A Closer Look at Backyard Nature
Updated: Sep 5, 2019
Look closely at the habitat in your backyard or a nearby open space and you will likely find plants, animals, and other features that went unnoticed before. From salamanders to fungi to evidence of nocturnal mammals, here is a starter list of interesting things to look for next time you step outside.
The Life Cycle of the Monarch Butterfly
A monarch butterfly in its adult form, fluttering above a garden, is a common sight on sunny days, but the other stages of its life cycle- eggs, caterpillars, and chrysalises (cocoons), are often overlooked. Female monarchs lay their eggs on milkweed plants, which become the sole food source of the caterpillars once they hatch after about four days. (The caterpillars use the toxicity of the milkweed leaves as a defense mechanism against predators.) Once the caterpillars are around two weeks old, they attach themselves underneath an object (either a natural feature such as a branch, or a manmade one such as a fence rail) and form a chrysalis. Inside the chrysalis, the caterpillar undergoes metamorphosis and hatches as a butterfly after about ten days. Look for eggs and caterpillars on milkweed plants, and chrysalises attached under outdoor tables, fence rails, umbrellas, tree branches, or other surfaces. If you find a chrysalis, monitor it and you may be able to watch it hatch!
Items that Animals have Moved Out of Place
Orange peels on the lawn, eggshells in the bushes, and rotting fruit far away from any fruit trees are all signs that animals have been foraging in your neighborhood. Sometimes, you can determine which animal left the evidence by the type of object, the damage done to the object, or its location. For example, orange peels and peanut shells are often left by crows after eating what is inside, often far away from where the crow originally got the food. (Hollowed-out orange peels under an orange tree, however, are often a sign of rodents eating the fruit off the tree and letting the remnants fall). Fruit remnants, eggshells, scraps from your compost pile, and other items found under dense vegetation, especially where there appears to be a pathway or tunnel through the greenery, are evidence of skunks, raccoons, or opossums. The same goes for any food item too large for a crow to pick up (e.g. a whole apple with bites taken out) that is found far away from its source.
Areas where Rodents Feed
Seed hulls and other small items scattered along fence lines or stuffed in crevices often show that rats, mice, or squirrels have been feeding there. This is often accompanied by animal droppings, which can help you identify the specific rodent(s) that left the evidence. If there are no rodent droppings present, but there are bird droppings, the seed remnants were probably left by birds. If the seed remnants are inside a crevice, especially if anything that looks like nesting material is also present or if the edges of the hole have been gnawed, you may be looking at the nest of a rat or mouse.
Why is there suddenly an oak tree growing in your yard that you never planted? It probably grew from an acorn brought there by a bird or squirrel. Animals sometimes “store” acorns in various places to feed on them later (or to feed on the insects that hatch inside them). Since not every acorn hidden by an animal is picked up again, this helps spread oak trees throughout the ecosystem, which may include your yard. The types of native seedlings you may find growing randomly in your yard are not limited to oaks, and may have been brought to your yard either by animals (sometimes deposited in animal scat) or by tracking them in on your shoes from a nearby open space. Leaving these seedlings to grow in your yard will help enhance its value to wildlife. However, be careful, as some seedlings that grow as “volunteers” are not native plants, but exotic invasives that are detrimental to both natural habitat and backyard landscapes.
Not all bees live in hives like the familiar honeybee. Other backyard bees, such as carpenter and mason bees, live alone and are known as solitary bees. Female carpenter bees bore tunnels inside natural and manmade wooden objects (except for painted or sealed surfaces), and lay their eggs in chambers within these tunnels. They separate the chambers using wood shavings that have been chewed into a paper-like material. Tunnel entrances are often seen as round, quarter-inch wide holes in wooden surfaces.
Mason bees build similar nests inside existing tubular cavities, including plant stems and old carpenter bee nests. Instead of using chewed wood to separate the chambers of their nests, mason bees use mud that they harvest nearby.
Both carpenter and mason bees serve as pollinators for native and cultivated plants, and are a food source for certain birds (such as woodpeckers). Nesting boxes to attract solitary bees can be bought online or at garden centers, or made at home out of bamboo stalks or a block of drilled wood. If you choose to drill nesting cavities for bees, ideal dimensions are 5/16 inch diameter and 6 inch length.
While many people associate amphibians with wet habitats such as ponds, creeks, and lakes, you may also have some living in dark, damp places in your own yard. The Black-Bellied Slender Salamander (Batrachoseps nigriventus) is a common backyard amphibian in Santa Barbara that some people mistake for a worm at first glance. These tiny animals are often found living underneath rocks or woodpiles or along the edges of compost bins. They have not been well-studied, but they are thought to prey on worms and other small invertebrates. Look for them in cool, dark places, especially after a rain.
Fungi, Mosses, and Lichens
These three types of organisms can often be found in habitats that are cool, shaded, and moist, including areas in backyards.
Fungi, often seen as mushrooms or molds, come in many colors and forms, and play a major role in ecosystems by decomposing organic matter. Though they may resemble plants, they belong to a category of their own. Find them growing from decaying logs, on tree trunks as parasites, or out of the ground after a rain. Some are highly toxic, such as Amanita mushrooms, some are edible such as the Chanterelle (above left), and others, such as the Chicken-of-the-Woods, are either edible or toxic depending on what plant they are growing on. To be safe, though, it’s generally recommended not to eat any wild mushrooms, even if you think you have positively identified them.
Mosses (above middle) are tiny plants that lack roots and absorb moisture and nutrients through their leaves instead. Because they absorb substances so readily from their environment, their ability to thrive in an area can indicate that the air quality is relatively good. Where the air quality is poor, you will not find as many healthy mosses because it is difficult for them to tolerate absorbing the contaminants. Mosses provide food for various insects and other small animals, and also help prevent soil erosion. Find them on rocks, bricks, logs, or on the ground.
Lichens (above right), sometimes mistaken for mosses, are combinations of two organisms, a fungus and an algae, in a symbiotic relationship. The fungal component protects the organism, helps retain water, and sometimes absorbs certain nutrients and minerals from the environment, while the algal component stores energy by undergoing photosynthesis. Lichens are often found on rocks, tree trunks, and many other surfaces, including manmade structures or patio furniture. They often look crusty, feathery, or moss-like.
Chrysalis: Sid Mosdell, CC BY 4.0
Monarch butterfly: Tom Shockey, CC BY 4.0
Mason bee: stanze, CC BY-SA 2.0
Slender salamander: Brian Gratwicke, CC BY-SA 4.0
Chanterelle mushrooms: Strobilomyces, CC BY-SA 3.0
All other photos: The Skunk Corner