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Bird Friendly Yards: Deanna’s Story

Barb Stenross

As a member of the NHAS Bird Friendly Habitat yard certification team, I have had the honor of visiting homeowners and yards across three counties.  Every yard has its own story–its soil, topography, ecology of native and invasive plants.  And so does every property owner–a story of how they became interested in birds, what they hope to accomplish by inviting a certification visit, the efforts they’ve made on behalf of birds and nature.

I find these stories fascinating, and compelling.  I am thankful for those who care enough about the natural world to invite us to walk their land with them, whether it is one-tenth of an acre (our smallest visited yard) or 30 (our largest).

We are able to certify about half of yards on a first visit (many homeowners invite return visits, which we love).  When we certify a yard as bird friendly, we provide a sign for the owner to display. When we do not, we offer an “In Progress” sign—a sign saying the owner is working on adding native plants, removing invasives, and doing other things to make the yard more habitable for birds.  In this way, we hope neighbors will understand the owners’ efforts, and possibly, join them.

Deanna under dogwood tree.

This is a story about Deanna Sedlak one of the homeowners that plant expert Sally Heiney and I visited this summer.  (Currently, the Program has 5 experts, 4 recorders, and a scheduler.) At thirty years old, Deanna is one of the younger homeowners we have visited.  Raised in Winston-Salem, a 2012 graduate of NC State University, Deanna moved to Durham in 2017.  She bought the 0.20-acre urban property we visited in 2020. It spoke to her.  Although sandwiched between a major arterial and I-85, she liked that the single-family home from 1958 had been recently renovated, that it was near her friends and lots of “activity,” and had a fenced-in backyard shaded by a willow and live oaks, perfect for her chickens.

When we pulled up to park along the street in front of Deanna’s house, the first thing we noticed was a young swamp white oak with a watering bag.  “I moved in during the pandemic, in September 2020, and planted that in February,” she said.  I cheered. Oaks are the very best trees for birds, feeding more species of lepidoptera than any other plants.  And she planted it within months of moving in.  I was impressed!

It was a hot summer day and Deanna wore a sleeveless top so it was impossible to miss the tattoo on her right arm that stretched from her shoulder to her wrist.  “It’s birds I’m interested in, native flowers.  I got it in April 2020. It started with the red-tailed hawk, which is my favorite raptor, and I’m adding songbirds.  I’m gonna run out of room because of all the songbirds I love!”

I wanted to know more of Deanna’s story.  Luckily, when I asked if I could interview her, she said yes.  As we sat, masked, on her back deck two weeks later, her five chickens made soothing burbling sounds below.  “I could listen to them forever,” Deanna smiled.  “My girls.”

Arm tattoos.

Getting Started

Barb:  Tell me a little about how you got interested in birds.

Deanna:  I had a fascination with birds since I was little.  When I was probably kindergarten age, I had a fascination with flying, trying to fly (laugh), and it kind of evolved from there.  I went to North Carolina State University, and I added a poultry science major because I was told it would make me more competitive for vet school, and I was also fascinated by birds, and I thought, yeah, that’s a win-win for me.  I dug deeper into the field as an undergraduate.

In 2018-19, before Covid, my sister came to visit. We went to Duke Gardens to the bird friendly section.  She named everything.  That’s a towhee, that’s a Carolina chickadee.  “How do you do that?  I want to be able to do that.”  And it evolved into wanting to learn bird song.  Then I discovered the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, their courses and apps, like Merlin, eBird, and I got good about identifying the birds around me and at my parents in Boone.  When I travel, I pull up the app and learn new things.  Now my sister asks ME!

Barb:  Were any of the birds here a surprise to you?

Deanna:  I was most surprised by the red-bellied woodpecker.  I didn’t know they were around.

There’s a family of red bellied woodpeckers, so I would see the father getting suet for them, flying up to the tree, putting it in their mouths

I have 11 feeders and 3 water sources. They’re over there (pointing to the side of the deck), all cleaned, waiting to go up again.  I plan on getting more.

Inviting NHAS for a yard visit

Barb:  How did you learn about the bird friendly habitat program?

Deanna:   I saw about the program on the NHAS website last year.

Me:  And you planted the oak tree soon after?  Did you know the importance of oaks for birds?

Deanna:  I knew of oaks’ importance for nature.  I donated to the neighborhood group that does tree planting.  They maintain the trees in Northgate Park.  If you want a tree in your yard, they will plant it.  I donated $50 and asked if they could plant a tree.  I had seen on Google maps that there had been a tree in the front yard before I bought the house, so I asked if they would plant one.  They planted it, made sure it was far enough from the power lines, and I’m keeping it watered.  They planted oaks and black gums in the neighborhood.

Me:  What were you expecting from the bird friendly habitat visit?

Deanna:  I was expecting to learn which plants were invasive, what things to do overall to make it friendlier for birds.

Me:  Was there anything you were surprised to learn?

Deanna:  I didn’t know about the layers–(canopy, understory, shrub, herbaceous, vines).  That was nice to learn.

The Yard Visit

Before the certification yard visit, Deanna had planted native perennials at the sunny front of her house and in her shadier side yard.   These included ‘Fireworks’ goldenrod, gayfeather (Liatris sp.), black-eyed Susans, mountain mint (Pychnanthemum muticum), Stokes aster, and other herbaceous perennials in the sunny front yard.  She added coral bells and other shade-favoring species under the mature dogwood in the side yard.

