NEW SMYRNA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — In a peaceful corner of the Marine Discovery Center in New Smyrna Beach, between a scenic bike trail and the bright blues and greens of the Indian River, rests a young garden. But rather than growing fruits and vegetables, or even flowers, the garden has a unique purpose: fostering a living space for birds.

“The national Audubon was asking its chapters to help save the birds,” said Marsha Cox, co-president of the Southeast Volusia Audubon chapter with her husband, Bill. “And our chapter has a saying: ‘no bugs, no birds.’ So we wanted a way to bring in the bugs.”

After speaking with the Marine Discovery Center, which allowed them the space to create the garden, the Audubon chapter began searching for funds. And with the help of two $2,500 grants from the regional Audubon and Florida Power & Light, several in-kind donations and dozens of hours of volunteer work, the foundational stage of the garden is now complete.

“This is an excellent start. Everything’s looking so healthy,” said Katie Tripp, president of the PawPaw chapter for the Florida Native Plant Society. “And it’s not just about making it look nice. You have to think about the birds’ life cycles, what they need throughout every stage. This isn’t just a garden, it’s a habitat.”

By using plants native to Florida that promote healthy life cycles for birds and provide essential items like food, shade and nesting materials, the garden will offer all the necessities for them to thrive. From beautyberries and mulberries, to Simpson’s Stoppers and frogfruit, Tripp, who manages the plants in the garden, said there’s no shortage of options for the birds to choose from.

Also in the garden: oak trees, which can host up to 50 different species of caterpillar, along with native cedars and junipers, peppergrass, Bidens alba and Florida privet. And as the plants grow and mature, Tripp said she’s looking forward to adding more species, such as milkweed and wildflowers, which can bring butterflies and bees to the area.

“As areas urbanize, they plant St. Augustine grass everywhere, which has insecticides. It’s created a real food desert for the birds,” she said. “But with native plants, they don’t need to be watered as much. They’re frost and drought tolerant. They’re cheaper … That’s another reason why this garden is special. Once nature is established, it kind of takes care of itself.”

Not to mention, it’s already been successful. Shrikes, warblers, doves, eagles and even a great-horned owl frequent the garden. The Southeast Volusia Audubon is also hoping to soon see purple martins appear.

“It’s like a treasure hunt every day,” Cox said.

Next on the agenda for the garden is to bring in identification for the plants, as well as signage explaining why growing and maintaining plants native to the area is healthier for the environment, as opposed to St. Augustine grass or non-native plants. Cox said she’s hoping to bring in workshops for homeowners or curious children once the coronavirus passes.

“We believe children are educators. They teach their parents, grandparents, siblings, friends about what they learn,” Cox said. “And people want to do the right thing when it comes to the environment. It’s really just getting educated about it.”

The garden offers a space for people interested in birding, insight for those looking to foster native plants at home or a peaceful environment for visitors to enjoy the outdoors.

Cox said that as a result of the pandemic, there is revived interest in birding across the country. The hobby can be indulged from anywhere, whether it’s on a back porch or in the middle of the woods; it can be enjoyed alone, or with friends and family; and masks don’t have to be worn unless social distancing can’t be enforced.

“It’s a good way to take care of yourself during this time,” Cox said. “And if people are interested, the garden is a great place to start.”

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