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Habitats for Wildlife
Connecting With Nature Through the Landscape

by Treva Formby, Marathon Petroleum Company LP, Sam Lovall, PEA, Inc. and Dianne Martin, ASTI Environmental

Habitats for Wildlife

Located southwest of Detroit, Mich., the Marathon Gardens reforestation project was developed by PEA, Inc., Marathon Petroleum Company LP, ASTI Environmental, Greening of Detroit and neighborhood volunteers. The flowers shown are black-eyed Susan and yarrow. Other wildflower and perennial species in the restoration area include nodding wild onion, columbine, heart-leaved aster, white snakeroot, wild strawberry, obedient plant, three-lobed coneflower and much more.

Habitats for Wildlife

Here, one can see how the area's site elements were envisioned and designed to enhance green infrastructure and provide urban farming, recreation, grasslands, forests and wetlands for the communities.

As urban communities continue to grow in density, landscape architects are tasked with creating green spaces that provide these communities with a break from the urban jungle. In addition to providing canopy and vegetation to these areas, more and more landscape architects are recognizing the opportunity to choose plant material and develop lands that provide a "habitat for animals that have been displaced by community growth and development where space is limited," according to the University of Florida's Living Green website.

According to a USDA Forest Service article, titled "Landscaping for Wildlife," there are four elements that are essential to the support of a wildlife habitat: food, water, cover and space:
Food requirements vary for every species. It changes as they age, and from one season to another. For some species, the berries in a garden are ideal. For others, it's the nuts and acorns, grasses, grains or seeds, or nectars in flowers.

Water is as important as food and is critical to survival. Adding a pond or bird bath will produce results in a hurry. Perhaps letting a pond overflow will produce wetlands.

Habitats for Wildlife

Egrets mostly eat fish, but also sometime amphibians, reptiles and mice. They usually nest in trees or shrubs near water.

Habitats for Wildlife

This illustration depicts how water is filtered from the wetlands and prairies into the river.

Cover is important for weather protection as well as protection from predators. It's also important for nesting and resting. Cover can be provided by shrubs, grasses, trees (including dead trees), rock and brush piles, nesting boxes, and abandoned buildings.

Space is needed for wildlife to raise their young. Most species establish territory and defend it. For example, bluebird nesting houses must be 300 feet apart or the bluebirds will fight each other. Wood ducks and purple martins do not defend territories. Loons prefer 100 acres of lake or wetlands, and ruffed grouse need 10 acres.

Restoration Gardens
One example where landscape architects have been able to develop a project incorporating wildlife and the essential elements to enhance the regenerative biodiversity of the site is a hundred-acre project located about 11 miles southwest of downtown Detroit called the Marathon Gardens. Over the past fifty years, hundreds of residential lots in this heavily industrial area had been abandoned, burned out or deteriorated to ruins, rendering much of the neighborhood uninhabitable. As an early action to assist the City of Detroit in repairing the blighted landscape, Marathon Petroleum Company LP (MPC), whose facility is located adjacent to the property, initiated a purchase program to acquire properties from those willing to sell with the intent of repurposing the land for environmental benefit.

Habitats for Wildlife

Depicted are cranes in the oxbow. Cranes usually nest in isolated wetlands and feed mostly on seeds and cultivated grains.

Habitats for Wildlife

Turtles are in the Fordson Island Oxbow, which is adjacent to the wildlife habitat restoration area.

Approximately 80% of the former Oakwood residential structures were obtained through this program and removed to open the area for environmental development. The remaining properties occupy a sparse, random arrangement of homes to the south and east of MPC's three-acre wildlife habitat restoration pilot project surrounded by expansive lawn areas maintained by MPC. Long range plans call for transitioning the entire area to forest, prairie, and wetland habitat layered with urban farming and park-like landscape. Retail development along Oakwood Boulevard, which penetrates through the middle of the site and services surrounding neighborhoods, is intended to be preserved. MPC engaged PEA, Inc. and ASTI Environmental to assist with this planning process.

