10 Minutes With // A Wildlife Conservationist
Steve Ricker is a self-proclaimed military brat who spent his childhood “wandering around outside,” exploring a different U.S. environment every four years. He landed a job at Westmorland Sanctuary right out of college and now serves as the director of conservation and wildlife management. In his downtime, he maintains a small garden at his home on the property and enjoys bird watching. Ricker knows around 100 bird calls and has identified over 250 birds for the Audubon Society.
What’s your gardening philosophy?
My gardening goal is to attract wildlife. Before I plant something, I ask myself if it’s good for the native wildlife. That’s also my excuse for an absolutely horrible looking garden! Aesthetics are way down my priority list. I love to see how many different types of wildlife come to my garden, whether it’s birds, mammals, insects, bees, or butterflies. I focus on food, shelter, and even moving water—I try to hit all the bases.
What’s in your garden and why?
One of my favorite things are sunflowers. I’d never been successful with plantings near my house until I planted sunflowers. They’ll actually soak up chemicals in the soil, like the lead from old coats of paint. Plus, butterflies and birds love them. I also have a beautiful native Highbridge blueberry bush. Every year, just as they’re about to ripen, I think I might actually get a couple, but the birds always get to them first. I’m also planting a lot smaller trees now, like fruit or flowering trees, since most of my large trees were damaged during recent storms.
What do you wish more people knew about local wildlife?
Potholes are great for wildlife! My driveway is sandy with a lot of potholes, and I love them because they concentrate water. I watch a lot of birds bathe in them, and when the water evaporates, the minerals become concentrated at the bottom. That’s when the butterflies come in. Sometimes I’ll see 50 to 100 of them sucking up the minerals. You can also add cat poop to empty potholes to attract butterflies—it’s full of minerals they love.
Tell me about Westmoreland’s conservation efforts.
Our management plan for conservation is to create what I call “The Islands.” We’re identifying what habitats we have and don’t have. For example, we have a lot of nice forest, deciduous trees, and trees with leaves. But we don’t have a lot of fields, bushy areas, or pine tree areas. So we’re adding those in order to maintain and increase wildlife diversity.
What is Westmoreland Sanctuary doing about climate change?
Lately, we’re investigating how the forest and tree species will change. It’s predicted that in 50 to 100 years we will have the same climate and soil conditions as Arkansas! So we’re identifying trees that probably won’t survive, like the sugar maple, unfortunately. We’re also considering different ways we can be proactive to prevent invasive, non-native trees from taking over. One idea is to plant some native Southern trees that will be ready to take the places of our northern native species, getting ahead of those invasive species. It’s cool and exciting to think about, but it’s also depressing because you’re going to lose what I call tree friends. But, you’re going to gain some new tree friends.
What is the best part of your job?
Teaching kids about the miracles and magic of nature. We have a little pollinator garden, and when it’s really rocking, it’s full of bees, wasps, and other scary things. I’ll say, “Let’s stand here and see what’s happening. Oh look, they’re ignoring me. I could put my finger on this guy, and as long as I’m not hurting him, he doesn’t care. Look how close I can get. I can almost kiss him!”