Backyard Habitats – Lesson 2
In Lesson 1 we looked all over our yards for habitats where animals might live. There were dead trees, live trees, rocks, logs, leaves, and others. I am not sure what you found in your yard but today we have decided to look closer at one of them – leaves.
Earlier this week I asked you all to do a homework assignment. That was to rake three different piles of leaves and leave them in your yard. What we are going to do is uncovering them each week and see who is living there – but we have to give it some time. They will not come right away. Mulch in your flowerbed will work for this as well.
If you have had a pile of leaves, or mulch, down on the ground for a long time, you will notice that it becomes wet, damp, and warm at the bottom. Many people do this intentionally to make good soil – we call it compositing.
Leaves are what we call “organic”. They are the products of living creatures. Organic compounds, like the ones in leaves, will breakdown over time and can form good soil. Some people build what we call compost bins and place organic items in there. Things like leaves, bark, orange and banana peels, and coffee grinds. These bins can be made from wood, some are bought from stores and are plastic, it could just be a pile in the yard – but the pile must be vertical so that it “cooks” properly. The pile needs to be “turned over” with a rake periodically so that it can get oxygen (but not too frequently… give it some time), and it also needs a little water – the magic molecule – which it can get from rain, or maybe a sprinkler.
As the pile breaks down, it creates a habitat that organisms like to live. Some of these organisms, like worms, actually help the organic pile to break down and are a crucial part of the process of creating this new habitat. The process of going from a new space to a living habitat is called succession. As we begin the process of building new habitats with our leaf piles, we will be able to see which creatures come first and who shows up later. Many of the creatures that show up later are there to eat the ones that help the leaves become soil.
All of these creatures use this habitat to hide from larger predators like lizards and birds. You MAY find some of these lizards beneath the leaves.
Oh… sometimes pine needles do not work as well as oak leaves. Pine needles can release compounds as they break down that keep the full compositing process from happening. BUT I have found piles of pine straw that have been there for a while wet/damp at the bottom and creatures living within.
Some of the creatures we have found doing this are:
Rollie pollies – which are small crustaceans, some call pill bugs. As the name implies, they roll up when you pick them up to protect themselves.
Earwigs – or what some call “pincher bugs”. These long insects have a pincer on their tail.
Spiders – yep… spiders are common, and you should be careful not to handle them. All spiders have some form of venom and can leave a nasty bite. Some can make you quite sick. Move them with a stick. Do not pick them up.
Earthworms – these guys usually do not show up until the pile has “cooked” for a while. Some can be quite big, and they are very important in making the soil even better for plants.
Cockroaches – are you ready for this… cockroaches. I know people who pick up snakes but will scream when they see a cockroach. You will probably find some so be ready and don’t scream too loud.
Skinks – skinks are small lizards… really small. They usually show up later in the succession process as a predator. They are fast and hard to catch, but hopefully you will find one before this is over.
Flower–Pot Snake – correctly called the Brahminy blind snake, this is a non-native species that really likes flower gardens, mulch, and compost. They are blind and a big one will be only a few inches long. They are usually a blueish color and are often mistaken for earthworms. They feed on the larvae of ants and termites. They are considered invasive by some.
Ants – you all know what ants are… be careful 😊
Millipedes and Centipedes – these look very similar but are different. They have segmented bodies and many legs on each segment. The millipedes have two sets of legs on each segment, the centipedes only one. It is important to tell them apart because the centipedes can give a painful bite. Centipedes are usually larger and much faster. Move them with a stick.
Let’s go outside and do an activity…
First – if you have not, rake at least three piles of leaves (or pine straw) somewhere in your yard that you can explore next week. We are going to let it “cook”. If you have mulch in your yard, that will work to. If you have a compost bed, it has probably already been “cooking” and you may find a lot of creatures living there. We will begin looking at these next week.
Second – let’s find a pile of leaves or pine straw that just happens to be on the ground now. These leaves may have fallen recently (a lot of leaves are falling near our house right now) or they may have been there for a while. Let’s go ahead and see what is living in this habitat right now. See how many from the list above you can find. Do you find anything different? Let me know.
Let’s go outside and have fun.