As a 1980s kid, seeing fireflies light up my backyard was an everyday kind of magic. I’d see how many could land on my arm and then watch their light reflect off my skin. Today? A single firefly seems like a small miracle, enough to make an adult stop mid-conversation and point. Look! Firefly!
What happened to the fireflies? We did. Firefly decline is due to development: loss of habitat, pesticide use, and light pollution. In North America, about 1 in 3 firefly species now face extinction.
I opened “Saving Our Trees,” with, “What’s the value of a tree?” I’ll be the first to note my story’s shortcoming: It focuses on the value of trees for people. The value of trees for wildlife is a more immediate, life-or-death proposition. Fireflies like to cozy up in rotting wood and forest floors, and when we develop wooded spaces, they have nowhere to live. Ditto for bees. Ditto for mammals, birds, and raptors. Spend any time on Nextdoor, and you’ll find residents wondering what raccoons and deer are doing in their neighborhoods; the raccoons and deer surely wonder the same about us. And they were here first.
For 50 years, the National Wildlife Federation has encouraged people to create backyard wildlife habitats to give animals safe spaces to live, especially as they lose habitats elsewhere. Charlotte is a leader: We are second only to Austin in the number of certified backyard habitats in any American city. More than 1,500 of our backyards, schools, businesses, and houses of worship are wildlife-friendly. As of 2015, our entire city has qualified as an NWF Community Wildlife Habitat, thanks to Charlotte Wildlife Stewards.
Certifying a yard isn’t difficult. CWS President Donna Bolls talked me through the criteria. A yard must offer five elements to wildlife: food, water, cover, places to raise young, and sustainable practices. You might have more than you realize. Trees feed squirrels, birds, and deer. A bird bath counts as a water source. Shrubs and brush piles provide shelter for bunnies. Once you check off each category, you can register your yard and receive a Certified Wildlife Habitat sign to show off to your human neighbors.
Whitney Bruce runs Wildlife Rescue of Charlotte out of her Windsor Park home, which also has a certified backyard habitat. As a state-licensed wildlife rehabilitator, she cares for animals that were struck by cars or attacked by pets, or flew into windows. Opossums, squirrels, rabbits, and turtles recover in enclosures in her yard. Each day, she sees the toll of development on wildlife, and she says creating safe spaces for animals helps restore the balance that humans disturb.
“Each species plays a role in the balance of the ecosystem. It may not be a species that you like, but they have a purpose,” Whitney says. “Bats eat their weight in mosquitoes every day. Opossums eat venomous snakes and ticks, lots of ticks, plus they don’t carry rabies, and they also clean up carrion. Black rat snakes and owls are great for rodent control.”
Even Whitney, who takes her backyard habitat status to the next level, doesn’t have problems with wildlife getting into her trash or where they shouldn’t. She says sealed home entry points keep people in, animals out.
“Whatever you can do to make life a little easier on them is, in turn, going to stop them from wanting to invade your space,” she says.
Trees are the powerhouses of backyard wildlife sanctuaries, covering multiple categories: food, shelter, and cover for young. One white oak tree supports about 500 species of caterpillar. Donna encourages people to use fallen leaves as free, natural mulch instead of replacing them with materials that were never meant for their yards. (“Pine straw belongs in pine forests,” she says.) Leaves attract insects, like our friend the firefly, as well as birds.
NWF also encourages people to minimize the use of pesticides and herbicides in lawn and garden care. Soil is habitat, too. Chemicals that kill weeds and pests kill fireflies and bees. Each decision we make for our little plot of earth—what we plant, how we grow, what we remove—affects an incalculable number of animals who need a safe space to land.
I get it: A perfect lawn of manicured weed-free grass and colored mulch looks amazing. But fireflies lighting up the yard? Magic.