Katie's Voice

Beyond Electric Cars: Five Easy Ways You Can Save the Planet

I grew up, like most people, with certain ideas about beauty and wonder: bright outdoor lights at Christmas, fragrant peony blooms bigger than a softball, the ooh and aah of fireworks on the Fourth of July, the smell of fresh-cut grass. 

The first one of those old loves to go was fireworks: once you have a dog who cowers and shakes at those sounds, you start hearing them as gunshots and bombs and pretty soon you’re thinking about who and what else is affected. We do have some alternatives to traditional fireworks now, including silent fireworks, laser shows, and drone light displays; I plan to support those alternatives whenever I can. Not buying or setting off fireworks of your own could be the #6 of this list; every part of a neighborhood that provides some safety from the noise, light, and pollution of fireworks becomes a haven for wildlife.

On to the rest:

  1. Change outdoor lighting 

Unfortunately, while lights at Christmas are beautiful and outdoor lighting in general makes most of us feel safer, light pollution has profoundly negative effects on wildlife. Migrating birds can be thrown off course, never arriving at their destinations. Those adorable little box turtles that traipse through my yard in the spring may just be trying to find a dark enough place to lay their eggs. And yes, there did used to be a LOT more fireflies when we were young and the skies were darker.

Downward-facing street light with warm bulb

To minimize these and other negative effects, keep your lights as low to the ground as possible, face those lights down rather than having them visible from above, and choose the warmest possible color you can. Also, consider how necessary that outdoor lighting is: are those lights merely decorative? If so, can you take them out or just keep them turned off most of the time? For necessary lights, like something to light your front door for guests arriving after dark, try a motion-detecting light that’s only on when needed. At my house, the most important outdoor light is for the back yard, so I can see what my mischievous dogs are up to when I let them into the fenced yard. I flip the light on before letting them out so any wandering cats, opossum, or raccoons can get away ahead of two marauding Golden Retrievers. Of course, I turn the light off immediately when the dogs come in. 

We’ve replaced our outdoor bulbs with warm-colored LED bulbs, which have a weaker effect on wildlife. The warmer the color, the better, which is why red nightlights are recommended even for humans. And LED lights don’t emit nearly as much heat as incandescents, as well as using 75% less energy. 

In addition to all the positive effects for wildlife if we minimize light pollution, we just might be able to see more stars in the sky. Wouldn’t that be amazing? 

2. Avoid chemicals. 

Northern Cardinal

All of these suggestions are linked, but this one is particularly connected to the lawn issue. Americans are oddly obsessed with “perfect lawns,” which has led to the use of a whole lot of herbicides, pesticides, and chemical fertilizers. In my neighborhood, lawn services drive around and, seeing an “imperfect” lawn like mine, leave flyers offering their services. Lawns that have been treated sport signs warning you to keep your dogs and children off so they don’t get poisoned. My smaller dog is 63 pounds, which is about 672 times the size of a Northern Cardinal. If my dog could get sick or even die from the chemicals on a lawn, what could happen to a bird that lands there

3. Plant natives. 

Like I said, I grew up with “old-fashioned” flowering plants and trees like peonies (non-native), roses (non-native), Rose of Sharon (invasive), and forsythia (invasive). Note that some plants that aren’t native to North America are relatively benign, like peonies, while some will spread quickly and crowd out native plants in the same niche, like Rose of Sharon. But even the non-invasive ones fail to offer benefits to our local wildlife. Insects and other animals in North America evolved to get food from and lay eggs on very specific plants; without those plants, they can’t thrive. You’ve probably heard that our beloved favorite butterfly, the Monarch, is now endangered. That’s in part because there aren’t enough of their preferred food and nursery plants available anymore. But even if the insect isn’t as beautiful as a Monarch, the effects of the lack of native plants go all the way up the food chain: Bug X can’t find the right plant so the cute little toad that eats it can’t get enough food so the bird that eats that type of toad has to work harder to find food so… 

Joe Pye Weed

There are folks who have the money and/or energy to completely re-landscape their yards, tearing out non-native plants and replacing them with natives. I’m not one of those people, but I keep finding just a little more space for another native plant here and there. A little goldenrod, some milkweed, and I think I could squeeze in a native dogwood beside the fence. When you look at the number of insects on a single native plant—I’m thinking of my Joe Pye Weed this past fall—you feel like you might just be making a difference. Make sure to find resources for plants native to your specific region, as what’s native in Illinois is not necessarily native in Florida. And then, unfortunately, you might have to find an online nursery, since most local nurseries—and pretty much all big box stores—rarely carry native plants. In fact, many still carry the worst invasives there are, such as English ivy, with no information on how that plant will take over your yard and spread by seed across the country.

4. Shrink your lawn.

As I said, I have limited energy. But I regularly find a way to expand my flowerbeds into the lawn. You can dig up the grass, but you can also put down cardboard and then soil and mulch on top of the cardboard, and after a few months the grass below is dead and you can seed or plant in that area. My front yard now boasts a large circular bed with a native tree in the center and milkweed around the outside (seeded in the fall, so it’s “future milkweed” at the moment). I realized that the purple coneflower I planted by the house last year didn’t get enough sun, so I’m moving it to surround the mailbox. And why are plants better than lawn? Because lawnmowers are terrible for the environment, significantly contributing to climate change, and because lawns are a “biodiversity desert,” failing to offer anything for insects and other wildlife. 

Box Turtle

5. Love bugs.

Most people like some bugs: butterflies, fireflies, ladybugs, and some of the cuter caterpillars. A lot of people are now learning that bees and other pollinators are essential for food production and that there’s a drastic—and frightening—decline in bee populations worldwide. But many of us have a visceral reaction to bugs, namely, “Ew! Squish it!” I’m not making any arguments about bugs you find inside. But when it comes to bugs outside, you might consider that without them, you will have fewer birds, frogs, toads, and other wildlife. Sure, there are some invasive bugs that should be killed on sight: Japanese beetles and spotted lanternflies are in that category. Unless you know for sure what the bugs are, however, you should just leave them alone. That “icky” caterpillar might become a gorgeous butterfly; those aphids will be eaten by ladybugs and others if you just leave them alone and definitely avoid pesticides (and ladybug larvae are ugly, I have to say, so you really can’t trust the “pretty meter”). If you do the research and know that a particular bug is invasive, find a non-toxic way to take care of it if possible; Japanese beetles are often best handled by hand-picking and drowning them in a soap-and-water solution, for example, because they are extremely resistant to pesticides. 

You’re probably more familiar with the slogan “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” than most of the suggestions above. That’s a great slogan with solid advice. I just hope you’ll consider additional ways to save the earth, even if it means letting go of some of your childhood traditions. Our own yards can be rich resources for wildlife if we shift our perspectives and make small changes.

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