Exploring Urban Ecology: Understanding and Appreciating Nature Where We Live

Navigation Menu


Sara’s links:

  • Email: sgagne@charlotte.edu
  • Website: www.saragagne.com
  • Instagram: @urban_nature_clt
  • Nature at Your Door, Connecting with the Wild and Green in the Urban and Suburban Landscape *: https://amzn.to/3KwEYX0

Other episode-related links:

* Amazon links are affiliate links.

Backyard Ecology links:

Back to top

Full Transcript

Intro: Did you know that urban ecology doesn’t just apply to big cities and towns? Even if you live in a fairly rural area, if there is a lot of interaction between where you live and a nearby town or city then you may fall into the broad category of urban ecology. That means urban ecology is likely to apply to most of us.

Shannon: Hi Everyone! Before we get started, I want to thank all our supporters on Patreon. Each month, they go above and beyond to financially contribute towards making the Backyard Ecology blog, podcast, and YouTube channel possible.

If you would like to join them, you can do so for less than the cost of a cup of coffee or a meal at your favorite fast food place. Or, if a one-time donation is more your thing, then that’s possible too. I’ll have all the links in the show notes.

Today we’re talking to Dr. Sarah Gagné. Sarah is the author of the newly published book, Nature at Your Door, Connecting with the Wild and Green in the Urban and Suburban Landscape. She is also an Associate Professor of Landscape Ecology at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte.

Hi, Sarah. Welcome to Backyard Ecology. Thank you for talking with us today.

Sara: Hi, and I’m super excited to be here. Thank you so much.

Shannon: Oh, you’re welcome. I’m looking forward to this conversation because the topic of your book, Connecting with and Supporting Nature in Our Yards and Communities, that’s exactly what we talk about all the time in Backyard Ecology. And it is something that’s so important. So, I’m confident this is going to be a fun and very informative conversation.

Sara: Great. Looking forward to it.

Shannon: Before we get started, can you tell everyone just a little bit about what you do and how you got interested in nature.

Sara: Like you said, I’m an associate professor of landscape ecology, and I’m in the Department of Geography and Earth Sciences.

So, landscape ecology… I have a PhD in biology, but it intersects with biogeography. I try to understand why there are the species there are, in my case, in different parts of a city. So, in relation to how we build what we do, the pattern of our development, the pattern of habitat in cities at pretty large spatial scales. And that’s my particular branch of ecology.

I’ve always really liked nature. I was fortunate enough to be taken outside a lot when I was a kid by my parents. I used to go salamander hunting with my dad. So, we’d collect salamanders and frogs and toads and bring them home, which was just fantastic. And I did that really close to my house. So, I was always amazed, when I went outside.

I’m from Montreal, so it’s a pretty big city. But there were significant nature reserves near my suburban area. And I was always so astounded as a kid that these incredible animals could exist and carry out their lives right next to me. And, you know, I would know nothing about them until my dad took me to go find them.

So that really sparked a curiosity about the natural world, especially where we live. So, the things that are kind of hidden in plain sight.

Shannon: And I love the fact that it sounds like you kept that interest in what was right around you. Because I grew up running around chasing everything too. Very much the outdoor, nature kid. But then as I got older, I fell into what I kind of call the backyard syndrome.

I was like, “Okay, that’s all the stuff that’s just right here. I want to go far away and study the really cool stuff.” And I kind of got into that mindset that I think a lot of people have. Forgetting about what sparked our interest as kids and the nature right around us – outside of our doors that we could actually get to as kids. Thinking that, “Oh, the great stuff is somewhere else, somewhere more pristine, not where we live.”

We kind of draw this divide between nature and the wildlife’s homes and our homes and our areas. And that’s kind of sad.

Sara: Yeah, yeah, I’m nodding my head furiously. I know you can’t see it, but as you’re talking I, I totally agree.

I’m not exactly sure why, you know, I kept that particular interest. I think it has something to do with that stark difference. You know, the idea that’s taught to us, or what we assume, that cities and suburbs are devoid of animals and biodiversity and real nature, and the fact that you can go out so easily and find it. That difference just really thrills me. I’ve always been passionate about it.

And I guess I’ll just add while I was writing the book, I remember thinking about this distinction. I talked a little bit about it in the book and it’s kind of woven throughout. But driving to work, and UNC Charlotte is in the suburbs of the city of Charlotte, so I drive past little forest patches and stuff. And driving past those forest patches and thinking in my head, “Well, that’s not very good forest. You know, that’s kind of degraded or somehow “lesser than” forests that might be outside of the city, or in my case in the Great Smoky Mountains, or something like that.” But there’s nothing that’s telling me that that’s the case, except upbringing and a cultural assumption that we’ve all kind of grown up with.

And so I’m surprised that it’s so pervasive. That even I who love urban nature and know a lot about it think that way.

Shannon: Yes, but it’s exciting too, because there’s so many of us who grew up playing outside. Got interested in nature because of what was all around me, kind of went into the other direction, and then now come back. And it’s really those common animals that I see all the time that are like, “Oh, my gosh, this is so cool.” And really getting into that interest and love of the nature around us.

