Spotted apatelodes, left, and two angel moths rest on leaf litter/Jim McCormac
Nature: Leaf and lawn litter provides shelter for various animals
December 5, 2021
December 5, 2021
I write this in late November, and the war on leaves is in full swing. Here in suburbia, the annoyingly loud drone of leaf blowers is the siren song of the obsessed lawn manicurist. I’m hard-pressed to think of a more annoying invention than a leaf blower — at least the noisy gas-powered ones. All to solve what should be a non-issue.
The first plants appeared about 470 million years ago. For eons, vegetable matter languished in a wee state, attaining little size. Things began to change about 350 million years ago, when trees began their evolutionary ascent.
In the latter stages of the Mesozoic Era, about 145 million years ago, trees began to evolve deciduousness. Leaves began to be seasonally shed.
Countless millennia of shed leaves and attendant leaf litter thoroughly entwined itself into the world’s ecological webs. Leaves decompose and enrich soils with carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus.
Over time, myriad forms of animal life evolved relationships with leaf litter. Invertebrates mostly too small to notice thrive in the leafy blanket, but they fuel higher animals we do notice. In the past few days, I’ve noticed Carolina and winter wrens, dark-eyed juncos and several other sparrow species, cardinals and even blue jays sifting through the leaves in search of insects or seeds.
Butterflies such as commas and question marks hide in plain sight atop litter, blending well. But moths take the leaf-litter relationship to a higher level. There is even a large group known as litter moths due to their specialized relationship with downed leaves. Many litter moths live their entire life cycle in the leaf layer: eggs, caterpillars, cocoons and adults.
Many moths have evolved cryptic appearances that make them one with dead leaves. The angel and spotted apatelodes moths in the accompanying photo are astonishingly leaf-like at rest. Good luck spotting one before it flies.
Your leaf litter indirectly grows bats. All those moths resting in the litter during the day take to the wing at night. And some will be snapped up by the sonar-equipped flying mammals.
Some of the moths that dodge the bats will pollinate flowers in the neighborhood — they’re really nocturnal butterflies.
Birds are also fueled by leaf litter. All moths are caterpillars in their second phase, and most never make it to adulthood. The vast majority are snapped up by predators with songbirds being prime among them.
In essence, when someone blows or rakes leaves to the curb for removal, they directly lay waste to scores of creatures and adversely impact the survival of others.
Americans send about 33 million tons of leaf and lawn “debris” annually to landfills. That’s over 12% of all solid waste. And what a waste. Just the use of gas and pollutants generated by disposal trucks is staggering. All to keep lawns and gardens looking neat.
Turf grass is now the biggest plant crop in the U.S., collectively covering an area larger than Wisconsin. An estimated $60 billion is spent by Americans on turf grass maintenance, and lawn owners spend a collective three million hours annually on this pursuit. The clangorous activities of mowing and leaf-blowing contribute greatly to noise pollution.
Nearly all landowners are guilty of this dubious aesthetic pursuit, the writer included.
However, I’ve reduced my lawn, and more turf will be vanquished over time. Downsizing the lawn’s footprint and replacing it with native flora is something anyone can do, and I try to do my part.
As for those downed leaves, and I have plenty, they mostly stay where they fall. Those that cover what remains of the front yard get mulched by my mower and returned to the soil.
Naturalist Jim McCormac writes a column for The Dispatch on the first, third and fifth Sundays of the month. He also writes about nature at www.jimmccormac.blogspot.com.