The Four Elements
Phase one of the project implemented a habitat restoration initiative and included the elements of food, cover and space. The Rouge River, which is adjacent to the gardens, provides water for wildlife. Mixtures of native plant species, including 12 species of herbaceous plants (wildflowers, sedge and grass), 5 species of shrubs, and 8 species of overstory trees were incorporated into the design. With the exception of one wildflower (Obedient plant, Physostegia virginiana), the plants are Michigan genotypes and were grown in Michigan. The planted, insect-pollinated species will bloom from May through September, providing nectar and pollen throughout the growing season to support pollinators such as butterflies, bees, hummingbirds and beetles.

The supported insect pollinators and any tree/shrub-feeding larvae will provide a protein-rich food source for songbirds, which all require insects as a food source when they are laying eggs and feeding young.

Habitats for Wildlife

Left: This is a bat box. Bats are known to help the natural ecosystem, as they are nighttime pollinators that also eat mosquitos and other bugs that harm vegetation. According to, a site that explains the benefits of bat houses, bat waste (also known as guano) is a source of fertilization and helps distribute seeds. Photo Credit: Dianne Martin, ASTI

Right: Green herons reside in coastal and inland wetlands, nesting in wet places with trees and shrubs for shelter and nesting space. They usually hunt by wading in shallow water, but sometimes they dive deeper for prey. These birds feast on small fish, insects, amphibians, rodents and more. According to The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, this species has experienced a gradual decline over the last few decades due to habitat loss by the draining or development of wetlands. Photo credit: Brad Kassuba, ASTI

Habitats for Wildlife

Evidence of beavers in the oxbow. Beavers live around water such as ponds, lakes and marshes. These animals use severed branches and mud to construct their homes.

The planted species will produce seeds, berries and nuts from June through October. This extended timing will sustain songbirds and small mammals throughout the year.

The small mammals and songbirds sustained by the planted habitat will provide a food source for predators such as hawks and foxes. Tall cottonwoods (Populus deltoides) and partially-dead trees surrounding the habitat area provide perches from which raptors can stalk prey. A nearby fox den appears to be occupied based on recent digging activity.

Plant species were selected based on their tolerance for the observed site conditions. Shrubs are expected to provide cover for songbirds starting the first year, and for small mammals starting the second year. The five-gallon planted trees will provide perches and cover for songbirds starting the first year, and the one-gallon trees will provide cover by the third year. Herbaceous species will provide cover the first year, and will fill in and expand into the tree and shrub planting area over several years.

Habitats for Wildlife

An aerial master plan displays a key to indicate the location of the site elements that accompany this development.

Habitats for Wildlife

A group of volunteers during the 2017 Spring Planting Event.

The Phase 1 habitat project area previously consisted of lawn encircled by several mulberry trees and a large silver maple. These trees provide berries and seeds during a very limited period of the year. The addition of shade-tolerant shrubs and wildflowers to the area under the trees enhances the ability of the area to provide wildlife cover, and extends food production to the full growing season. Areas that formerly contained lawn in the full sun have been planted to oak trees that will provide nuts that can be stockpiled by squirrels and other mammals for winter use. This increases the ability of the area to support a diverse set of wildlife year-round.

The Outcome
While the project is still very new, it appears to be highly successful. Plant mortality following 4 years of monitoring is very low - better than a 95% survival rate. Animal diversity appears to be increasing with several observations of species in 2016 that were not spotted in 2015, including deer and blue heron, and evidence of beaver. Green heron and bald eagles have also been observed.

Habitats for Wildlife

On Thursday, October 5, 2017, a wildlife habitat team organized a Bird Walk with several habitat and wildlife experts. On the walk, they spotted a total of 16 separate species including blue jay, warbling vireo, green heron, chestnut-sided warbler, kingfisher, red-bellied woodpecker, song sparrow, catbird, dark-eyed junco, hairy woodpecker, Brewster's warbler, great blue heron, robin and American goldfinch.

The success of the project can be summed up by one of the members of the habitat team, Brad Kassuba, an expert in avian wildlife. "It's a great site!" he said. "It's located on the water and it's close to the migratory fly-ways of many birds. The trees and shrubs [used on the project] will make it better and better as the years go by."

As seen in LASN magazine, January 2019.

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June 18, 2019, 8:41 am PDT

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