Educational Series: Help Wildlife Survive in Your Yard

By Nick Engelfried
No matter where you live, you can help animals without travelling any farther than your own backyard, balcony, or windowsill. Making small changes to the ways we care for our homes and gardens can have a real effect on animals who live nearby–and this holds true whether you have a big backyard or live in a small apartment. Of course having a large yard of your own makes it easier to build wildlife habitat into your landscape. However, even a windowsill can be a source of food and shelter for pollinators and other small animals who form essential links in the ecosystem.

Since all animal food chains ultimately rely on plants for nourishment, perhaps the most important thing you can do to help the animals around you is grow the right kinds of plants. In general, native plant species will be a better source of food for wildlife than exotic varieties imported from elsewhere. The reason is that any given area’s birds, mammals, and insects evolved in tandem with the plants which also occur naturally in that region, and have adapted to use those plants as food and shelter.

Exactly what plants are native to your area will depend on where you live. Fortunately, this information shouldn’t be hard to find. A simply internet search will usually put you on the right track to discovering what plant species occur naturally in your region. Also find out if your state or county has a native plants society; if so, these local organizations are great resources.

Which native plants you select to grow in your garden will also depend on what your needs are. If you have a large yard you might consider planting native shrubs or even trees that provide shelter for all sorts of animals. For a smaller garden–or even a simple window box–flowers will be more fitting.

Here it is important to note an exception to the rule that native plants are always best: growing exotic flowers may be appropriate when your goal is to attract insect pollinators like bees and butterflies. In undisturbed ecosystems far from human activity, pollinators normally have access to a wide variety of native flowers that come into bloom at different times throughout the year. Especially if you have a small garden, it may not be practical to replicate this kind of seasonality in your backyard wildlife habitat. You might therefore want to plant flowers that stay in bloom for a long time and are large and brightly colored so as to easily attract pollinators–despite the fact that these flower species may not be native.

However, even when it make sense to plant some exotic species, it is important to be selective about which flowers you buy. Make sure not to choose invasive plants known to spread into the wild and displace native vegetation.

Want to go beyond cultivating wildlife-attracting flower beds? If you have a grass lawn, consider replacing it with something more animal friendly. Conventional lawns are one of least hospital habitats for most animals. Short, neatly trimmed grass may look attractive to us humans, but it provides little space for animals to hide. Most types of grass used in lawns are exotic–and since they don’t have nectar-producing flowers, these grasses are of little use to pollinators. Finally, the large amounts of chemical fertilizers and pesticides routinely used on many lawns make them downright dangerous to insects and other small animal species.

If you are ready to convert your lawn to something more wildlife friendly, think about replacing it with a native plant garden. Alternatively, if you simply must have a green lawn for kids or pets to play on, you can make it more hospitable to animals by replacing the grass with some other form of durable green groundcover, such as clover. Because ground cover plants often have nectar-producing flowers, they can provide food for pollinators. A ground cover species well suited to your local climate will also likely require less fertilizer and water than a grass lawn. Not only is this good for wildlife, it means less work for you!

As alluded to above, what you don’t do with your yard or garden is as important as what you do. Perhaps the number one rule for cultivating an animal-friendly landscape should be to never use insecticides, herbicides, or other pesticides unless absolutely necessary. Spraying toxic chemicals like these on your flowers or lawn will immediately negate any other effort you make to attract wildlife. Of all the pesticides out there, insecticides are probably the most damaging. Most chemical insecticides kill indiscriminately, wiping out pollinators and other useful insects as well as pest species. Fewer benign insects also means less food for birds and mammals.

If you must use some form of pesticide to deal with an out-of-control insect or disease outbreak, make sure you apply no more than necessary and research natural, organic substitutes for synthetic chemical-based products. Also ask yourself if controlling the pest is really necessary? Leaving the occasional small aphid colony in place won’t seriously damage your garden–and it allows useful insects to go about their business unharmed.

There are many other things you can do to make your yard or garden wildlife friendly. While cultivating native plants is a great start, some animals have additional habitat needs you can meet in other ways. Birdhouses and bird baths are good for drawing feathered visitors to your yard–and these features are especially important if you live in an urban area with few natural nesting sites. A feeder adds to your yard’s attractiveness for birds, and providing a variety of different types of birdseed–such as sunflower seeds, millet, and cracked corn–means you will meet the needs of more bird species.

Of course, your birdfeeder can become a death trap if it simply lures birds into the claws and teeth of a cat. Though many pet owners may not want to hear it, outdoor cats pose a dire threat to birds and other wildlife. The American Bird Conservancy estimates cats in the United States kill a staggering 2.4 billion birds annually. This is far greater than almost any other cause of bird mortality related to human activity such as hunting, oil spills, or wind turbines. Keeping your cat indoors isn’t just better for birds, it will also likely lead to a longer life for your pet, keeping him or her safe from the myriad dangers cats encounter outside.

Most animal lovers already know about the significance of birdhouses. But did you know insects also benefit from having housing sites provided for them? This is especially true when it comes to bees, the most important pollinator group. Most bee species likely to show up in your garden are not the well-known honey bee, but bumblebees or small solitary bees that have very different habitat needs.

While honey bees live in massive colonies that build large hives, bumble bees produce smaller and much less conspicuous colonies which prefer natural underground cavities. Leaving patches of uncultivated soil in your yard is a good way to provide nesting sites for bumble bees and other ground-nesting bee species. There are also solitary bees who make nests for their larvae inside small holes in rotting wood. You can buy or build your own artificial bee habitat made of a block of wood with holes of various diameters drilled into it. If you don’t have a yard or large garden, placing one of these blocks on your window ledge is a great way to provide valuable wildlife habitat that requires minimal space.

As an animal lover there are many, many ways you can make your home and yard into a mini wildlife sanctuary. From putting out bird and bee houses, to planting native vegetation, to refraining from using pesticides, each one of us can and should do our part to make the world a more hospitable place for animals.

Photo credit: Colin Varndell

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Nick Engelfried Writes About Animals, the Environment, and Conservation for the ForceChange network

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