It's Only Natural

Hummingbirds and other creatures find sanctuary at Strawberry Plains.

On a hot July day, a couple of dozen tiny avians flit from flowers to feeders, their green feathers gleaming in the sunlight. But by the time you read this, those dozens will increase to thousands as the migrating hummingbirds descend upon Strawberry Plains Audubon Center.

The property, which encompasses a stately home surrounded by 2,600 acres in Holly Springs, Mississippi, became a wildlife sanctuary in the 1980s when its owners — sisters Margaret Shackelford and Ruth Finley — bequeathed it to the National Audubon Society. "We've had sightings and seen the tracks of several animals," says the center's outreach director Katie Boyle, among them fox, deer, bobcats, coyotes, and a blue-tailed skink (from the lizard family) that skitters across a porch. But the center's main purpose is to provide and protect habitat for birds, including the hovering hummers who put on a show at the 10th annual Hummingbird Migration Celebration, September 11th through 13th.

Strolling down a walkway past a dazzling variety of native flowers — white phlox, jewelweed, asters, salvia — Boyle points with pleasure to something that makes most of us fret: foliage that's clearly been gnawed and nibbled. "That means insects are here, and that makes us really happy," Boyle explains. "All native insects are good insects. Ninety-five percent of birds depend on insects to survive. Remove them, and you remove a whole layer of the food web."

Creepy-crawlies serve as more than sustenance. Hummingbird nests are made primarily of spiderwebs. "We like to talk here about the interconnectedness of things," says Boyle. "Often the creatures we really admire and love depend on creatures that frighten us or make us squirrelly. So I try to remind people that the next time they're standing with a can of Raid about to spray a spiderweb in the yard, think of the hummingbird."

The land at Strawberry Plains — named for the wild strawberries that once grew there — is managed to promote grasslands and meadows for native birdlife. "Our ecologist works with homeowners of the Coldwater River Watershed," says Boyle. "We teach them to see their land not as a boundary but as continuous habitat that connects to others."

At the Migration Celebration, author Douglas Tallamy will discuss his book Bringing Nature Home. "He believes gardeners can have a really big impact on wildlife and saving species," says Boyle. "With so much space being lost to development, birds will depend more and more on us to provide food and nectar to give them energy."

Outside a sunroom at the center's antebellum house, hummers sip from hollyhocks, hibiscus, and coral honeysuckle, as well as from feeders filled with sugar water. By festival time, the air will literally hum with the miniature migrants as they fly homeward to Central America. As festivalgoers watch, some birds will be trapped and banded by husband-wife team Bob and Martha Sargent, then released for later tracking. The bands help scientists determine how far south the birds go, where they stop, how long they live, and whether they come back to the same sites each year. Boyle says that at last year's festival, more than 280 birds were banded and one was recaptured that had been tagged in 2006.

"The coolest thing about hummingbirds," says Boyle, "is they return to their birthplace to nest. Imagine that they stop right here, where they were born. Some do it by genetic memory, others by their own memory. If they get here and find a strip mall, they have to look elsewhere for nesting sites.It's so important to help them make this most incredible journey in all of nature."

In addition to its environmental significance, Strawberry Plains is rich with history. Its original owners, Eben and Martha Davis, built the house in 1851; during the Civil War it was occupied several times by the Union Army. "Martha came up with lots of ways to trick the soldiers who kept stealing her provisions," says Boyle. "She shot one of them dead on the back steps." In 1865 Union soldiers burned the Davis House, but the interior brick walls survived the blaze. A century later, Davis descendants began its restoration, adding a staircase that once graced the Al Chymia Shriner's Temple in Memphis.

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