One of the best ways to bring nature into our lives is to welcome it into our own backyards. The decisions we make when landscaping our yards determine what kinds of wildlife live there and whether or not we can peacefully co-exist.
Wild animals have four habitat requirements for survival: food, water, breeding space and shelter. Providing these needs will attract wildlife to your backyard. Every species has its own requirements in terms of these four ingredients, but the following suggestions form a basis for landscaping with wildlife in mind:
Important note: Keep feeders clean to prevent the spread of disease. Thoroughly rinse chlorine bleach/water cleaning solution from feeders and let dry completely before filling with feed.
Birds flock to these feeding sites throughout the year, especially when naturally occurring food sources are scarce. Place feeders in your yard where birds are protected from predators and weather. Birds should have perching spots close to the food source and near vegetation for protection, but away from the house. Disinfect feeders at least once a month, using a solution of one part chlorine bleach to 10 parts water. Let the cleaning solution soak for 10 minutes then rinse thoroughly. Allow feeders to dry completely before refilling them.
Food needs vary by species. Additions to a backyard wildlife refuge should begin with bird feeders, along with shrubs, trees and flowering plants that produce seeds, fruits, nuts, pollen and nectar for a variety of animals year round. Incorporating an experimental feeder with a variety of foods is a great way to let the birds select their favorite menu. Various mixtures that include different nuts, seeds, berries and fruits are available for purchase or you can make them. Project FeederWatch is a great source of information about what to feed common backyard birds.
When is Dinner?
Begin feeding when the first snow or extreme cold temperatures are expected. Food should be available continuously through March. Avoid excessive spillage on the ground. If there is more seed on the ground than the birds can keep up with, cut back. This will prevent the food from spoiling and reduce visits from larger animals that can be a nuisance. Likewise, store feed in containers that are weather and rodent proof. To discourage squirrels and other animals from confiscating bird feed, install a metal guard or circle below the feeder.
Planting a variety of trees, shrubs and flowering plants will attract an array of animals to your backyard and keep them coming back for more. Butterflies add active beauty to gardens. Attract butterflies into an outdoor space by providing water, sun, shelter and host and nectar plants.
Important note: Keep water sources clean to prevent the spread of disease. Thoroughly rinse chlorine bleach/water cleaning solution from containers and let dry completely before filling with water.
Keep the Water Flowing
Water is a key element for backyard habitats. Several sources of water can be provided. Add a pedestal birdbath, a shallow water dish located at ground level, or even a small pond. Any of these will provide the necessary water source for drinking and bathing. Water can also become an aquatic habitat for dragonflies, frogs and other aquatic life.
The water source provided for wildlife should be reliable. Animals depend on a fresh and constant water source. Provide water not only in spring and summer, but also during the winter months when most of the natural water sources have frozen over and are inaccessible to wildlife. Electric immersion heaters are available for birdbaths to keep the water available in freezing temperatures.
Flush out old, stagnant water with a hose and fill it with fresh water. Clean the container regularly, especially in warmer months, using a brush and a solution of one part chlorine bleach to 10 parts water. Be sure to thoroughly rinse the container before refilling it with fresh water. Keeping clean, fresh water available also prevents mosquitoes from breeding.
Make Some Noise
Many birds are drawn by their acute senses to the sound of moving water. Adding a mister, dripper or circulation pump to a birdbath or other source of fresh water can provide enough sound to attract wild birds.
Clearing land for development has greatly reduced the number of natural nesting sites available to cavity dwelling birds, mammals and reptiles. Trees and shrubs provide areas for nesting, as well as other materials that are used by these animals. If your yard lacks trees and shrubs, a good starting point is to plant some. As they mature, native woody species offer the necessary space for nests and dens.
If space is limited, provide birdhouses for our feathered friends. Requirements of size and cavity opening vary by species, so be sure your nesting boxes follow standard dimensions.
Building a bat box offers refuge for these beneficial creatures, which consume large amounts of mosquitoes and other flying insects. You can also encourage beautiful butterflies to stay in your area by providing hibernation boxes.
The Rustic Look
Take the easy approach, leaving your yard a little rugged to attract wildlife. If it does not pose a safety risk, think twice before cutting down an old decaying tree. Dead trees provide excellent nesting sites and food for animals, such as woodpeckers. Avoid mowing your lawn directly around shrubs. This provides ideal conditions for ground-nesting birds. Patches of native plants, instead of manicured lawn and non-native landscaping species, require less maintenance and provide abundant nectar, shelter and nesting sites for wildlife.