In my case, it was… Really, it was many different things. But part of it was seeing people from other areas that I thought had this really awesome, wonderful nature and biological diversity coming to where I was at and seeing our nature through their eyes. Seeing how interested they were in our nature, and yet realizing that they thought that all those cool things that I was really interested in and wanted to hear them talk about from where they lived, were just as normal as I thought the stuff around me was. It was kind of like opening up my eyes and saying, “Wait a minute…”

Plus, I can’t go to the parks and stuff all the time, but I live at home. I can see this all the time. So, of course, I want to have the best I can have here. Really, really fun stuff there that I’m sure we’re going to be diving into in many different ways.

And it’s only been within the last, what several decades really, that we’ve started to recognize just how much nature can be found living in our yards and communities. Especially at the scientific level, I think, and really recognizing the urban ecology field.

Sara: Yeah, that’s right. So, I teach an urban ecology course at my university, but I go over the history of the field. And I think interest started to get sparked in cities and places where people live, namely the ecology there, probably in the mid 70s, early to mid 70s, along with the environmental movement at that time. And so there started to be studies that were investigating the difference in the types of species, and maybe the vegetation communities, that you would see in a suburb and a nearby forested area to start to understand the ecology of urban and suburban places.

Then more recently people have looked at cities as urban ecosystems. So, they’re really interested in considering a city as an ecosystem just like you would a forest ecosystem. An ecosystem, as you know, includes all the living and non living components in an area. Right? And how they’re all interacting. So, trees are taking up nutrients. Herbivores are eating leaves. Everything’s decomposing, etc. and all those things are happening in cities.

And a lot of the kinds of animals that are there are us, right? We play a major role in that. So, we have like a really big influence on stuff. And the fascinating thing about that is it’s not just our actions, like how often we mow the lawns, but it’s our assumptions, our cultural norms, our practices, our daily activities, our institutions… Everything that makes up the social structure of humans, as well, is included in that urban ecosystem.

So, for scientists, we get to work with planners, social scientists, economists… And it becomes this really fascinating and vibrant place to learn about how this whole new ecosystem that we’ve created essentially works.

Shannon: And that’s always fun to be a part of and to explore. But for people who may not be as familiar with the idea of urban ecology, or urban ecosystems, or even landscape ecology, when we’re talking about ecology, and landscapes, what counts as urban?

Sara: That is somewhat undecided, I guess. Or a question that people are still talking about. It’s a difficult thing to define very concretely and distinctly.

Certainly, you can think of your typical American suburb or the downtown of a city. Those are definitely urban. Right? Thee land is mostly covered by impervious surfaces and houses and people are going about their daily lives, etc.

It’s when you get to places where you might have low density housing, so on acre or more lots, in exurban areas, so kind of low density areas. When you get out to those kind of far flung areas that you wonder, is that still urban? I think the consensus now, to a certain extent, is that if those far flung areas are connected in some way by transportation, or the movement of people to city centers, aka they owe their existence in large part because of a nearby city or metropolitan center, then those would qualify as urban in the sense that they would fall under the study of urban ecology.

And if you broaden that out, you could include in a metropolitan area, all the natural bits of habitat as well – so, the forest patches and grasslands. Studying those also qualifies as urban ecology because they’re heavily influenced by the city center and the metropolitan area in terms of pollutants, temperature, the types of species that might occur there, the degree to which people visit them (maybe a bit more than they might visit, you know, far flung areas). So, it’s a broad definition.

Shannon: Which I think is important to recognize because it’s easy to say, “Oh, I don’t live in the middle of New York City. So this isn’t urban. Urban ecology doesn’t matter to me.” But, yeah, it does. Because what you just described actually encompasses, I would probably say most of us.

I mean. I live on 40 acres, but I’m two miles from the city limits for the closest town. By your definition, I’m pushing that urban ecology definition. Because of what else is going on in the landscape around me., I’m kind of in that gray zone because it is also moving into agriculture and there’s a lot of cattle farms and stuff like that around me. So I’m definitely in the gray zone, but still it’s influenced here. I see it.

10-15 years ago, definitely not 20-30 years ago, I never would have guessed that I’ve fallen into that urban ecology range, but it does. And I think that’s really important to recognize – that this is something that affects most of us.

Sara: Yeah, absolutely. So using the census definitions, I think it’s something like 86% of Americans live in suburban and urban areas. So those areas that they categorize as suburban or urban. So that’s most everybody, but then there’s these additional places that are definitely interacting with suburban and urban places. You can almost consider urban ecology a way to think about how humans interact with nature. Right? Really wherever you live, a lot of us, like you said, are really close to metropolitan areas and metropolitan areas are starting to get really big and kind of meld into each other.

Shannon: And I mean, especially in the eastern U.S., the vast majority of land is privately owned. So, that just makes understanding this and being able to connect with and invite nature into our yards and communities so much more important, because where else would it be?

Sara: Yeah, absolutely. And there’s so much to see so close to home, I think, if people start looking. I started looking more during the pandemic with my phone and Instagram and just finding really fun stuff. And I think people will be surprised at how much there is.

Shannon: Definitely. Once you start looking anywhere, whether it’s at home or some other place at a national park or wherever, you start to see more. And because we’re at home, or we’re going to the local county park or city park – those nature areas in the urban areas that we were talking about and that you mentioned – you just start to see more and more because you’re there more often. You see the changes and you recognize the changes because it’s not just a snapshot at one particular instant in time.

