Mother Earth Living

Backyard Wildlife Habitats: Creating the Ideal Habitat for Critters

Restoring nature’s habitat starts with a simple bird feeder.
By Carol Venolia
March/April 2004
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In Linda Ross and Michael Yates’ yard, yarrow and flowering currant attract pollinators, aster and buddleia draw butterflies, and hummingbirds love the pineapple sage and zauschneria.
Photo By Barbara Bourne
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When Linda Ross bought a bird feeder 10 years ago, she had no idea what she was starting. She was gratified when it brought in some birds, so she bought another bird feeder, then a hummingbird feeder. About six years ago, she realized that pesticides and herbicides would hurt the creatures, so she went organic. As soon as she did that, she started seeing more bees. She did more planting for bees, and butterflies showed up. “Everything just snowballed,” she says.

Linda’s story is a classic illustration of how backyard wildlife habitat gardening can work. One step at a time, she’s grown along with her northern California garden. Bit by bit, she replaced her lawn with plants that provide nectar, pollen, seeds, and berries for critters. With help from the National Wildlife Federation’s (NWF) Backyard Wildlife Habitat Program, she learned about the four basic elements of habitat: food, water, shelter, and territory for raising young. She added nesting boxes, a birdbath, native habitat plants, and a small pond.

Two years ago, Linda’s garden was certified by the NWF as a Backyard Wildlife Habitat. A sign at her picket fence announces this and outlines the habitat elements. “I love to watch people stop, admire the garden, read the sign, then look around to identify the food, water, shelter, and territory,” she says. “When you walk past this garden, it’s zooming with life—bugs everywhere, and birds, and hummingbirds, and butterflies.”

Bugs? Can we deal with this? “The marvelous thing about going organic, creating habitat, and establishing a little ecosystem is that things tend to stay in balance,” Linda explains. “If I get aphids, I just wait, and sure enough along come the predator beetles; they polish off the aphids, and then they leave. So I don’t have many problems. If you’re tending the soil and you’ve got a good little system going, it tends to keep itself in check.”

Linda and her family have accomplished all this—as well as growing most of their produce—on a one-tenth-acre lot (that includes a house) near downtown Santa Rosa, California. “Not only are the pests kept in check, but the bees pollinate the fruit trees and the veggies,” Linda says. “My tomato and pumpkin production went way up when I started bringing in more bees.”

The neighbors are catching on, too. “The woman across the street was so intrigued that she tore out her whole lawn,” Linda adds. “She put in seed plants and nectar plants, and she’s adding a water feature. Now we have contiguous habitat; it’s fun to watch butterflies bounding from our garden over to hers.”

Nature as it was meant to be

North of Baltimore, Cathy Gilleland and her family are making their seventeen acres hospitable to wildlife. When they bought their home ten years ago, it was surrounded by lawn and traditional foundation plantings; beyond that lay a pond, a stream, wetlands, and woods. “Some visitors want to know why we don’t cut down all the dead trees,” says Cathy. “Others think we should clear the wetlands and take out the underbrush. Their mindset is like most Americans: Control nature instead of working with it.” But birds nest in those dead trees, the wetlands supply water for creatures great and small, the underbrush provides food and shelter, and decaying vegetation nourishes the soil.

Six years ago, Cathy’s eyes were opened when she took a habitat certification course through the WindStar Wildlife Institute. Today she concentrates her habitat gardening efforts on the three acres near the house, leaving the woods and wetlands alone—except for removing some invasive plants that choke out natives. “I try to add one habitat garden per year, replacing a section of lawn at a time.

“The thing about native plants,” Cathy explains, “is that they pretty much take care of themselves. When I have the inclination, I’ll go out and weed around the trees and shrubs. And when I don’t, it doesn’t really matter.” Native plants provide habitat for the local critters and are best adapted to their locale.

The Gillelands also plan to keep some of their lawn. “Clover grows in it; that’s good for wildlife. But most lawns have essentially no wildlife benefit,” she says. “Smaller birds prefer not to fly over a large expanse of lawn because any hawk can grab them out of the sky. A lawn provides no cover or nourishment for wildlife. But some lawn is nice for people, especially if you have kids.”

And the personal payoff? “It’s seeing the little things: praying mantis egg cases, or little tiny butterflies, or bugs that are like shiny metallic neon gold,” Cathy says. “I was only familiar with the big butterflies before, then I started looking a little more closely and I found more than twenty species here. Every morning there’s something different.”

Respecting the shoreline

Meanwhile in Minnesota, people are learning how to stop destroying lakeshore habitat. If you have any kind of shoreline—lake, river, stream, wetland, or large pond—you can learn from their experience. “Many people move from the city, buy a lakeshore site, and try to re-create their suburban backyard,” says Carrol Henderson, supervisor for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Nongame Wildlife Program. “I’ve never met a person who moved to the lake to spend more time mowing, yet they put in a lawn all the way to the shore.”

Well-intentioned homeowners clear away the natural lakeshore flora to “improve their view,” and their lawn fertilizer and herbicides run into the lake. As a result, the once-blue lakes are turning green with algal bloom and the shorelines are eroding.

Henderson and his colleagues are educating lakeshore owners about the importance of respecting shoreline habitat. In their book and multimedia CD, they advocate reducing the size of lawns and re-establishing a buffer zone of native aquatic and water-edge plants—grasses, sedges, wildflowers, and trees or shrubs.

Lake dwellers sometimes begin their habitat lakescaping reluctantly, says Henderson. “But once people see how beautiful those native wildflowers are—they see the butterflies coming back, they see the songbirds coming back, they see species of wildlife that they haven’t seen on their lakeshore for years—they become so excited that they discover a new love for nature that they may not have experienced since childhood.”

How small can you go?

Perhaps you’re thinking, “Right. Lakefront property. Acreage. Backyard. I live in an apartment—what about me?” Don’t feel left out. My apartment is a live/work space in downtown Santa Rosa, California, but I found a strip of dirt adjacent to my building that gets a few hours of sun each day. I knew nothing about wildlife habitat and little about gardening when I decided there’s no place like home for learning. A year ago, I began to add native habitat plants around the existing leggy perennials. I installed a nesting box, a bird feeder, and a birdbath. Now my little garden attracts birds, butterflies, endangered carpenter bees, and innumerable other creatures that are part of this reviving ecosystem—recently certified by the NWF as a Backyard Wildlife Habitat.

Just as exciting, my garden attracts neighbors. People stop to spend time in this little oasis. They talk about how good it feels. I always point out the habitat features and explain that it’s helping bring beneficial critters back to downtown.

If you don’t have a strip of dirt, you can still provide habitat. A balcony or even a windowsill is all you need. In Linda Ross’s backyard, she created complete butterfly habitats in medium-size terra-cotta pots. All the elements are there: larval plants, nectar plants, and a little dish holding pebbles and water—a habitat fit for a monarch.


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