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Daniel Rubin: A friend of birds? Then, don't rake leaves

I warmed to Steve Saffier as soon as he said we'd be better friends to the birds if we did a little less raking.

Steve Saffier
Steve SaffierRead more

I warmed to Steve Saffier as soon as he said we'd be better friends to the birds if we did a little less raking.

And when he suggested a way to build habitats while spending less time on the lawn, I thought there must be a catch.

Saffier, who directs the Audubon at Home program, spoke Tuesday evening with the Sierra Club of Chester County, hoping to enlist citizen scientists over Presidents' Day weekend to help with the Great Backyard Bird Count. The four-day event is made for casual birders, the sort who might sit by the fire, look out the window, and jot down the number of house finches and white-throated sparrows spied at the feeder.

The results are critical. Experts at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society track the sightings, watching for trends in climate change, environmental health, and migratory behavior. Birds make great bellwethers.

"I'm competitive about this," he told a couple of dozen nature lovers at West Chester's borough hall Tuesday evening. Pennsylvanians spot a lot of birds. "But I want Pennsylvania to be No. 1."

Now, about our lawns. Spend an evening with Saffier and you might be persuaded to surrender your entire property to a bird sanctuary. Should the next morning bring second thoughts, he offers some easy modifications that would only improve the balance of man and nature.

Those leaves we harvest provide harbor for nearly invisible insects, seeds, and earthworms that make good eating if you're a bird.

He doesn't advocate the end of raking. "Just leave some piles around," he suggested. As for the grass, why not turn a small patch of lawn - maybe 10 percent in some shady corner - into a hangout for native plants like black cherry, trumpet honeysuckle, sweet pepper bush, arrowwood viburnum. Some bear fruits; all attract insects. That makes the birds happy.

Saffier is 43 and a rare creature who knew what he wanted to be as a boy. He grew up in Northeast Philadelphia within walking distance of Pennypack Park and has memories of driving with his father to the family auto-parts store in Warrington, admiring the murders of crows he'd see out the car window. (Yes, murders is the word for groups of crows.)

"Crows are still my favorites," he says. By 8, he was feeding backyard birds from a log he hollowed and filled with seed. "By 13, I knew I wanted to be an ornithologist." That was also the year his parents moved to Las Vegas. Sensing his unhappiness at the forced migration, his parents connected him with the local Audubon Society. By 14, he was birding with adults.

After a year of college in Utah, he uprooted himself and tried acting in Los Angeles. A lack of work led him to a nature center in the Santa Monica Mountains, which ultimately led to a job back home with Audubon. He lives with his wife and two daughters near Blue Bell, where in February he and other spotters tallied 27 species in backyards, from dark-eyed juncos (61) to turkey vultures (one).

If you think, as I did, that the population of birds thins in winter, think again. He says the diversity of species may be greater during breeding season, but the overall numbers are largest now, when you add the waterfowl and Canadian birds that winter here with the residents.

He offered a tip so one doesn't count the same bird twice:

"When I see a bird on a feeder, I jot down the number 1 on a scrap of paper," he said. "If later I see four, I scratch out 1 and put down 4. I just go with the largest number I see, and that's my count for the day."

Again, a simple way to improve the world from the comfort of an armchair. What a guy.