Sara: Yeah, absolutely. So, one of the statistics that I mentioned in the book is related to how we need to interact with nature more and the extinction of experience. There was a study done on school children in the UK, and they were given the task of feeding birds in their schoolyard for 6 or 8 weeks. And it showed ultimately that, that activity increased their awareness of the environment and led them to do more environmentally themed stuff later on.

But the statistic that I thought was so fascinating was that 80% of the kids who participated in the program thought that the number of birds in their schoolyard shot up by a huge amount – that they gained like 10 species because of bird feeding. But they actually did an ecological survey before and after the bird feeding and there was no change in the species.

So before feeding birds, essentially, the bird species that were there, were invisible to the kids. They couldn’t see them. They didn’t, you know, they didn’t look of their own accord. And, you know, that’s not surprising. But essentially, the birds were totally invisible.

So, I think that’s just astounding that once you start looking, it changes your understanding and perspective on the world. And that’s partly why I’m an ecologist. I just find that process so fun, you know, and exciting.

Shannon: Yes, exactly. And I mean, part of it is you just don’t see it. You just look over it. And part of it is you don’t even realize that there are differences. At least in some cases, that’s what it’s been for me. I mean, I grew up thinking fireflies – there’s one type of firefly in the backyard. And then I started learning about the lightning bugs more. Well, I called them lightning bugs back then. Now I go back and forth between fireflies and lightning bugs.

But then I started learning that no, there are multiple different species, not just different species, like between here and other parts of the world, but different species here. And that when you start to pay attention, you start to learn which ones were which by looking at the flash patterns. That made me start to actually look and open my eyes and see… Yeah, that one flashes differently. And that one flashes differently than that one.

On a July night, I probably have half a dozen plus different flash patterns going on in my yard. And then when you start learning that there’s seasonality between them. So, the ones that you’re seeing in June / July, aren’t the same ones that you saw in April and May… And it’s like, “Ooh….” And then you just keep going down the rabbit hole.

Sara: That’s awesome. That’s great. I get a few fireflies where I live, but definitely not as many as you do. It sounds like.

Shannon: And then of course the birds. We had bird feeders up when I was a kid and growing up. But, you start to learn a few more, and you just have to keep learning more and more and more. Once you start learning a few, you’ve got to learn more. Or at least that’s the way it’s always been for me and a lot of the people I know.

Sara: Yeah, yeah, definitely.

Shannon: So, in these urban/suburban areas and yards and communities, you’ve done research on it and you’ve written the book. What are some of the things that you think are most important for people to do to make a difference where they live?

Sara: Sure. So that was a major reason why I wrote a book on this topic. I’m really passionate about nature. I want to conserve nature and I want to share with people that there’s lots of stuff – really easy things – that people can do to make a positive difference to nature where they live.

So the book is separated into chapters that are focused on different spaces where you might encounter nature where you live – like your yard, your street, your neighborhood. And I’ve tried to include as many things in each of those chapters and sidebars of recommendations that people can do as possible. It spans the gamut from making changes to the vegetation in your yard to promote birds to green stormwater infrastructure to getting involved in planning in your city.

I think for a great place to start, one of those first theme chapters is your yard. So, I’ve got five easy things that you can do to make your yard more bird friendly. And those things are simply too. One, add more habitat. Just add more vegetation to your yard. There’s always something you can add to your yard and you’ll probably attract more bird species by doing so.

Two is try to diversify the structure of vegetation in your yard. So, have some lawn, have some shrubs, have some taller vegetation. Give the birds a variety of types of plants and then a variety of plant structure in terms of height and shape. Birds love berries. There’s also good research that shows that bird feeding is net positive for birds. So, putting a bird feeder out and adding vegetation that offers berries to birds is great.

And then trying to curb predation by your cat. So one of my favorite photos in the book is a picture of my cat, Slippers, with a BirdsBeSafe collar on, which is kind of like a fluorescent very colorful scrunchie around his neck, which he has finally gotten used to. And anecdotally, there’s actually studies that show that really reduces predation by cats. And I’ve definitely found that it works in my yard. So, your yard is a great place to get out and do stuff.

Shannon: And I love the fact that you did have those different scales or levels. Thate was kind of the way I envisioned it, was different scales. What you can do right in your yard and then kind of moving out to broader and broader areas.

And what you talked about with the birds, those 5 things are so important for birds, but it also works for butterflies. I mean, it really works at every different scale, no matter what type of animal you want to attract. It’s really helpful to have all those different things, that different diversity of vegetation, the diversity of structure…

Sara: Yeah. And so adding to that, I think I include in the book some specific recommendations for pollinator gardens. So, diversity of plant species, etc., where to put that pollinator garden… So, there’s the type of habitat and its structure.

And then the other kind of big container of things is thinking about the quality of that habitat. So, try to reduce the amount of pesticides you use in your yard. Right? That’s a really big contributor to insect declines. And then that leads to bird declines and, you know, kind of up the food chain. And that’s the case even for those environmentally friendly pesticides that companies try to sell.

