What is a Habitat?

When your mother yells out the door “Time for dinner!”, you’re probably not thinking about animal habitat. But you should, because you’re about to use all of its four parts. While you were playing and as you walk home you’re going through space. Go into the house and you’re under shelter. Wash your hands before dinner and you’re using water. Eat dinner and you’re using habitat’s fourth part – food. It seems pretty simple for you. It’s not always as simple for wildlife.

What would happen to you if your shelter was cut down? What if your food supply was paved over or your water drained away? Could you live if you had no space to live in? This is the problem that some types of wildlife face when their habitat is destroyed. Unfortunately, all too often habitat changes like these are caused when people build homes, malls or roads, or even when they farm. What can we do to help wildlife? Improve their habitat, of course!

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You can’t grow a new forest in your backyard or get a river to start flowing behind your school. But on a smaller scale you can provide space, food, water, and shelter for a variety of New England wildlife. This means you need to know what each type of animal needs in its habitat. Some plants offer more food for wildlife than others; where and how you place water has to be considered; shelter for a bird is different than a butterfly; the amount of space affects the kinds of animals who will visit or live in your yard.

In this issue of Wild New England we’ll learn about creating habitat for the specific needs of three animals that have something in common – they’re pollinators. This means they have a special relationship with plants.

The Mason Bee

Most people have heard of honeybees because they make honey, and pollinate a lot of our food plants. The honeybee is a social insect. That doesn’t mean they have parties all the time – it means they live and work together to support the entire hive, which can number in the tens of thousands.

Not all bees are social, but they can still be great pollinators. For example, the orchard mason bee gets its name for two reasons. The mason part is because it uses mud to make its nest – sort of like a human mason builds with cement.

Apple orchardThe orchard part is because it’s known as a good pollinator of fruit trees. These bees will also come to wildflowers when fruit trees are not in bloom. Orchard mason bees are very calm, and will not sting unless they are handled roughly or get caught in someone’s clothes.

Honeybee Hive It turns out that the female likes to lay her egg in a small hole, usually in wood. The hole needs to be a little wider than her body, about 1/4 – 3/8 of an inch, and several inches deep. To start she gets some mud and puts it in the bottom of the hole. Then she brings in some pollen and nectar, about 15-20 loads as food for the bee as it grows in the nest. She lays an egg, seals it in with a thin layer of mud, and starts over again – pollen and nectar, lay an egg, seal with mud – until the hole is filled with her eggs and their meals. Then she covers the entrance to the hole with a thick plug of mud.

The egg becomes a larva, eats its food, spins a cocoon, turns into a pupa, and emerges from the cocoon all inside the mud nest. In fact, the adult stays there all winter. Although that may seem a little stuffy to us humans, the adult bee doesn’t mind, and chews its way through the mud in the spring, ready to start its life cycle again.

The Smallest Bird in New England

It hovers! It flies backwards! It’s fiercely protective of its territory. It weighs about as much as a nickel (around 5 grams) and gets most of its food from flowers. It’s not an insect or a secret military experiment. It is a ruby throated hummingbird.

There are a lot of special things about ruby throats, or hummers. They’re the smallest bird in New England. They migrate farther than most other types of hummingbirds (from New England all the way to Mexico, and some fly across the Gulf of Mexico, 500 miles, without stopping!) The ruby throat is also the only hummingbird found east of the Mississippi River. They make one of the smallest nests and lay one of the smallest eggs of any New England bird. And they are pollinators, just like the tiger swallowtail and orchard mason bee.

Hummers in Your Flowers

Sucking nectar Hummers are hyper, and need to eat twice their body weight each day. In human terms this means that if you weigh 100 pounds, you would eat 400 hamburgers a day. So a hummer has to visit hundreds of flowers every day to get enough nectar. They like flowers that have lots of nectar, and those that have very sweet nectar – that means there’s more available energy.

If your computer will support it, www.amherst.edu has a video of a hummingbird feeding on a jewelweed flower . The hummer spends about two seconds at the flower. Although it’s too fast to see, in that time its tongue darts into the flower, lapping up nectar, over twenty times. If you did that at your dinner table you’d likely be excused. But the hummer rushes off to another flower, and another and another until day ends. In fact some studies show that hummers go to more flowers than honeybees or bumblebees.

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All that nectar lapping is great for flowers. Every time the hummer’s head and beak go into a flower some pollen gets stuck on them. Then they zoom over to another flower and the hummer, without knowing it, pollinates the next flower. Of course, this works out well for both the flower and the bird. The hummer gets high-energy food, the flower gets pollinated, making a seed, and next summer when the seed becomes a plant, the hummer gets another flower for food. Imagine if the same thing happened for people and pizza!

Want to see hummers in real life? You can plant a hummer garden (see the Going Native Sidebar), or provide an artificial source of nectar. Visit www.dupageforest.com to see how to make and maintain a hummer feeder and a special sugar water that resembles nectar. Be sure to follow the directions carefully, as it is important to the bird’s health.

How to Tame a Tiger

When winter hits and food becomes scarce, animals have three choices: migrate, hibernate or resist. All animals require food, water, shelter and space – we call this habitat. If you can provide some or all of these needs then you’ll likely get the animal you want to visit or live near your home.

Butterflies have four stages in their life and different habitat needs during these stages. Let’s start with the adult tiger swallowtail.

Tiger Swallowtail Adult:
An adult tiger swallowtail has a long, tube-like tongue, called a proboscis, which is used to suck nectar from a flower. But not just any type flower. There are some basic reasons why butterflies choose one flower over another.

– Butterflies and flowers have adapted to each other’s needs – the insect needs nectar and the plant needs pollen carried to female flowers. The result is a flower that fits a butterfly, and an insect that will go to a lot of flowers from the same species (it doesn’t help a flower to get pollen from a different species of plant – it won’t form a seed).

– Butterflies can see bright colors, especially red. They can also smell with their antennae, and that helps them find nectar.

– Butterflies like to land on flowers that grow in clusters and walk around, probing each individual flower with its proboscis.

So butterflies often (but not always) land on brightly colored flowers that grow in clusters. Make sense? And tiger swallowtails like these flowers the best: butterfly bush, milkweed, honeysuckle (a native species is sempervirens), phlox, ironweed, wild cherry and lilac.

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Egg and Caterpillar (or larva):
The female tiger swallowtail lays its eggs on wild cherry, ash, lilac, aspen, birch or chokecherry. Why these plants? Well, each egg hatches into a caterpillar. What does the caterpillar stage of the swallowtail like to eat? Correct – leaves from these plants. It must be nice to hatch out of your egg and be in a restaurant!

Caterpillar & butterfly Pupa:
When the caterpillar is fully grown it weaves a chrysalis around itself, and enters a resting stage – it doesn’t eat or drink. We call this stage the pupa. The chrysalis is attached to a plant stem. The pupa transforms into a butterfly while inside the chrysalis, and after several weeks bursts out, a full grown adult.

So you want to tame a tiger? These swallowtails are fairly common, so you’re likely to see them if you provide some food for the adult or the caterpillar. Chances are good the tiger will show up. See the Lynx section for help on butterfly gardens.