Animals,  Bees,  Birding,  Other Insects,  Permaculture and Edible Forest Gardening Adventures

The Importance of Leaving a Mess

Animal tunnels through a brush pile

A clean yard is usually a pleasing sight.  Picking up loose boards, plywood, sticks and logs keeps people from tripping, is encouraged by the fire department to reduce fuel for fires, and makes for more room to walk.  Also, things live under debris and we’ve always been told to not poke our fingers into dark places (excellent advice!  If a giant stuck his huge finger into our bedroom window we’d try to hurt it to make it go away, too!), and by eliminating so-called debris we reduce the chance of bites by snakes, spiders, or whatever bitey things may be living in your part of the world.

However, by reducing the debris, we also reduce habitat. Those bitey creatures need a place to live, as do the non-bitey creatures we are also displacing by removing wood.  All these creatures are part of the intensely woven food web that keeps our planet populated and working.  I cannot disagree about making your yard safe for children and pets, but if you have a space, make an area for habitat, too.  Rope off a corner of your yard and tell your children and pets not to go into there, and leave bundles of sticks, pieces of plywood, old logs, piles of leaves, etc. in that corner.  This is a home for the wild things, and your children can understand, observe and respect the fact that the world should not be made clean for them.  Teach your children not to hunt and catch wild things, not to tear apart nests and destroy habitat.  Observe and wonder instead.

In my yard, especially since I’ve had some sheds removed (in which racoons, wasps and possums raised families… I’m hoping to make a new place for them), I have stacks of plywood and old buidling materials which are good for recycling back into projects around my house.  A junkheap, yes; a goldmine, yep.  Under these stacks I have found such wonderful creatures that I didn’t even know came into my yard (perhaps they didn’t until the wood was left out).

The most exciting creature was a female Western pond turtle.

Female Western Pond Turtle

In Washington, the Western pond turtles are endangered, and they are considered threatened in Oregon and are becoming rare in California and Baja California.  Besides loss of habitat and an increase in pollution, one of the major factors in our native turtle’s slow demise is the release of non-native aggressive species such as the red-eared slider turtles.  Red-eared sliders are America’s favorite pet turtle although they are native to the Southern United States.  Due to releases they are everywhere.  DO NOT RELEASE YOUR PET INTO THE WILD!  As much harm has been done by and to domestic animals and wild animals by the releasing of pets as by habitat loss.  A number of years ago there was a salmonella scare allegedly traced to pet turtles. The public’s response was to dump their children’s turtles in any waterway close by.   Red-eared sliders have a distinctive red line by their eyes, and are named sliders because that family of semi-aquatic turtle can slide into the water quickly.  They are omnivorous, aggressive, adaptable and become large.  They eat anything that they can fit into their mouths, including the less aggressive smaller Western pond turtles.

Females have flat plasterons; notice her left stumpy leg.

Finding a female Western pond turtle in the yard was fantastic, and I can only surmise that she had made her way up from the shallow streambed below the property to hopefully lay eggs.  I haven’t found signs of a disturbed area yet where she may have layed, but am keeping the whole area protected just in case.

Long tails

She is missing one front foot, probably bitten off while a youngster when something was trying to eat her.  Before we knew she was a she, we thought of giving him a piratey name due to the missing foot and her semi-aquatic nature.  Captain Blood was too fierce, but the author of that and other swashbuckling tales which had been made into movies is Raphael Sabatini.  Now that is a terrific name.  Go ahead and say it to yourself.  See?  So he became Raphael Sabatini until we checked her plasteron (the underside of her shell) and realized that it was flat not concave, which meant that she was a female.  Males need concave plasterons so that when they are, um, amorous, they don’t fall off so easily.  So she became Mrs. Sabatini.  Long story… sorry.  Nothing simple in my life.  Anyway, we checked out Mrs. Sabatini’s health, and then released her into our small upper pond, which has an excess of mosquito fish and bugs, so that she wouldn’t be hurt with all the work that is being done down where she was found.  We haven’t seen her since, so hopefully she is healthy and happy.

Good-bye Mrs. Sabatini!


Under another piece of plywood I’ve found blue-tailed skinks (I couldn’t take a photo because they move too quickly), California Slender Salamanders,

California Slender Salamander

gopher snakes, king snakes,

California Kingsnake


and Pacific chorus frogs.

In a brush pile there are many birds hopping through, especially California towhees, Western fence lizards,  alligator lizards, tree rats, mice and many other creatures.

In the ground are insects that you’d never expect.  For instance while weeding one of my heirloom bulb beds I disturbed this huge caterpiller that had a horn tail.

White-lined Sphinx Moth Caterpiller

The only horn tails that I’m familiar with are the tomato hornworms, but this guy was far away from my veggie patch, and instead of stripes had spots.  We looked him up, and he is the caterpiller form of the White-Lined Sphinx Moth, also known as the hummingbird moth because of the way it hovers in front of night-blooming flowers to drink nectar.  It is one of the important nighttime pollinators which few ever see.  We put him back and left some weeds in for him.

Of course mason bees, among other pollinators, use holes in wood in which to nest.  Some bumblebees nest in abandoned gopher holes, and they are the natural pollinators of many native North American plants such as blueberries (honeybees were imported from Europe with white settlers; until then native plants developed their flowers to attract and accomidate bumblebees, wasps, and hundreds of other native insects.)

All around my property there are logs and brush piles, and plywood layed down to choke out weeds in my veggie garden.  Underneath there is a world of habitat.  Isolated refuges for animals and insects who desperately need places to feel safe.  So go ahead, throw down some mulch, some logs, a pile of sticks or some plywood.  Know that you are doing the Earth a favor.

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