Creating a backyard habitat is a fun, easy, and educational project in which the entire family can participate. It is a great way to practice sustainable landscaping in incremental steps, and a terrific project from which home-schooled children of all ages and abilities can benefit.
Not only does creating a backyard wildlife-habitat help native wildlife, it provides numerous benefits to your local environment. To provide this type of habitat for wildlife, you need to be aware of five critical components: cover, food, water, a place for newborns, and sustainability.
Every living thing needs to be able to find shelter and take cover from weather extremes and predators. In addition to that, predators need to be able to take cover in order to catch prey. In order to certify your yard as a backyard habitat, you need to provide at least two types of cover for wildlife.
Brush and leaf cover is a way to provide dense and secure cover close to the ground. By providing this type of shelter you can expect to see flycatchers and dragonflies feeding on insects from the tips of the branches. Lizards and butterflies will sun themselves. You will also attract rabbits, turtles, and small birds, who need the tangled branches for temporary shelter. Woodpeckers will also make an appearance to pick insects out of the decaying wood.
Consider allowing a leaf layer to naturally accumulate in the fall. A leaf layer is a preferred habitat and food source for many butterfly and moth species who overwinter as pupae. By allowing the pupae to overwinter in your yard, you are also providing an important food source for birds who are feeding their babies in the early spring.
Trees and snags are another easy and important habitat to provide for squirrels, birds, bats, and raccoons. According to the National Wildlife Federation, dead trees provide habitat for more than 1,000 species of wildlife nationwide.
Snags are simply dead trees that are left upright to decompose. Snags become logs when they fall to the ground. Snags and logs provide food for animals who feed on the insects, mosses, lichens, and fungi. Birds of prey use the higher branches as perches from which they hunt for prey. Squirrels and other small mammals store food in the crevices. Not only are you providing for the wildlife in your area by letting trees decompose naturally, the mosses, lichen, and fungi help to refurbish your soil by returning vital nutrients to it through the nitrogen cycle.
If you are not able, due to space, ordinances, or personal preference, to provide these types of natural habitats, consider providing bird houses, bat houses, and bee boxes to assist your native wildlife population.
Bee house: A bee house is not only a great family project, but can also be a community service activity. This particular bee house is perfect for the orchard mason bees. Orchard mason bees live in wooden blocks but they do not drill holes in wooden items like other bees. They are also very gentle. The female rarely stings and the male orchard mason bee does not sting at all. Because these houses are made from scrap wood, it is very inexpensive to make several and distribute them around the neighborhood.
- 5/16” drill bit
- untreated scrap lumber, at least 4” thick
- chicken wire
Drill holes in the scrap lumber three to five inches deep, but not all the way through the wooden block. Cover the holes with chicken wire in order to protect the bees from birds. Secure the bee house on the southern side of buildings, fence posts, or trees. Once you have placed the bee house where you want it, do not move it until at least November. Do not use insecticides on or around the bee house.
While providing cover for flying wildlife, don’t forget the ones who live in water and on land. In the summer, a toad can eat as much as 3,000 grubs, slugs, beetles, and other insects every month. This is a creature that provides a great service to you! Pay your amphibians back by creating a toad abode. You can buy one or you can make one by recycling a broken ceramic or terra cotta pot. Simply flip the broken pot upside down in a shady area next to a water source. Amphibians will use it for land shelter.
Food is another critical component to consider. Look to the natural world and mimic what you see. Native plants are the food source for animals in the wild, and your yard should not be any different. When you are considering which plants you will use, keep in mind that many species require different food at different stages in their life cycle. Use plants that bloom in the spring and summer for the necessary pollen and nectar. Make sure you have trees and shrubs that produce berries late fall and winter. Instead of promptly deadheading, allow wildlife to feed off the seeds for as long as you can. Collect any fallen branches or logs and stack them out of the way to encourage insects and grubs. Understand that this will also attract native snakes, so stack away from your house and domesticated animals if this is a concern.
Do not forget to feed your caterpillars. As a gardener, you can really help restore the lost habitat and host plants for many species of moths and butterflies. Not only will you support native butterflies, but you will be able to try out new and interesting native flowering plants in your yard. The more caterpillar food you make available, the more birds you will attract to your yard. Most species of moths and butterflies rely on a very limited type of plant to feed their young. You can learn which species are native to your area, and what food source they prefer, by going to the Native Plant Finder and typing in your zip code.
To certify, your habitat will need a minimum of three food sources. If natural food sources are not realistic, you can include bird feeders, butterfly feeders, squirrel feeders or hummingbird feeders.
