Sheila Smith has spent years helping to preserve the native plants of Newark, using everything from activism at the state level to smaller tasks such as helping a neighbor turn their backyard from a lawn into a wildlife habitat.

For 13 years, Smith has been a backyard habitat steward with the National Wildlife Federation, advising people on how to add native plants to their backyard. Now, there are more than 100 backyard habitats in the city.

Smith is a member of the the city’s Conservation Advisory Commission and serves on statewide organizations, such as the Delaware Native Species Commission and the Delaware Invasive Species Council.

“It’s all about raising awareness. It’s never a one-and-done thing,” Smith said. “You have to beat the drum constantly.”

A love of birds is what led Smith to environmental activism after she learned that birds are attracted to an environment by native plants.

“Native plants not only attract the birds, they attract the insects, which is what actually attracts the birds,” Smith said.

Phillips Park, near the Newark Center for Creative Learning, is one of her favorite parks in the city. A little island of trees in the park is an important stop for rusty blackbirds – a species that has been experiencing a massive decline in population – on their way to breed in the arctic.

“Native plants are not an aesthetic, are not a look and are not an ideology,” Smith said. “They’re an ecological necessity for protecting and preserving our biodiversity.”

–Matt Hooke

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