Walking the property, Sally identified additional natives that often go unnoticed, but as Sally says, “Everything feeds something.”  We found nimblewill grass—the native grass of the Piedmont; Carolina pony foot—a small trailing plant with heart-shaped leaves; wild ginger (Asarum sp.), three-seeded Mercury, and American pokeweed.  We encouraged her to stop mowing the small side yard in order to allow some of the natives to grow up there.  We tied a small identification tab on the poke.

Tagged pokeweed.

Deanna’s yard was close to certification because of the trees and her plantings, but it lacked native shrubs.  Since birds feed and shelter at all levels, our program requires native plants at each for certification.  We suggested she add native shrubs such as blueberries, spicebush, and American beautyberry.   We also encouraged her to remove the invasive glossy privets, the bit of Japanese stiltgrass, the Mexican milkweed (an ecological trap, keeping hummingbirds from migrating when they should), and the hairy cat’s ear, which has expanded crazily along roadsides over the past two years.  We gave her the Controlling Invasive Plants booklet co-published by NHAS and the North Carolina Botanical Garden and asked her if she could remove the large privets with the cut-and-paint method. “I have a chainsaw,” she laughed.

We also suggested she reduce her front lawn since turf is non-native and has little to no wildlife benefit.  “Plant more, mow less.”

Before we left, Deanna placed the In Progress sign in front of the new oak.

When I arrived for the interview a couple weeks later, I saw that Deanna had started removing the privets and had plans to add blueberries and other shrubs in their place and elsewhere.  She had also laid down cardboard to kill the grass between the curving front walkway and the house.  She planned to start adding natives there, and in a strip along the sidewalk, choosing plants from NHAS’s webpage for Recommended Native Plants for the Piedmont

Bird Friendly Habitat In Progress sign,
young oak tree, and cardboard covering grass.

I asked her what her hope was for the property.

“My hope for the property is to get rid of the grass and basically have all garden.  I’ve seen in my neighborhood, yards that are pollinator gardens. It’s so cool to see pollinators doing their thing.  So much prettier than grass, and more beneficial.”

Taking action

I wondered if Deanna’s commitment to birds extended to other conservation interests.  I also wondered if she knew of other young people getting involved.

Deanna:  Younger people are more aware that if we keep up as we are, we’re going to lose the planet.  Look at the numbers.  It’s scary.  We’ve lost one-third of our birds.

I’m planning on trading in my car for a hybrid, but it’s expensive.  I drive a lot, to my job in RTP, to my parents in Boone.  I want to leave a smaller footprint.

I sign all the Audubon petitions, for legislative bills.  I share them on social media.  I haven’t gone on any of the bird walks, but I want to.

I’m part of  Ellerbe Creek Watershed Association and I’ve started with Piedmont Wildlife Center.  I’m officially a raptor feeder, every other Friday afternoon. On August 12, I start handling the raptors and doing education.  I’m very excited about that!

I’m a transporter for a wildlife center in Asheville if they ever need to transport to this area. I will meet them halfway and then take it to a rehabber.  I did that training.

I also volunteer with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, the bat survey project.  I have an antenna on my car attached to a device, and they gave me an iPad.  The setup catches echolocation waves telling you the species based on the wavelength of the sonic call.  I see it on the iPad.  My route is in Hillsborough. I have to drive two days out of every ten for an hour-plus each time.  You have to drive slowly, 20 mph.  I did it Monday and Wednesday this week.  I love it.

It’s a good feeling.  Besides working my job, which involves bred mice, I have the itch to work with wildlife.  So, finding the volunteer actions, it feels good.

One more thing I’m doing, I work with TNVR – Trap, Neuter, Vaccinate, Release – for feral cat populations in Durham.  I’ve done that for two years.  I’m working on one at the end of the street.  4 females, 2 males, 3 kittens.  It’s associated with Independent Animal rescue off Guess Road.  I set the trap the day before, bring them in, give a donation.  The cat population is insane.  Cats can reproduce every six weeks.  I did that work in Grenada, too.

Me: You have indoor cats?

Deanna:  I have two indoor cats.  I’m going to build a catio, so they can go out of that window over there.

Me:  When did you get the chickens?

Deanna:  I got them back in May 2019.  I wanted them ever since I started the poultry science degree. I have a BS in Animal Science and a BS in Poultry Science.  I couldn’t have them in Raleigh.  I rented in Old North Durham, that’s where I first got them.  I asked my roommates and they said, sure, we’d love fresh eggs.  I found them on Craigslist, laying adults.  This is a perfect yard for them, with the privacy fence.

Deanna’s Chickens.

The focus at NCSU is agriculture, so people go on to become farmers, agricultural extension agents, or into veterinary practice.  My main focus was going to vet school, but I didn’t get in.  I did research at NCSU, so that was Plan B.  I started to work at a lab, first at Yorkshire Lab, then Charles River—oncology.  Now preclinical gene therapy research, at AskBio.

I like it a lot. I do research.

For the Future

Deanna gives me hope for the future.  Not all of us have the energy of a 30-year-old.  But many of us have yards, and those yards can make a difference, one life-supporting yard connecting to the next in a vast “homegrown national park,” as entomologist/activist Doug Tallamy likes to foresee it.  And we can sign Audubon petitions and share them with others, and possibly donate to organizations like TNVR or Ellerbe Creek Watershed Association or engage in citizen science.

At every yard I visit, I learn something new about plants, and I come away inspired.  Even when the yard is swamped with invasives, not planted with a swamp white oak, I see promise in the eyes of homeowners who vow to add more natives and tackle the thugs that are reducing the biodiversity on which the web of life depends.

I am thankful this amazing young woman agreed to share her story.   Deanna’s story is the story of what we need, now.




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