During their lifespan, leaves capture and convert the suns’ rays, some water, and carbon dioxide into food and the air we breathe. When fall arrives, some trees no longer require their leaves. The orange, red and yellow leaves are let go to be used by other creatures and plants in the environment. This process is interrupted when we remove the leaves. So how does the humble leaf benefit our feathered friends?
THE ONLY VALUABLE LITTER: LEAF LITTER
Before we explore how leaves help birds, we need to start lower down on the food chain, from where the leaf’s journey ends (on the ground). Leaves offer invertebrates (such as butterflies, moths, bees, spiders and beetles) protection from predators and warmth from harsh weather. Insects survive the freezing temperatures by entering into a type of hibernation, diapause, where they stop growing or their metabolism slows down until the signs of spring emerge. They can overwinter as adults, eggs or larvae.
Leaving leaves around the base of native plants and trees will help to maintain them and will go a long way in helping our feathered friends (and attracting them to our backyards!).
What are some species that benefit from leaves? Caterpillars of the silver-spotted skipper butterfly make shelters out of the leaves while luna moth caterpillars remain snug in an intricate silk cocoon curled up inside a leaf. Pregnant bumble bee queens will tuck themselves in the leaf litter for a long rest over winter. What may look like a messy leaf pile is nature’s hotel for hundreds of invertebrates, some of which will be pollinating your plants in the coming spring.
LEAVES HELP MAINTAIN BIODIVERSITY
Your pile of leaves will not be around forever as a natural cleaning crew is already hard at work. There are many small and microscopic organisms in the environment whose life’s work is to clear up and transform organic materials, such as leaves, into substances others can re-use.
Leaves are the food source for soil dwelling creatures: millipedes, woodlice, earthworms and snails. They munch on and digest leaves and have a voracious appetite clearing up 40% of leaf litter. They break down leaves into smaller nutritional pieces which they release into the soil through their feces, or cast.
If we zoom in even further we will see microorganisms, such as fungi, responsible for decomposing the leaves and enriching the soil. The decayed leaves release important nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus into the soil, improving its quality. This means free compost for your plants and vegetables! Leaving leaves around the base of native plants and trees will help to maintain them and will go a long way in helping our feathered friends (and attracting them to our backyards!). A win, win situation. Many birds, from thrushes and juncos to cardinals and warblers, rely on berries over the colder months. Therefore, if you plant and maintain shrubs such as elderberries, juniper, winterberry holly and red-osier dogwood, it will ensure a restaurant is always open in your backyard.
BIRDS OF THE LEAVES
Invertebrates are in the diet of 90% of land living birds. Not only are the invertebrates that overwinter in the leaves essential for maintaining biodiversity by pollinating plants, they also provide birds with a protein-packed snack throughout the winter. You may see, or likely hear the rustles, as a white-throated sparrow, hermit thrush, or Eurasian blackbird root through the leaves in search of tasty snacks.
Once spring arrives, the insects will emerge and grow or reproduce providing birds with plenty of food to feed their growing chicks. You may see beetles, caterpillars, earthworms, and spiders being carried around in the bills of many different bird species.
SIMPLE WAYS TO HELP BIRDS & BIODIVERSITY IN YOUR BACKYARD
Now we know that leaves play an important role in supporting many organisms in your backyard, from microorganisms and invertebrates to plants and birds. How can we help them do their essential work in our backyards?
Ways to help:
- Provide wildlife safe zones in your yard where you leave a pile of leaves alone. If you must remove some, compost them for nutrient rich soil to feed your plants.
- Leave leaves at the border of your lawn and around plants and trees.
- Don’t blow the leaves or bag and remove them.
- Enjoy the crunch of the leaves under your feet and their beautiful autumn colours.
- Learn about the species of trees that live around them from the shape, colour, and patterns on leaves.
- Watch and listen to the birds who rustle and turn over leaves in hunt for a protein-packed snack.