Find the beauty in ugliness

Ian Stewart

Most people don’t think of this time of year as being pretty. The colorful flowers and their butterflies are long gone, the bright green leaves have either fallen or turned pale and shriveled, and the meadows are a straggly tangle of dull browns and grays. Nature looks especially gloomy on the chilly, damp, overcast days we often experience in mid-winter. However, beauty is very much in the eye of the beholder and trying to see the world from the perspective of a wild animal may make you rethink your definition of attractive.

Can you spot the Slate-colored Junco among the goldenrod?

Many people like their yard or local park to be neat and tidy and many farmers plant orderly fields of a single crop. However, mother nature is messy and tends to produce a complex and crowded landscape where scores of different plants jostle for existence. This then attracts a diversity of animals, each of which thrives upon a different plant as a source of food or nesting substrate. A prime example of this is DelNature’s Coverdale Farm Preserve in Greenville, where fields that used to contain livestock or crop monocultures have been painstakingly converted into a variety of native meadows containing different combinations of grasses and wildflowers. Although this was a gradual process that took several years, the effort and investment has now paid off as these varied meadows support many breeding birds and invertebrates during the summer, including dozens of pollinator bees and butterflies. Importantly (and unusually) however, the meadows are left standing throughout the entire fall and winter and are not mowed until the following spring.

A Chipping Sparrow nibbles on Indian Grass seeds in winter

This a huge benefit to winter wildlife, especially birds and small mammals like mice and voles, as it provides them with food in the form of a constant supply of seeds and occasional insects but also cover from predators and shelter from the elements. The animals that really value these messy meadows are the sparrows, a group of small, brown streaky birds that are often overlooked because they blend in well and can be secretive. Unfortunately, this recent report found that many of our sparrows are in serious decline, primarily because their grassland breeding habitat is being converted to agricultural fields, but perhaps also because they are struggling to find winter habitat. Thankfully, sparrows always find a welcoming home at Coverdale where every winter we find no fewer than 9 species squirreled away in these jumbled meadows and their woodland edges (American Tree, Chipping, Field, Fox, Savannah, Song, Swamp and White-throated, as well as the Slate-colored Junco).

Field and Song Sparrows feed in a meadow

In my opinion, one of the greatest challenges birds face is that the landscapes they find attractive are not the same as what your average human finds attractive, particularly in the fall and winter. A great way to help our birds, insects and other wildlife is to plant native wildflowers and grasses in your yard (and I recommend checking out our native plant sale in May) and you can help them even more by simply leaving these standing during the fall and winter. The same beautiful pink wild bergamot (Monarda sp.) that attracts so many bees and butterflies in the summer will then attract American goldfinches in the winter.

American Goldfinch digging out seeds from a wild bergamot head

And if you do leave up seed heads for the winter or put out store-bought seed, an easy way to attract more birds is to build a brush pile nearby for them to hide in if a predator appears and also roost in overnight. The brush pile in my yard (below) was made of dead branches, sticks, and branches from last year’s Christmas tree. Although it may not look particularly attractive nobody sees it apart from my family, and the sparrows and Carolina wrens think of it as paradise. So no matter what the time of year, beauty is always where you find it.

If you are interested in learning from an expert how to create wildlife habitat and turn your yard into a conservation corridor, Professor Doug Tallamy of the University of Delaware recently unveiled his latest book ‘Nature’s Best Hope’ at a sold-out event at Ashland Nature Center. This book is available at the Hockessin Bookshelf and other retailers and comes highly recommended by the Delaware Nature Society!

11 thoughts on “Find the beauty in ugliness”

  1. matthew eric bailey

    It can be very easy to overlook the beauty right in front of us when we pigeonhole our appreciation into a narrow box. Thanks for prying open the lid to a box full of beautiful winter opportunities!

  2. Let’s change the word from ugly to nature’s creative Hand

    Perceiving the wealth of life therein removes the sense of ugliness

  3. I always look forward to your posts Ian. Just finished Tallamy’s new book too Everyone should add it to their reading list.

  4. Really nice article and nice pictures. I have one experience I can share. There is a vernal pond at the end of my yard. it mostly disappears during the summer but is clearly visible during the season when there is no green growth. Typically there is not much color but one day, I noticed movement in the water. I looked through my binoculars and saw three pairs of wood ducks moving about in the water. I would say without a doubt this day in early march was the most colorful day of the year in my back yard.

  5. There is beauty in desolation throughout winter, Andrew Wyeth taught me that! Well, not personally…
    Thanks for the article.

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