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The Evolution of a Naturalist

Gardening, birdwatching and the world of back yard wildlife habitats

A few weeks ago, I turned “taking up birding” years old. Perhaps it’s inevitable when you live in Louisiana. The state is, after all, a top migratory path hosting more than 400 species annually. Which is the sort of thing birdwatchers say, probably. It’s also a factoid I learned from editing a Louisiana Life article, “The Bird Lovers Guide to the Pelican State” that we published in 2018. Editing or even reading articles like this is a common step in the developmental stages of the Gulf Coast species of homo sapiens — order: primates; family: hominidae; genus: homo, in case you were wondering. In fact, the birdwatching stage for this species is second only to the early childhood stage known as “peeling your own crawfish,” when the Gulf Coast homo sapien parent discontinues hand feeding crawfish tails to its fledgling.

Unsurprisingly, this stage of human development often coincides with the “finally started a garden” stage, which for me happened about a week prior to becoming obsessed with birds. (Or birbs, as they are often referred to in Instagram Reels and Tic-Tock videos.) As the descendent of five generations of farmers, I’ve been impatiently awaiting the day when my gardening genes would kick in and, lo and behold, the time is nigh. My grandma predicted it, but she was a woman of more faith than me. A small kernel of faith had me thinking I’d break ground during that high-pandemic, pre-vaccination moment after everyone stopped baking sourdough bread and began planting “victory gardens,” but ever the late bloomer, my garden is only just now taking root. (As if you didn’t see the gardening puns coming a mile away.)

Mornings are now spent in the back yard watering and tending to my beds of veggie and herb plants and taking field notes while obsessively ID-ing birds with The Cornell Lab Merlin Bird ID app, which is, quick frankly, one of the most amazing things I’ve seen since the first iPhone came out. Its pure wizardry includes photo and sound ID and while it’s not 100 percent accurate, it’s dang close.

The happiest moment I’ve experienced so far has been confirming the northern mockingbirds that hang out around my house in Uptown. (Order: Passeriformes – perching birds; family: Mimidae Bonaparte; genus: Mimus F. Boie; species: Mimus polyglottos.) Last spring, I began hearing what I thought might be mockingbirds. They were singing at night, which seemed so unusual to me, so I began researching it. Not only did I discover that mockingbirds do sing at night, especially in the spring (it’s a mating call), and that they live in abundance in the area, but also that there is an ongoing study on how environmental lead in the area might be affecting the bird’s behaviors. The Mockingbird Project is spearheaded by Annelise Blanchette who on her website writes that she is an animal behavior biologist and PhD student in Dr. Jordan Karubian’s lab at Tulane. I recently emailed Blanchette and am hoping to participate in the project.

Meanwhile, my next step is to add a birdbath and then have my yard certified as a wildlife habitat by the National Wildlife Foundation. It’s easier than you might think!

While there is a wealth of wildlife in my neighborhood, I have a particular fondness for the mockingbirds, because my notice of them happened not long after the death of my grandmother. A native of Appalachia, my grandmother was one of the many farmers in my family. She was an incredibly skilled gardener, farmer and naturalist — and simply a magical person — who, along with my dad, imparted in me a lifelong love of nature. The seeds of my connection to the natural world may have been planted in my childhood home of Kentucky just outside of the Appalachian region that shaped my grandmother, but they have deeply and wildly flourished in the rich, diverse landscape of Louisiana. Since first noticing the mockingbirds at night, I’ve associated them with my grandma, who would have been the first person I called after noticing them. Now not only do I think of her throughout the day when I hear them, but I bring her into the garden with me each morning as I observe, dig, water and look after the plants, listen to the chirp and chatter of squirrels and birds and take in this small slice of wildlife a few steps outside my back door.

Everything I know about nature and gardening is due to her and my dad (who is my chief advisor in these matters) and I still have so much to learn. My grandma lived nearly 99 years on Earth, so if I’m lucky I still have a few years ahead of me to get better acquainted with the endless wonders of our natural world. I’ll dedicate my first tomatoes, cantaloupes and jalapeños to her, because they wouldn’t have come to be without the influence of a certain Appalachian species of homo sapien (genus: granny), from which I evolved.

Are you a birdwatcher or vegetable gardener? If you want to share your favorite birding locations or give me advice on keeping tomato plants healthy in New Orleans, email melanie@myneworleans.com.

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