Shelter transforms your yard into a haven where wildlife no longer just visits; they move in. Cover is an important element for any habitat, because it protects wildlife from the elements and from predators.
Plant a variety of trees, shrubs, grasses and flowering plants to maximize the benefits of your backyard habitat throughout the year. Planting around open spaces, known as the "edge effect," is very effective. Edges attract a variety of wildlife to small pieces of land, which is why this technique is rewarding for homeowners. Another technique is the "high-rise effect." Locate an open area, known as the “first story.” Then, plant a “second story” comprised of various sized shrubs. Add small to medium sized trees as the “third story.” Lastly, include a perimeter of tall trees referred as the “fourth story.” Animals that require different types of habitats can live in close proximity with this technique.
Most birds and small mammals need trees and shrubs for shelter. Planting native evergreens will provide year round coverage from weather and predators. Wild rabbits and some birds require thick areas of vegetation near the ground for hiding. Rocks, logs and mulch piles make perfect shelters for small mammals, amphibians and beneficial garden insects. Avoid planting shrubs close to your house, as wild animals stay near sheltered areas. Instead, create corridors of shelter around the perimeter of your yard.
Planning Your Backyard Habitat
Begin by assessing the amount of space you have. Then determine what plants already exist in your yard and decide what wildlife you would like to attract. Since different species have various food preferences and habitat requirements, you can set plans based on which native plants should be incorporated to attract the desired wildlife.
Creating an outline of your yard on paper is very helpful. Determine and sketch all permanent structures on your property, such as the house, patio, walkways, underground obstructions and existing vegetation. Use copies or transparent overlay paper to create a number of alternative designs. Consider how you use the yard. Provide adequate space for entertaining, playing and pets. If privacy is a concern include trees and shrubs to block off nearby distractions.
Finally, realize energy saving capabilities. Winter windbreaks positioned in the northwestern corner of your yard will reduce heating bills. Decrease summer cooling bills with tall shade trees on the southwestern exposure of your house.
Implement your Design
Whether you seek the help of a professional landscape architect or choose to do it yourself, development of your backyard habitat takes time. Native trees, plants and shrubs must become established, especially if you are starting with seeds versus transplanting. Once your native landscape takes shape and your feeders, nest boxes and birdbaths are in place you can sit back and enjoy with minimal maintenance.
For additional resources, see our Research Assistance page.
As you assess your yard, create sketches, and implement your design, consider removing any buckthorn on your property.
Common buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica) and glossy buckthorn (Frangula alnus) are exotic tree species from Eurasia. Introduced to North America in the 1800s for use as ornamental shrubs and hedgerows, buckthorn quickly overruns native oak woodlands, fencerows, habitat edges, and neighborhoods.
Once established, buckthorn displaces or eliminates native flowers, shrubs, trees, and wildlife; alters fire patterns; damages infrastructure; and threatens human livelihoods.
Conditions for buckthorn removal are ideal when the ground is frozen in winter, protecting nearby native species from soil disturbance.
A common method to control buckthorn is cutting the stem flat a few inches above the soil, then immediately applying herbicide to the cut stump to prevent re-sprouting. Commercially available herbicides such as triclopyr and glyphosate are typically effective. Treat only the cut surface and follow all directions on the chemical’s label. Use a commercially available indicator dye or colored flags to mark the treated stumps.
Removal does not end there, though. Buckthorn seeds can remain viable in the soil for upwards of five years. Stay vigilant and remove seedlings as you plant native trees, shrubs, and wildflowers. They will help control buckthorn in the future.
Planting Native Species
Almost all plants provide shelter or food in some way for wildlife. However, planting species native to this region will deliver more benefits to you and wildlife. Native plants have naturally adapted to consistently provide shelter and food to native wildlife, even in the most extreme weather such as drought or freezing conditions. You'll find that planting native flowering species will provide an abundance of nectar, whereas non-native, novelty counterparts do not. Native plants are beautiful, hardy, much less expensive and easier to maintain, as well as beneficial to the environment. Once you have established your native habitat you will save time and money, as well as reduce air pollution by eliminating or significantly reducing the need for fertilizers, pesticides, water and lawn maintenance equipment.
At our annual Native Plant Sale held on Mother’s Day weekend, you can choose from a variety of native plants, shrubs and trees suited to almost any backyard.
Native Plant Sale Species List