Our house “was built for a newlywed couple in 1885. The big oak tree in the front yard was planted the year they moved in and the maple tree was also one they planted,” according to information provided by the previous owner.I was thinking about this oak tree as I drove home from a talk given by Doug Tallamy, author of Bringing Nature Home. For some reason, when it came to changing my garden to increase diversity and attract more birds and pollinators, I had always thought in terms of planting more native perennials–and perhaps some native berry-bearing shrubs as well.
But Tallamy made me realize that native trees are essential to creating a self-sustaining habitat in my garden. Yes, birds eat lots of bugs all summer long; yes, they eat seeds and berries in the fall–but they raise their young almost totally on caterpillars. In the case of one pair of Carolina chickadees that he watched, they fed their chicks 27 caterpillars in 30 minutes. It works out to 6,000 to 9,000 caterpillars for one clutch of nestlings until they can fend for themselves. And the chickadee parents don’t fly more than 50 meters (164ft) from the nest to get these caterpillars.
So if you want birds in your backyard, you’ve got to provide a steady supply of caterpillars, or the birds will just die out. And the plant that feeds the greatest variety of caterpillars is–you guessed it–the oak. To be specific: 385 different kinds of moths and butterflies use the oak as a caterpillar host plant in my area. (Click here to find the best plants for wildlife for your area.)
It’s not just monarch butterflies that are picky. Apparently most caterpillars can only feed on a few (or even one) types of plants. The rest are poison to them. Some plants are food to only one kind of insect, but some–like the oak–support a whole bunch.
And in a few short weeks, we would be cutting that oak tree down.
When the remaining bole of the oak toppled, it split apart on impact: The extent of the decay was greater than I had imagined.
The new normal
Now that those two impressive trees are gone, the character of the front yard has changed. The front garden beds will certainly be sunnier than they were before–and the house will be hotter in summer.…or to chop for leaf mold. Not to mention the firewood we’ll be heating our house with.
We never wanted this to happen but we are trying to make the best of a sad situation. Nothing in this life stays the same; all living things eventually die. Fortunately we have many other oaks on our land to help sustain wildlife.