So, you know, if you can’t eliminate it completely, I understand, but try to reduce, the application. Try to mow your lawn less. If you can. Again, there was a big study that showed that actually mowing less frequently significantly increases insect biomass and diversity. So they looked at a huge number of studies and that was the general conclusion from all of those.

I came back from a trip to see my parents up north and you know, we hadn’t mowed the lawn in a while. I don’t actually mow the lawn. If it was up to me, it would be like waist high. But so it hadn’t been mowed in a little while. It wasn’t that bad, but we came back and there were dragonflies. We’ve got cicada killer wasps. We’ve got everybody just kind of zipping and flying around. And my cat, Slippers, was just amazed he’d been inside for two weeks. So, just looking outside. And then on top of that, we had chimney swifts just circling over our yard, which I love chimney swifts so much.

So, you know, it really doesn’t take long for things to come to your yard and you to get visibly an ecosystem happening.

Shannon: And that’s the fun part when you do have that ecosystem. So, you have all the different insects, and you have all the different predators of those insects, whether they’re other insects or whether they’re birds or whatever. It’s having that diversity. It makes it so much more fun to see everything

Sara: Yeah, yeah, for sure.

Shannon: So, what are some of the things that you’ve done in your yard that have really helped to bring in some of the nature to your yard?

Sara: I’ve been living in my current house for seven years. And it was like an extension of an existing bungalow. So, they kept the original vegetation except for the lawn and maybe like some small shrubs. So, all we had in the backyard were some large hibiscus bushes that have been there for maybe like 70 years or something. One large dogwood that had been there probably for 80 years and it was kind of on its last legs. And then a whole bunch of Chinese privet at the back right at the bottom of the yard and nothing else really. So just thinking about the backyard and in the front, it was just lawn.

So, we’ve added quite a bit. We’ve got a little vegetable garden. We’ve tried to add as many wild native pollinator plants as we can, so native wildflowers. We’ve got an area around a hot, kind of dry area near the driveway and the house. And we just put native pollinator seeds there every spring and that doesn’t require a lot of watering. We don’t fertilize that much and we don’t water that much. And that seems to, you know, get going really well.

I’m working now on two areas. One in the back corner where we had pollinator plants and now we’ve kind of let it go wild. And there’s some invasive plants in there. There’s stuff taking over. We’ve got some mint mixed in there. But we’ve noticed at the back corner now, bunnies and rabbits are starting to hang out there. We had goldfinches. We had all kinds of different things are coming up. So, we had kind of like a thistley plant that came up and goldfinches were, you know, attacking the seeds of that when they dried out.

So, it’s at the back and we can kind of look at it and it’s got lots of wildlife just enjoying the bit of mess, which I kind of like, but which is spontaneous gardening. Right? I really like native vines. So, I’ve added a trumpet vine. I’ve added Carolina honeysuckle. I’ve got crossvine. I’ve got a native climbing aster. I’ve got Carolina jasmine. I also have confederate jasmine, which I don’t think is native. And then something from Georgia also, that doesn’t do too well, but seems to just stay, you know, content in one corner. So, the hummingbird comes and visits those and we clip low flowers so that there’s no interaction with the cat and we kind of keep everything copacetic.

And then the other interesting thing is, I’ve got a wet area on the left of the house. That was just lawn and it’s always been a problem to mow because that’s really where our runoff from the backyard flows. So, we’ve stopped mowing and we’ve had mistflower come in. We noticed a few of those coming in. That’s a native flower. It’s beautiful. It’s kind of a light purple. It’s a really gorgeous plant. So we’re letting that just actually take over that whole space next to our house. I want to add some swamp hibiscus and maybe some other water loving plants and maybe a little trail. It’s not that big of a space, but maybe a little trail. So, that’s kind of becoming a spontaneous rain garden area.

And then the last maybe big thing is we’ve gotten rid of about a third of the lawn in the front of the house. So, we’ve planted lots of different native and non native plants in that area and put down some rocks and stuff to control the runoff so that it doesn’t rush to the street as fast as it used to on that side of the house.

Shannon: Sounds like you’ve done a lot.

Sara: Yeah.

Shannon: A lot of different types of things too.

Sara: Yeah, yeah. So, I’m not a huge planner when it comes to nature. I just like to see what happens. So, we tend to buy plants and stick them in and do this and do that, which is kind of fun.

Shannon: So keeping it real, and especially since you do kind of do a little bit of everything. What have you tried that didn’t work so well? And what are some of those lessons learned? Because I’m of the opinion that none of us have enough time to make all the mistakes. So, let’s learn from each other.

Sara: I think there’s always lessons learned in terms of the type of plant and where it’ll do well, right? So, you know, a certain proportion of your plants, you’re going to put them in, you’ll try to take the best care of them as possible, but they’re just not happy. It’s not going to work out.

I think for me the biggest lesson learned, which I’m still thinking about, is weeds. So, like I said, we don’t use any pesticides, including weed killers, except we do if some poison ivy pops up or things like that. When we got rid of the lawn at the front, we put down mulch.

