Native Plants

From Goats to Grandparents: How One Audubon Chapter Is Making a More Bird-Friendly Community

Whether it's renting goats to clear out invasive plants or making a new assisted-living facility greener, Huntington-Oyster Bay Audubon is making a difference.

Stella Miller never planned to be a goat wrangler. But then, last summer, she found herself covered with hoofprints as she corralled a herd of 14 rambunctious goats at the Underhill Preserve on Long Island, New York. She ended up liking them so much that she endured frequent bouts of poison ivy from frequent goat hugs. “It was worth it to pretend I was Heidi every day,” she says, referring to the popular children’s book character who befriends goats.

So why was the president of the Huntington-Oyster Bay Audubon Society hugging goats? The chapter had rented them through a partnership with the New York Department of Environmental Conservation to eat invasive plants as part of ongoing work to restore habitat at the Underhill Preserve. Once, the 50-acre preserve hosted bird-friendly grassland and shrubs, but over the years it became overgrown with invasive species such as autumn olive and multiflora rose.

Those plants might have pretty names, but they don’t provide quality food or shelter for birds. And they tend to grow into impenetrable tangles that choke out other plants, a fact that also makes tedious work of their removal. Goats don't mind the work, though, and the ones borrowed by Huntington-Oyster Bay did such a bang-up job chomping invasives that they've already been hired back for future engagements.

Unfortunately, invasive plants aren’t the only threats to this natural area. Last year, Miller grew concerned when she learned that a property adjacent to the preserve was slated for development. Most of the land, which hosted ponds, green milkweed, and bluebirds, would soon be replaced by an assisted-living facility, with a parking lot about five feet from Underhill's border. If the facility landscaped with non-native plants, these might spread into the preserve. And bright lights from the new buildings could disorient migrating birds.

The goats went right to work mowing down invasive plants to make more space for bird-friendly greenery. Photo: Stella Miller

Miller was eager to find ways for this new facility and Underhill Preserve to co-exist, so she met with the developers to advocate for making the project as wildlife-friendly as possible. The Audubon chapter president came prepared: She drafted a bird-friendly proposal backed by research on appropriate native plants and local lighting ordinances, and she suggested ideas to get senior residents involved. Activities such as bird bingo and the Great Backyard Bird Count “would be great for the seniors to have a connection to nature,” she says. Her proposal emphasized the benefits to residents, like the social and recreational aspects of birding, and the economic perks of native plants and pollinators.

In the end, Miller's efforts proved successful. Over a series of meetings and conversations, Huntington-Oyster Bay Audubon convinced the developers to landscape with 29 species of native plants that will offer important food and shelter for birds. Additionally, the building will now have window screens to reduce bird impacts. For future residents of the new facility, which is slated to begin construction this year, this all should mean more birds outside their windows. And if their apartments are facing the right direction, they might even get to see a few pygmy goats helping to steward the neighboring preserve.

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