Water is another important consideration in your habitat. Wildlife needs clean water to survive. Of course, all wildlife needs water to drink, but some wildlife require water for other reasons as well. Birds, for example, need to bathe regularly to keep their feathers in good working condition, while other species spend most of their life in water.
You can get as complex as you want when providing a water source for wildlife. This can include building a water garden or pond, a rain garden, or a backyard marsh. Natural water sources visible and adjacent to your land, such as ponds, lakes, rivers, springs, oceans, and wetlands count towards your wildlife certification as a water source. For smaller spaces, add a birdbath or a container water garden.
Another thing to consider is providing a place for wildlife to care for their young. Remember, some species such as butterflies and amphibians require different habitats in different stages of their lives, so it is important to provide habitat for each stage of the life cycle.
Container water-garden: A container water garden is perfect for an apartment balcony or a small patio in the city. They are beautiful to look at, relaxing to listen to, and easy to care for.
- Non-porous container
- Plants: You need a balanced selection of water plants to create a healthy water garden. Oxygenating plants such as anacharis, feather grass, and blood grass help maintain the pH balance of the water. Bog plants grow naturally in shallow water and can be propped up on rocks in your container. Water lettuce and other floaters help reduce algae. Marginal plants such as horsetail and yellow iris should sit right in the bottom of your pot. You will need four to five plants to fill a pot with a 16 inch diameter and a depth of 12 inches.
- Soil: Aquatic soil works the best and is the easiest to use. It holds nutrients well and provides a strong base for anchoring plants.
Once you have your plants situated the way you want them, consider adding a mosquito deterrent. You can use a bubbler or a fountain. These can be either solar or electric powered. They will help eliminate mosquitoes by keeping your water from becoming stagnant. Another way to deter mosquitoes is to add small gold or mosquito fish. Do not release any fish into natural watersheds as some species are invasive.
Maintaining your container water garden will be easier if you prevent algae by covering two-thirds of the water surface with water lilies, floaters, or other plants that shade and cool the surface of the water. To care for your water garden, simply drain and clean the pot, trimming down any overgrown plants, when two inches of decomposed matter builds up on the bottom of the pot.
If you have a larger area for a water feature, consider adding a pond. Use a flexible pond liner and design a ledge into the pond by stacking logs or rocks. A gentle change in depth allows wildlife to get in and out of your pond easily. Pond ledges also create spaces for aquatic plants to grow.
The location of your pond should allow for some direct sunlight, but it should not receive full sun all day. When deciding on the location of your pond, consider any safety features you need. If you have small children you may want to put a fence around the pond.
The healthiest pond will mimic a pond found in nature. It will have plenty of native plants and decomposing material on the bottom. To give your pond the healthiest start possible, add a bucket full of water from a local natural pond. This will provide millions of organisms essential to the life of your pond. If you find algae growth to be a problem you can add more floating plants or add a bale of barley straw to limit algae growth naturally.
Most of the habitat you provide for cover can double as a place where wildlife can raise their young. To certify your habitat, you need at least two places for wildlife to court, mate, bear and raise their young. Some birds will patch up their old nests year after year if you do not get rid of them. It is a true treat to watch them feed their babies and teach them to fly each year. In addition to the natural habitats, you can include nesting boxes and bee houses that you construct yourself or purchase.
Sustainability is the last component to consider when creating a backyard wildlife habitat. If you take the time and effort required to create a safe place for your native wildlife, maintain it in a sustainable fashion. There are things you can do to ensure that the soil, air, and water stay clean and healthy. First, use native plants and natural pest control. Avoid the use of chemicals in your habitat. Use organic gardening practices, including the use of vermicomposting. Practice soil and water conservation. You can capture rainwater and use it in your garden. Learn about the techniques of xeriscaping (water-wise landscaping). Use a drip or soaker hose irrigation system. Reduce erosion with terraces and ground cover. Limit water use as much as possible. To meet the certification requirements, you need to employ at least two out of the three suggestions.
Official certification is not necessary, but it is a lot of fun, especially if you are creating this backyard habitat as part of a school project. If you’re into officially becoming a Certified Wildlife Habitat, you can do so through the National Wildlife Federation’s website. For a $20 fee, you become a member of the National Wildlife Federation’s Garden For Wildlife Community. You receive a personalized certificate, a subscription to the e-newsletter Garden for Wildlife, a one-year subscription to National Wildlife Magazine, and more.