We’ve tried to plant plants. We’re doing a lot of this ourselves. So, it takes time. It takes effort. There’s a lot of open mulch space. And so, we decided to zap it with pesticides to start with. So, to clean it up. We can’t keep on top of those weeds by weeding alone, not where we live. We’re in North Carolina. Right? It’s just not possible.

And I know some of those weeds are we call them weeds, but some are not necessarily invasive, right? They’re not going to spread like crazy. They might just be kind of unwanted plants or things that come up and then some spread like crazy. So that’s a source of, I don’t know, tension in my mind.

I’m not really sure what kind of garden I want to have. I don’t want a garden totally overrun with Bahama grass or crab grass, but I don’t also want to regularly apply pesticides. So, I think right now, that’s probably my biggest issue in terms of how I want to organize stuff.

Shannon: Figuring out how to deal with those unwanted plants and the weeds, I think that’s something that a lot of people struggle with, especially in the early years, before things really fill in as much. That’s one of the reasons why I’ve started, especially when I’m working with plants and not seeds, when I can overly planting – planting much more densely. Knowing that, yes, I’m going to have to eventually go in and dig out half those and I’ll just move them to another area. But to try and keep down on some of those weeds and some of that encroachment because, it’s like you said, if it’s mulch, something’s going to try and come in.

Sara: Yeah. And I think that’s probably the mistake we made in the front when we got rid of lawn. We didn’t plant densely enough. And yeah, I think that’s great advice. We like to plant in the fall so that things have a better chance to survive and it’s not as extreme in terms of the heat and lack of water and stuff.

Shannon: Yes. Fall is such a great time and it’s something that took me forever to learn – just how wonderful it is to plant in the fall. Because I’m like everybody else. I get that spring itch. It warms up. Everything greens up. And now it’s time to go play in the dirt and plant stuff. And that’s not usually the best time to plant things. It works. We all make it work, but the fall, it tends to be so much better for so many different reasons. I mean, it fits the physiology of the plants better even.

Sara: Yeah, yeah. I was like you, and my husband has convinced me, because I get excited too and there’s lots of plant sales in the spring. We have a great, bird sanctuary / botanical garden near our house. They have a plant sale. UNC Charlotte has a native plant sale. But the fall is much better and then things have a chance to hang around and just get used to those particular conditions.

Shannon: Right. And the roots keep growing until the ground gets to like 40 degrees or lower, usually. So, I mean, where I’m at in Kentucky, we’re looking at after Christmas, usually. Where you’re at in Charlotte, does it ever get that low for very long?

Sara: No, not really. I’ve been amazed at how long you can get vegetables over the winter. You can grow collards and different vegetables all year round, except maybe in the really hot period in the summer.

Shannon: Once you plant in the fall, you’re getting that better root establishment, which means in the spring, they’re going to green up better and they’re going to do more. And physiologically in the fall, they’re not trying to produce new vegetative growth. They’re not trying to reproduce, create flowers and everything. So, more energy is going to the root. They’re not going into shock, because like you said, the weather’s better. I mean, it is such a better time to plant. But we never think of it like that.

Sara: Yeah, yeah.

Shannon: Then of course, water features are always awesome for wildlife and especially birds and butterflies. And it doesn’t have to be something fancy. I mean, when you’re talking about pollinators, just a wet spot in the dirt works really well.

Sara: They can do their puddling. I love that. I love that word. So, yeah, we don’t have one of those in our yard. And that’s something I think in our climate, that might be one of, like, the major limiting things around here – the availability of water.

When we have left water out for cats previously we got a lot of raccoons coming. We might even get coyotes coming. We get a lot of stuff coming to visit the house. So, that’s something also that I would need to do a bit more research on before I put something in. Because I know we’ve got deer and foxes and coyotes, possums, raccoons, what have you.

Shannon: Yeah, like you said, you’ll have to do some research on it. Because yeah, we’ve got everything too. I mean, we’re on 40 acres. We’re kind of getting into the more rural agricultural areas. Yeah. We’ve got everything. I mean, a couple of months ago, we watched a bobcat walk through the yard.

Sara: Oh, that’s so cool.

Shannon: Yes. Like I said, we’ve got everything pretty much. But if you’re looking for the little critters, like the insects and the pollinators, you don’t have to have that bowl of water out that will attract the possums and the raccoons and stuff, which are really cool to watch as long as they behave. But when they try and get in your attic or into your garage or into your garbage or something like that, not so much.

You have to look at those human-wildlife interactions and are they positive or negative as well. So, maybe leaving water out isn’t a good idea. But, a little muddy spot? The mammals aren’t coming to, but you’re still going to get some of the insect that might be helped by it.

Sara: That’s an excellent point. And I know possibly for butterflies, even just some gravelly open areas as well. So, you can have the flowers, but those open areas that might have a bit of water in them would be good as well.

Shannon: Right. And I mean, where I see the most puddling going on, on our property, is on the gravel driveway.

Sara: Oh, okay.

Shannon: And it’s exactly that. I’m sure they’re going after the minerals that are leaching out of the limestone gravel, But yeah, like you said, the little gravelly areas.

Sara: Yeah, that’s so cool.

Shannon: So, what are some of the other critters that you found in your yard or in your community? Because it’s not just about what’s in your yard. I mean, you go for a walk and you might see stuff as well.

