Backyard Enhancement For Wildlife

Natural habitat for wildlife is shrinking at alarming rates, as more and more of the landscape is developed for malls, highways, and new suburbs. As habitat disappears, we lose biodiversity--the rich variety of plants, animals and ecosystems that sustain life on Earth. It is imperative to recognize the importance of private landowners’ involvement in successful habitat and wildlife restoration, conservation and management.

Creating a wildlife habitat in your own backyard is one of the ways to share land with wildlife and revel in the joy and value it brings to your life. Remember, not all creatures are warm and fuzzy, but even the smallest beetle can keep the crop-damaging pests out of your garden.

When planning a backyard habitat, it helps to keep the focus on these guidelines;

  1. Assess the amount of space available
  2. Identify the habitat elements that already exist in your yard or garden space
  3. Identify what plants already exist in your yard and what you would like to bring in from the Native Plant list. (You may be already providing some habitat for wildlife!)
  4. Then decide which animals you wish to attract to your property. Do you want to focus on a few species, or attract as many species as possible?
  5. Finally, creating an outline of your yard on paper is very helpful. This will help establish a basic blueprint for your backyard habitat.

 

By taking the following simple steps in our yards and gardens, you can provide important habitats for wildlife and protect the species that help protect us.

Provide the Four Basic Elements
All species have four basic requirements for survival. They are food, water, cover, and places to raise young.

Food
Providing food year-round requires a variety of trees, shrubs and other plants. Your plantings can provide a variety of foods, such as fruits and berries, grains and seeds, nuts and acorns, browse plants which include twigs and buds of shrubs and trees, forage plants which include grasses and legumes, and aquatic plants. Insects and other invertebrates, attracted to flowers, shrubs and trees, are also food for wildlife.

By offering a variety of fruiting plants, you will be able attract a wider variety of species. If possible, select plants that flower or fruit at different times during the season. Fall, winter and early spring foods are critical to the survival of resident wildlife, as well as migrating species.

Because native plants and wildlife have co-evolved, restoration or conservation of native plant communities in your yard should be the main emphasis of your habitat project. By choosing native plants suited to the site conditions, little maintenance, chemical fertilizers, herbicides, or additional watering will be needed for the plants to thrive.

Water Source
Wildlife needs water all the year round, for drinking, bathing, and breeding. Water can be supplied in a birdbath, or a shallow dish near shrubs, trees, or other cover.

If you have a natural pond, stream, vernal pool, or other wetlands on your property, make sure to preserve or restore it. A small pond provides water for drinking and bathing, as well as cover and reproductive areas for small fish, insects, amphibians, and reptiles.

Cover/Shelter
Wildlife needs protection against the elements and predators. Densely branched trees and shrubs, hollow logs, rock piles, brush piles, stone walls, evergreens, thick grasses and deep water provide cover for many species. Small mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and a great variety of insects and other small animals find homes in these structures.

Be sure to keep cover areas a safe distance from food and water in order to avoid these areas becoming hiding places for predators stalking prey at feeders and water sources. Within a region, native animals and plants have evolved together, so it is no surprise that native plants usually provide the best sources of food and cover to wildlife. For this reason, native plants generally support more species of wildlife than non-native plants.

Spaces for Nesting and Raising the Young
Wildlife also needs places for nesting and rearing their young. Evergreen and deciduous trees and shrubs provide nesting areas for birds. Dying or dead trees are excellent habitat features. They are excavated and used by woodpeckers, flying squirrels, and a multitude of insects and cavity-nesting birds, such as owls, bluebirds, chickadees, and wrens. Rabbits, shrews, mice, snakes, and salamanders lay their eggs or raise young under boughs of plants as well as in the rock, log, or mulch piles.

Nest boxes for birds and bats can be placed in your backyard. Aquatic animals, such as frogs, toads, newts, dragonflies, and other insects, deposit their eggs in ponds, vernal pools, and other wetlands. Butterflies require "host" plants that serve as food sources for butterflies during their larval (caterpillar) stage.

Plant Species Diversity

Diversity or variety in your habitat will promote a healthy landscape and attract diverse wildlife species. The presence of many plant species makes it less likely that insects or disease will cause severe problems. Having many species of trees, shrubs, perennial and annual flowers and grasses in your yard will also attract more varied wildlife. Diverse plants provide a wide range of foods that are available throughout the year.

Examples of Bird-Friendly Plants
Oak ,Beech, Hickory, Mulberry, Dogwood, Redbud, Serviceberry, Hawthorn, Witch hazel, Red Cedar, Spruce, Sumac, Viburnum, Wild Grapes, Blackberry, Elderberry, Virginia Creeper and Bittersweet.

The Favored Plant Structures
The shape and size of different plants combine to create edges and add to the structure in your landscape. Gradual and/or meandering edges (curved and irregular) are more structurally complex and are favored by most wildlife. You can create these types of edges by planting shrubs or small trees along existing edges.

Uncut lawn grasses such as fescue, bluegrass, and rye can provide meadow-like habitat to animals throughout the year.

Conserving Your Backyard

  1. Protection from Pets: Protecting wildlife from unnecessary mortality is an important consideration as you develop your backyard habitat. Therefore, keeping pets pose serious threats to wildlife. In United States, millions of birds are killed each year by free-ranging domestic cats.

To offer protection for birds, feeders should be 10 feet from cover, and birdbaths should be 15 feet from cover, because cats use the cover to ambush birds using them. Dogs too can be a danger and a disturbance to wildlife, especially in nesting season, and need to be kept under control.

  1. Unwelcome Wildlife: Be wary of unwelcome wildlife that can be quite troublesome. Raccoons may raid garbage cans, squirrels may rob bird feeders, rabbits may eat garden vegetables, and woodpeckers may peck at your siding.

Generally, the best solution is to exclude the animal from the problem area. Tight fitting and secured garbage can lids, squirrel or predator guards on bird feeders and garden fences are all effective.

  • Birds flying into the Windows: Windows reflect skylight and vegetation, and songbirds sometimes fly into them, breaking their necks. To prevent crashes, try placing any of the following on the outside of the window - a falcon cut-out silhouette, parallel strings stretched across the window, or a mobile of pine cones or dead branches.

Locating feeders 30 feet from your house, or right next to your windows, can help reduce the number of birds that fly into the windows.

  1. Chemicals and Herbicides: Eliminate chemical use in your yard. Pesticides can kill birds, butterflies, lizards and all your wildlife friends. Control pests by organic means. Let nature take its course and encourage beneficial insects (e.g., ladybug, praying mantis), birds, bats and other insect eaters.

All herbs attract beneficial insects and are a valuable addition to keeping your habitat garden pest-free. If you must use pesticides, avoid highly toxic or broad spectrum chemicals that kill most invertebrates.

  • Mulching: Mulch helps keep water in the soil and available to the plant, rather than evaporating into the air. This can help you reduce your watering time. Also, as mulch breaks down, it provides nutrients to the soil. This can help reduce the need for fertilizer.

 

  1. Maintenance: Reduce or eliminate your lawn area to cut down on mowing, watering and general maintenance. Also, check around the house and close any holes or repair worn caulking, especially where service pipes or wires enter the house

Important Note: Before getting started on your backyard wildlife habitat, check with neighbors and call your local planning department or zoning bylaw authority to be sure any changes you make to your yard are permissible.

Unfortunately, many suburban developments discourage any departures from the typical mowed lawn with a few shrubs.