Create a backyard habitat – 4 steps to attract wildlife to your yard
May is Garden for Wildlife Month. (Yes, it’s on the calendar!) If you want to bring more birds, butterflies or other critters to your yard, school, church or community garden, you should be able to find lots of good tips right now. Creating a wildlife habitat is fun and fulfilling, and a great way to get your kids interested in and learning about nature and the environment.
My family has created a yard certified by the National Wildlife Federation as a Wildlife Habitat and an Advanced Bird-Friendly Yard, so we are familiar with what you need to attract wildlife — and create an inviting outdoor space for people too! Having the right elements in place to draw in critters definitely enhances the enjoyment we get out of our yard, and it helps the animals who today are being squeezed out of their native habitats due to development.
You only need four basic elements in your yard to attract wildlife: water, a food source, shelter and a place for animals to raise their young. (Which are kind of all the things that people look for in choosing a place to live, if you think about it.) I’ll show you simple and advanced ideas for each element — you can decide how elaborate you want to go.
A wildlife expert once told me it can be harder for animals to find fresh water than it is for them to find food. Here in Florida where we have lots of rivers, lakes and canals, you would think fresh water would be abundant. It usually is — but there are certainly parts of the state (and other states) far from a water source. When you have fresh water in your yard, you create an oasis that wildlife will flock too. (And a water element is a beautiful addition to your yard anyway.)
To go simple, place a bird bath (or three) in your yard. You don’t even have to buy a fancy stone or porcelain bird bath that costs big bucks. Just get a plant stand that has a built-in garden pot saucer — $20 or less. Keep it clean and filled with fresh water. Maintaining the bird bath is an easy job for a child, who may take pride in helping animals.
For something more elaborate, look for a do-it-yourself “fountain in a barrel” kit at hardware stores. You can also install a pond, like we did.
Most people are familiar with bird feeders — and they totally count toward providing food for wildlife!
Setting up a bird feeder is a simple way to get birds onto your property. You can find a variety of bird feeders and seed to fill them at nurseries, hardware stores and Target. My sons love to fill up our bird feeders every few days, and elbow each other out of the way to do it! They like feeling they have fed the birds and made them happy.
Eventually you may also want to install plants, trees or bushes that offer food sources.
If you have a local gardener friend, ask him or her which plants in your area are easy to grow and which produce fruit, berries, seeds or nuts. You can also ask your local county extension service or native plant society (often on a state-wide level). There may be gardening books specific to your region that you can check out at the library. It’s important to install only plants that work well in your area, or “hardiness zone.” If you give your plant the care it needs, it will produce food that will draw in local wildlife. Many kids like to “play in the dirt” and will enjoy planting and watering a shrub and watching the flowers bloom — my boys sure do.
Basically, wildlife need a place to sleep, hide from predators or get out of the weather.
If you have mature trees, that’s all you need to fulfill the shelter requirement for lots of animals. A hedge or other shrubbery gives small animals places to rest. If you installed a pond as your water element, that will become a home to frogs and other aquatic creatures.
You can also create a brush or rock pile in your yard, if you don’t mind something a bit messy to be in your landscape.
If you can tolerate leaving dead trees — called snags — or even fallen trees as logs on your property, they can provide shelter too. Just please make sure a dead tree isn’t over a sidewalk, car or other place a branch might fall on someone.
A Place to Raise Young
What’s cuter than a baby anything? You will get to see babies in your yard if you give wildlife parents what they need to create a home for their offspring.
If you have mature trees or shrubs, some birds may built nests there. Great! That is a simple way to attract nesting birds.
To go a step further, set up a nesting box for birds that are cavity nesters.
A word of warning: the beautifully designed bird houses you see at the craft store will not work. They are just for decoration. Find out how to set up a nesting box or do a search for “nesting box plans” if you want to make one yourself for a specific bird in your area. You can also build a bat house. (Why would you want to attract bats? They gobble down insects like no one’s business.)
Aside from trees or structures, you can install plants where butterflies lay their eggs. Each butterfly species is very specific in the type of plant it lays its eggs on, which is the plant the caterpillars will eat when they hatch. Kids love watching caterpillars!
If you want to really attract butterflies to your yard, don’t stop at just flowering nectar plants — also set out host plants for the caterpillars. To find which butterfly species are native to your area and which plants to get, check the North American Butterfly Association and find the chapter in your region. The caterpillars may munch your host plants down to nothing, but they almost always re-leaf and spring back, ready for the next batch of caterpillars. If you don’t like partially eaten plants in your landscape, find an out-of-the-way area to plant host plants.
One tip I learned from a butterfly expert is to spread the butterfly plants around throughout your yard so the butterfly’s predators don’t have so easy a time at finding all of them.
To create an outdoor space that’s home to wildlife, it can be as easy as setting out bird baths, bird feeders, a pile of brush and a nesting box — or as elaborate as creating an oasis of water and regional plants that wildlife love — to provide a home for wildlife for generations. An outdoor space where wildlife are welcome is also one that you will enjoy spending time in, and where kids will grow up learning how to care for their environment.