Backyards are habitat for people and wildlife. Invite nature into your backyard to get closer views and help wildlife by making your yard a hospitable habitat with these tips. Many of the creatures that benefit from improved backyard habitats are struggling from habitat loss in general. Making your yard wildlife-friendly will provide food and shelter for birds and bats; bees, butterflies and other pollinators; and turtles, toads and frogs.
Can I See a Menu?
Using native plants to landscape your yard sets the table for a whole range of wildlife. Native berry bushes feed fruit-eating birds (and snacking gardeners). Birds and bats depend on insects, and insects depend on native plants. By feeding the bugs, you'll help birds and bats feed their young. They'll thank you by keeping the bugs in balance. Colorful wildflower beds will invite the insects you enjoy—bees and butterflies, moths and others you may not even know yet! Be sure to use native plants appropriate to your area to support the wildlife that belongs there.
Birdhouses provide a safe place for cavity-nesting birds to raise their young, and bat boxes offer bats a spot to roost during the day, safe from predators. Annual cleaning makes sure disease doesn't spread from year to year. You can also help native pollinators by building bee houses for beautiful solitary bees who lay their eggs in holes they find in wood.
Leave a Little Mess
The woods are never tidy, but that's part of their appeal to wildlife. Mimic the appeal of the mess in your own yard to help your wild neighbors. Brush piles, though not the prettiest landscape feature, are perhaps the most useful to wildlife. Toads and turtles hide and hunt in the brush at ground level. Birds and their fledgling babies will take cover in brush and bushes when a predator threatens, and huddle in the branches for warmth in winter. And since animals feel safer when they have cover, you'll have a great opportunity to watch their natural behaviors from nearby. Leave the seed heads on your native plants when you do your fall cleanup, too. They'll add architectural interest to your winter garden, and offer wintering birds a wide variety of food. Even a little mess means a lot to wildlife!
Birdbaths are a great addition to a wildlife habitat, and running fresh water is irresistible to birds. A simple drip fountain is enough to enhance any birdbath, but there are lots of ways to add a little movement if you use your imagination (and a bucket, perhaps). Birdbaths should be shallow, and should be cleaned often. Place them away from bird feeders, and at least five feet from any bushes where cats could hide, but within reach of trees and shrubs birds can use to escape from other predators.
Don't Poison the Buffet!
Small animals like birds and amphibians are very sensitive to the toxic effects of pest control chemicals, and most insecticides don't discriminate between the pests you want to control, and the native pollinators and other insects you've invited into your yard. Gorgeous red-tailed hawks and other raptors have succumbed to rat poison after eating the poisoned rodents who were targeted in the first place. Even organic pest controls are intended to kill and deter pests, but they act on a wide range of insects. Be careful where and how you use them. A well-balanced wildlife habitat will have fewer pest problems in the first place, since you've invited nature's pest control—birds, pollinators, frogs and toads—into your garden.
Once you've set the table for wildlife, make it official! You can register your yard with the National Wildlife Federation as a Certified Wildlife Habitat, and participate in a citizen science project with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology by mapping your yard and its wildlife-friendly features. Wildlife will thank you for your efforts by living their fascinating and colorful lives around you in the comfort of your own, wildlife-friendly backyard.
Erin Gettler is a writer, photographer and naturalist living on Long Island, New York. She likes long walks in the woods, but she's too slow for real hiking on account of stopping to look at every little thing. She travels with a sketchbook, and keeps a spare pair of binoculars to share.