Sara: I’ve found lots of stuff. So, just thinking back to another, a couple more vines. These have come up spontaneously in my yard. We’ve got the native yellow passionflower vine.

Shannon: You’ve got the yellow one?

Sara: Yeah, we’ve got tons of that and that is fascinating. I think it needs a bit of support, right? It doesn’t overtake plants, but it’ll climb onto a plant. It needs a bit of support to get going and it produces these berries and these fantastic like satellite dish kind of flowers, which are amazing. And since I’ve found that in my yard, I’ve noticed that in my neighborhood and across Charlotte, like it’s everywhere. It’s kind of folded into hedges and just in kind of areas that aren’t managed that well and hanging out everywhere.

I’ve also got a snail shellseed vine. I think that’s what it’s called. That’s another native. I think it’s called Carolina snailseed, snailseed vine, something like that. That’s another native one that I thought it looked a lot like English ivy, but it’s not and it’s also pretty well behaved. So, I leave that whenever that occurs. I kind of, you know, let it do its thing.

I remember during the pandemic. So, I was home. I have a young son. We were home for several months and tried to spend as much time outdoors as possible. I discovered a kind of an electric blue and black spider on my deck. And so I used iNaturalist to identify it. I’m not a spider specialist and iNaturalist is fantastic. If your listeners haven’t downloaded it, it’s awesome. It’s just an app you can download on your phone.

And so that was an ant mimicking spider and those types of spiders spend their lives, except for this one, I guess, which was on my deck, but spend their lives in ant hills eating ants. And they get to do that because they look like ants. So they actually hide in plain sight. You find all these interesting kind of horrifying things going on in your yard that you weren’t aware of.

We’ve had quite a few reptiles. We’ve got a black rat snake that had babies one year. We had a box turtle. I’ve only seen it once when we first moved in, and I would love the box turtle to come back. We’ve got certainly Carolina anoles. We’ve got skinks.

And then the thing that I’ve noticed, which has been really fun… Down the street, we’ve got a lot of infill development going on in Charlotte, there were old bungalows that were rentals that were replaced with apartment buildings, basically. And they constructed a new stormwater pond – pretty big one. And that’s next to a stream; there’s lots of streams in Charlotte. I’ve been monitoring the amphibians that have come to that pond. So we’ve had Fowler’s toads. We’ve had gray tree frogs. We now have green tree frogs. And those things are in that big pond, but they’re also just in kind of in grassy depressions on the construction site. Just trying to, you know, find any space that works for them.

We’ve got lots of barred owls in our neighborhood. We have a Cooper’s hawk in our neighborhood, which is actually kind of like a more foresty hawk, which is really cool. And he hangs out.

I’ve got a secret peach tree. The pandemic was a weird time because you know, the school behind us was closed. So, my son and I would just, you know, wander around the schoolyard and there’s a peach tree at one end that had grown from probably some student throwing a peach pit. So, we collected peaches. The Cooper’s hawk is in there quite often. And I think actually in terms of raptors, I saw a juvenile bald eagle once perch on a dead willow oak. Right at the top. And I’m pretty sure I saw a pair of Peregrine Falcons hunting last fall, w hich was really cool. I was kind of following them throughout the neighborhood.

And all kinds of stuff. Yeah, I could talk for hours.

Shannon: Yeah. And we always think there’s nothing in the cities, but there are.

Sara: Right. Yeah. Yeah.

Shannon: Several years ago now, probably about 11 or 12 years ago, we lived in town. It wasn’t a Charlotte, North Carolina sized town. This was a relatively small town, but we were in the middle of it. We actually lived within the city limits.

I’d have my windows open during the spring and it was amazing how many different frogs I could hear from, like you said, the ditches and the little retention ponds and stuff around and all the different species. Like you said, there’s a lot here once you start looking. It’s just that we forget to look a lot of times.

Sara: Yeah, definitely. The pandemic was a very challenging time, right, for everybody. But I think for some, at least, we got outside. And in my case, it was a really special time, you know, just getting to investigate my yard and my neighborhood, spending time with my son, but discovering all these new cool things.

I’ll just add on the idea of amphibians that I live in a quite urban place actually. I’ve got a yard but I’m really close to downtown Charlotte. So it’s pretty urban and there’s a lot of development, but we have a stream running near us. It goes through a little park, and it’s a pretty impacted stream. It drains major thoroughfares. And it took me maybe 10 minutes to find a salamander in there. It didn’t take long at all. The stream was silty. It didn’t look great. But there’s a two line salamander in there hanging out.

So I think from that experience and then as more people are doing urban ecology and more papers are published, I’m beginning to suspect that there’s way more species in cities than we assume. We just haven’t really looked that much. And so, it’s a fun time be living in a city and to think about this and to consider it kind of like a huge area to explore.

Shannon: Exactly. And I mean, even lichens, which lichens are extremely sensitive to pollution, especially air pollution. And a year or so ago I had a podcast interview with somebody who was studying lichens. And in fact, he was one of the coauthors of the book, Urban Lichens. He was saying that, yeah, there’s a lot more showing up in cities now than they really thought, and for the same reason. Part of it’s the air quality is better, so things are being able to colonize, but part of it is people are looking.

