Backyard Wildlife Habitats: Creating the Ideal Habitat for Critters

Restoring nature’s habitat starts with a simple bird feeder.

| March/April 2004

  • 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
  • Carol Venolia contemplates her urban infill garden, where native plants, ornamentals, and herbs feed birds, butterflies, bees, and people.
    Photo By Barbara Bourne
  • A variety of plants will feed a complex web of life.
    Photo By Barbara Bourne
  • All animals need water, easily provided in a dish or birdbath.
    Photo By Barbara Bourne
  • Linda and Michael watched a caterpillar make its chrysalis on a red penstemon in their yard; weeks later, this Anise Swallowtail butterfly emerged.
    Photo By Barbara Bourne
  • Territory for raising young can include nesting boxes and appropriate plants.
    Photo By Barbara Bourne
  • An Anise Swallowtail emerges from the shelter of its chrysalis.
    Photo By Barbara Bourne
  • The cattail reeds in Linda and Michael’s mini-pond (a small watering trough) provide a place for dragonflies to emerge from their exoskeletons.
    Photo By Barbara Bourne
  • A buffer zone of native grasses and wildflowers restores songbirds, butterflies, and beauty, and keeps waterfowl from becoming yard pests in their search for food and shelter.
    Photo By Barbara Bourne
  • This typical denuded shoreline is vulnerable to erosion and provides no food or shelter for wildlife, while lawn fertilizers and herbicides pollute the lake.
    Photo by Bill Bartojeiz
  • Cathy Gilleland’s pond and surrounding native plants attract dragonflies, herons, kingfishers, beavers, muskrats, turtles, and frogs (keeping mosquitoes in check). The dead trees are important to woodpeckers, birds of prey, and cavity-nesting animals.
    Photo By Cathy Gilleland

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.”

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