brenda said.

The Millirens have learned the most about what their woods should look like by seeing how well state parks manage theirs.

“I think people need to get out, go to our state parks in the spring. They are loaded with wildflowers. You have to get a sense of what it can be so that you can go back and make it what it should be,” Brenda said.

While the ’90s have come and gone, the Millirens are still learning about wildlife. Every season brings on something different when they are out and about enjoying their personal backyard habitat.

Wildlife habitat checklist

• Food provided naturally by plants like berries and nectar

• Supplemented food like seed and suet

• Water sources like bird baths and rain gardens

• Ground cover like brush piles and roosting boxes

• Places to raise young like dense shrubs and burrows.

To learn more about how to certify your backyard as a wildlife habitat contact the Dobbs Park Nature Center by calling (812) 877-1095.