Sara: Yeah. And so that reminds me, I don’t know if you’re familiar with the City Nature Challenge.

Shannon: No, not really.

Sara: Yeah, so that’s like a community science, or a citizen science, initiative. It’s its own program. I’m not sure if it’s connected to iNaturalist or not. I don’t think it is. But every year in the spring, and I think it’s around April, you can sign up to BioBlitz your city. Over a 24 hour period or maybe it’s a week period, I can’t remember, you go out and try to find as many species as possible. Last year, they found 50,000 different species in the cities that participated.

Shannon: Oh, wow. How many cities? Do you know?

Sara: 430 cities around the world.

Shannon: That’s pretty good.

Sara: Yeah, it’s pretty good. Then another global study in 150 or 147 different cities found that those cities contained 20% of all bird species on the planet. And those are just like samples, right? They’re the best we can do, but they’re certainly not exhaustive samples.

Shannon: So yeah, there’s a lot more there and it’s not all exotic species either. Yes, there are a lot of exotic invasive species around cities and towns and stuff like that. But it’s not all that. There are some good stuff there too. Some native stuff that are really interesting and fun. And there’s even been endangered species found in the middle of a suburb on vacant lots and stuff. Like you said, yes, it’s highly impacted, but highly impacted doesn’t mean that there’s nothing.

Sara: Yeah, absolutely. So, another thing down from my house a few years ago I found a small flock of redheaded woodpeckers foraging as they were moving through. And that species is in really steep decline. I don’t think it’s categorized as endangered or threatened necessarily, but it’s in very steep decline.

Shannon: Yes, it’s in steep decline. It’s got some state designations to it, but nothing on the federal level.

Sara: Right.

Shannon: That’s really cool that you had a whole flock of redheaded woodpeckers coming through. That’s always fun. That’s one of the ones that I haven’t found on here yet, but I wouldn’t expect to see it on our property. We just don’t have the right mix of habitats.

Sara: Okay.

Shannon: I know some places I can go to find it. And not too far from us. It’s just not here.

You were talking about at the very beginning how part of what you do is look at how different organisms are found in different parts of the city and different ways that affects those organisms. Different organisms are found in different parts of wilder areas, too. So, I mean, it’s just taking into account a different set of variables and bringing the human element into it too.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with us?

Sara: I hope that people buy the book and read the book. But I guess the one thing I can say… In the introduction, I include a small section on how to use this book. I’ve tried to structure it so that you can read it from start to finish if you want, and I would love for you to do that, but you can also flip through it to the different areas.

Each area explains how you’re connected to nature in terms of how you influence nature, that’s the first half of a chapter. Then how it influences you, that’s the second half. And those are clearly distinguished with heading so you can flip to either one of those. And then the sidebars are easily findable. So, you could also just use the book for those, which is fine. And then kind of the lessons and main messages are summarized in the conclusion.

So it’s really meant to be yes, a book, but also hopefully something that gets dirty and is outside and that you use to do stuff because that’s really the point for people to get outside. Start, you know, building their relationship with nature and taking some super easy, quick actions that will actually make a difference.

We’re talking more and more about that in terms of climate change and species loss – that people’s actions add up and they can make a huge difference to mitigating these crises that we’re going through. So, I think it’s time to think positively about nature and get out there and do stuff to connect with it and then to conserve it.

Shannon: Yes, and that was one of the things I really liked about the book, too, was that you had all the stuff about how as humans we influence nature, but then you brought in how nature influences us. I think that’s a piece that also gets lost a lot of times is that it’s not just us impacting nature. Nature has its own effects on us, and very positive effects for the most part.

Sara: Yeah, and I think like you’re saying, those effects are a lot bigger than we realize. I think, especially in cities and suburbs, we might think that we can live without nature. We can totally design and use technology to live high quality lives and not really consider nature. But as I wrote this book, nature creates you know our environment for us, even in cities.

It allows us to have clean air, moderated temperatures. It really helps I think a lot with alleviating urban flooding and the quality of our water much more so than we’re really realizing. So, looking at the research, I think that’s a bigger thing than people are realizing. And a lot of people are fortunate in America to have generally pretty good quality of life, right? And those things are kind of a given for a lot of people, but it’s because you probably have some good trees outside and there’s generally some parks and forested areas that have been preserved and those things make a difference.

And then, I’ll also add, there’s also so much research now showing how nature actually makes you happy. It significantly improves your life satisfaction. It reduces stress. It alleviates, particularly for urban dwellers, mental fatigue. So, you know, if you’re just buffeted by traffic and all kinds of stuff to do and all that kind of stuff, it helps with that.

There’s a recent study out of Europe that looked at multiple European cities and 26,000 people. It found that the bird diversity of natural areas in your neighborhood had a significant positive effect on life satisfaction among residents to the same magnitude that a 10% bump in income would.

Shannon: Oh, wow.

Sara: Yeah, and that’s the different types of bird species that you see. And so it’s just fascinating to think about walking down the street and if you see like lots of different bird species, you’ll be like, “Yeah, my life’s pretty good.”

Shannon: Yeah, and I’m assuming that this was done just with the general public, not with nature geeks like us who are, of course, going to be happier if we see more birds because, well, it’s more birds and more stuff for us to have fun watching.

