Get Growing with Mickey Rathbun: Protecting pollinator populations is key for phoebes, other birds

  • Bees retrieve pollen from an azalea bush, one of the first plants that blooms in spring, in Jessica Tanner’s yard in Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jessica Tanner cleans out dead stems from her pollinator garden at her home in Northampton. She leaves the stems all winter so insects can live in them throughout the cold months and hatch in the spring. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Bees retrieve pollen from an Azalea bush, one of the first plants that blooms in spring, in Jessica Tanner’s yard in Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • An Eastern phoebe, which dines on flies, along with wasps, butterflies, moths and other insects. dennis church/via FLICKR

  • An Eastern phoebe. According to the Cornell Labs website, allaboutbirds.org, phoebes build their nests with moss, twigs and bits of dried grass held together with mud. foxman/via FLICKR

Monday, May 17, 2021

As spring makes its grudging arrival in the Pioneer Valley, we are welcoming back the birds, bees and other insects that were missing from our wintry landscape.

A couple of weeks ago I noticed a pair of Eastern phoebes (Sayornis phoebe) sussing out a nesting site on top of a cone-shaped light fixture under the eave outside my study. There had been a phoebes’ nest in that spot several years ago but it had been totally trashed by another bird, probably a barn swallow.

I cleared away the wreckage, sadly thinking I’d never see the phoebes nesting there again. I was thrilled to see that the birds had returned, but I doubted that they would choose to rebuild their nest in the same spot. For degree of difficulty, I’d assign this site a 10, but they decided to make a go of it. They’re putting the finishing touches on it even as I write this.

According to the Cornell Labs website, allaboutbirds.org (an excellent source of information about birds, by the way), phoebes build their nests with moss, twigs and bits of dried grass held together with mud. As a feisty feminist, I wasn’t surprised to learn that the female does the actual work of gathering the building materials, bringing them piece by piece to the site and putting them in place.

Her mate just hangs out and keeps her company. I guess this is the avian equivalent of the wife doing the dishes while the husband reads the newspaper out loud.

Phoebes are members of the flycatcher family (Tyrannidae), but despite the name, flies make up only a small part of their diet. They mostly eat wasps, butterflies and moths, beetles, cicadas and dragonflies.

This list of delicacies reminded me of all the welcome efforts being made to create pollinator-friendly habitats. Plant nurseries tag plants that are pollinator-friendly, gardening publications are full of advice for attracting and supporting pollinators, and many groups, including the Western Massachusetts Pollinator Network, promote pollinator-affirmative practices through lectures and gardening projects.

While many people (including me) think of bees and butterflies when they think of pollinators, there are many other insect pollinators, including wasps, midges and beetles. As I considered the plight of pollinators, it dawned on me that we’re not just trying to sustain a workforce of insects who pollinate our gardens and farm crops so that humans can eat. We’re also striving to maintain the creatures — birds, reptiles and all the rest — that feed on the pollinators and make up a crucial part of the planet’s ecological lifecycle.

In a recent conversation with Peggy MacLeod, co-founder of the Western Massachusetts Pollinator Network, I mentioned my excitement at the phoebes’ nest. We talked about the importance of supporting the population of insects that phoebes feed on.

She cited the research of Doug Tallamy, an entomologist at the University of Delaware who advocates for the protection of robust insect populations to maintain a balanced ecosystem. Among other practices, Tallamy urges the planting of native species to promote insect populations.

“According to Tallamy, it takes between 6,000 and 9,000 caterpillars to raise one clutch of chickadees,” MacLeod said. “That’s why we have to love moths and butterflies.” Referring to the Pollinator Network, MacLeod added, “I’ve found something that’s ‘work’ that’s beneficial to my hobby as a birdwatcher.”

On a recent evening, my husband and I watched with delight and awe as a pileated woodpecker tore into a rotted log in the woods behind our house, an area where I discard all sorts of garden debris. Shards of dead wood flew as the bird hammered away in search of insects for his supper.

This sight reminded me that it’s important to leave gardens a bit untidy, at least at the edges. Dead trees are nesting sites for woodpeckers and bluebirds. Tree stumps and fallen logs are full of insects that feed all manner of creatures. Piles of fallen plant matter make excellent sites for ground-nesting bees as well as for small rodents who become prey for raptors, owls and other predators.

So much valuable activity takes place out there, mostly invisible to the human eye. I’m learning to love the messiness of it.

As the phoebes dart through the air in pursuit of their insect prey, I like to think that some of their sustenance comes from that unkempt patch of nearby woods.

Pollinator Network update

A major ongoing effort of the Pollinator Network has been to support the creation of a Pollinator Pathway in Northampton. The purpose of this is to connect pollinator-friendly habitats throughout the city to mitigate the harmful effects of pollution and development on pollinator populations. The project was inspired by  Pollinator Pathways in other cities, including Seattle.

The Pollinator Network has coordinated with city officials to plant “anchor” public gardens throughout the city with pollinator-friendly plants. These sites include gardens at Pulaski Park, Crafts Avenue, the Northampton Senior Center and Forbes Library.

In addition, three plots at the Northampton Community Gardens have been donated for cultivating plants preferred by at-risk bees. The garden plots will support research on bumblebees by Rob Gegear of UMass-Dartmouth. This year, several private gardens will be added to the Pollinator Pathway.

Pollinate Northampton!, a group that has joined the Pollinator Pathway project, is offering landscape design toolkits for people who want to create their own pollinator-friendly habitats. The kits are being put together by Evan Abramson of Landscape Interactions, who has done extensive research on pollinator habitats.

Abramson has planned five different kits of native plants for various growing conditions, including sun and shade gardens, wet gardens, sidewalk strips, and bee and butterfly lawns. The kits contain 38 plants, roughly three each of 13 different plants, and will cost under $100. Plants will also be available a la carte for gardeners who already have pollinator-friendly gardens but need to fill in empty spaces.

This year the kits are available only to Northampton residents, but people everywhere can put together their own kits using the information on the the Pollinator Network website, wmassbees.org.

Mickey Rathbun, an Amherst-based lawyer turned journalist, has written the “Get Growing” column since 2016.