Sara: Yeah, exactly. Like a lot of these studies, it’s a sample of the population and they’re controlling for stuff like income, your health status, education level. They’re controlling for other things, obviously, that would impact life satisfaction or the measure that they’re looking at. So, there’s a lot of robust results that are showing nature has a measurable and significant effect on our mental health.

Shannon: Yes. And I mean, who isn’t busy and stressed nowadays? Unfortunately it’s become the norm. So anytime you can find a way to mediate that a little bit, it’s always a good thing. And if that means helping to have a little bit more nature outside in your own yard, then that’s a good thing. That’s an easy way to do it.

Sara: It’s really easy. It doesn’t need to be complicated. You just need to go and do it.

I teach an urban ecology course and then also a biodiversity of the NC Piedmont course. In the biodiversity course, that’s second year students, I got students to just put their phones down and go to a space where they felt very comfortable. So, their backyard or somewhere, they felt safe and comfortable that was natural and to just observe, not do anything, just observe what was going on around them, then write a reflection piece about that 20 minutes.

And I just got the most lovely prose and thoughtful insights and feedback – “I’ve never done this,” “I can’t believe that I wasn’t bored you know, that I had stuff to look at,” “I thought about this and it helped me to make a decision about this.” And that was a wonderful experience. And then in my urban ecology course this past semester, I cover forest bathing in the book. So that’s a way to interact with nature through all of your senses either sitting or walking when you’re in a natural area.

So, we had a forest bathing therapist come and lead us through a session just on the campus of UNC Charlotte at the Botanical Gardens where we’ve got a very mature forested area. And at first, the students were a little skeptical. They were like, “What is this going to be about?” But, we all totally thoroughly got into it. People were hugging trees, talking to trees, smelling leaves, just really getting into the whole experience, and everyone absolutely loved it.

It was a lovely way to spend a class session that taught you something, but you weren’t looking at a screen. You weren’t using a computer. Weren’t in an indoor kind of classroom. And I think we need to build more of those experiences, which are just as valuable and insightful a lot of times as the ones that we’re typically used to. You know, the stuff that we’ve got to do from day to day. And I think that’s happening.

Shannon: I think so too. Well, this has been really interesting. Thank you so much for talking with us and for writing the book. If people want to get in touch with you to ask questions or learn more, can they?

Sara: Of course, yes, I love for people to get in touch with me. My email address is s g a g n e at charlotte.edu. And you can also check out my website www s a r a g a g n e. com.

Shannon: Sounds great. I will have links in the show notes with your email links to your book, links to your webpage, all that good stuff, because that’s just much easier than trying to scribble it down while you’re listening to a podcast. Or at least it is for me. So, I’ll make sure it’s nice and easy for everybody.

Sara: Great. Thank you so much. This has been a fantastic hour. It’s been really very pleasant and I’ve learned stuff from you and I hope the listeners also learned something.

Shannon: I’m sure they will. We’ve all got stuff to share no matter where you are at in your journey. And some of the plants that you were talking about sounded really interesting, but they’re not ones I’ve ever heard of. I’m assuming they’re more coastal plain species than where I’m at, but still, it’s interesting. It’s great to have that diversity of views and plants, because not everybody lives where I live and my plants aren’t going to grow everywhere. Just like with you. So I always love having people from other areas that can share different insights.

But, yeah. Thanks again and have a great day.

Sara: Okay. Thank you so much.

Shannon: Bye. Bye.

Sara: Bye.

Shannon: I appreciate Sara taking the time to talk with us. Urban ecology is a subject that I think needs to be discussed more often because it deals with where we live. I truly believe that we can all make a difference. And inviting nature into our yards and communities – making our urban ecosystems more sustainable – can go a long way towards making that difference.

But even if I wasn’t a lifelong nature lover, I would still think that studying nature where we live and finding ways to connect with it is extremely important because of the positive impacts that nature can have on our physical, mental, and emotional health. Books and research like Sara’s are one of the stepping stones in this conversation.

As I wrap up, I want to remind you that incorporating native plants into your landscape is a great way to improve the habitat in your yard for butterflies, hummingbirds, songbirds, and just about every other type of animal that visits your property. If you want to learn more about gardening with native plants, then I’d like to give you a free copy of our e-book, An Introduction to Gardening with Native Plants: Hardiness Zones and Ecoregions. Just go to www.backyardecology.net/ecoregions to request your copy.

Until next week I encourage you to take some time to explore the nature in your yard and community.

Back to top

Episode image:

  • Pollinator garden along a street in a suburban neighborhood.
  • Photo credit: USFWS, public domain

Backyard Ecology: Exploring Nature in Your Backyard
Nature isn’t just “out there.” It’s all around us, including right outside our doors. Hi, my name is Shannon Trimboli, and I am the host of Backyard Ecology. I live in southcentral Kentucky and am a wildlife biologist, educator, author, beekeeper, and owner of a nursery specializing in plants for pollinators and wildlife conservation. I invite you to join me as we ignite our curiosity and natural wonder, explore our yards and communities, and improve our local pollinator and wildlife habitat. Learn more or subscribe to my email list at www.backyardecology.net.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.