Wildlife need to feel safe in your yard. Safe places come in many forms, including trees, dense shrubs, rock and brush piles, hollow logs, a stack of firewood, tall grasses and, for some animals, water. The more variety you offer, the more species you’ll attract. Here are some suggestions.
Plant native grasses
Grasses provide cover for dashing into when an animal feels threatened by a predator. More than that, many animals live and nest in grasses — rabbits, many songbirds, doves, quail, rodents and others. In winter, snow-covered grasses have an insulating effect, helping to warm those living under it. Grasses also concentrate insects for insect-eating animals. For some animals, like mice, the plant itself or its seeds are food.
Spare part of a flower bed for a stand of grasses or assign an area of your yard for a native grass garden. If you’re opposed to native grasses, then plant a bed of ornamental grasses or let a corner of your lawn grow tall. Cut down the grasses in spring and watch them grow tall and full again throughout the summer, knowing that within, mostly hidden from our view, there’s a beehive of activity. See a list of native grasses here.
Build a brush pile
Add a brush pile to your yard. It needn’t be large and you can hide it in the farthest corner of your yard behind some shrubs, if you wish. Brush piles provide something for nearly everyone. Birds and dragonflies will perch on the tips of branches. Insects and lizards will sun themselves nearby and many animals will use the tangle of branches for cover. Toads and mice will live there. Woodpeckers will pick insects out of the decayed wood. Creatures will take shelter from storms under larger limbs and butterflies may spend the night, tucking themselves into narrow crevices.
A brush pile isn’t a compost pile or a stack of wood. Start with some limbs you’ve cut or have fallen from trees. Cut the smaller side branches off, or not. Add to it everything that falls or gets trimmed off trees and shrubs. Don’t pack the pile tightly, let it be messy; all the many openings are shelter for birds and other critters. Put a bird feeder near it and give birds a quick retreat to safely.
Stack a woodpile
This is different from a brush pile. This is an orderly stack of logs and it doesn’t need to be especially wide, but should be at least 3 feet high. Lay each level crosswise to the one below. It helps to cover just the top with a tarp to keep rain from pouring down through it. Erect it in a shady spot near your butterfly garden. Butterflies and moths may find it a convenient for resting or roosting overnight.
Pile up a rock pile
A pile of rocks, of any size or shape, will offer protection from predators and a basking spot for cold-blooded species. Many species can’t control their body temperature. As the warmth of the day cools into night, the body temperature of these animals drops too. Next morning, the sun warms them up as it climbs into the day. These animals — toads, frogs, snakes, turtles, even insects — must have this heat to generate muscle activity, without which they can’t move about. They appreciate a basking site, such as a pile of rocks, which quickly absorbs the heat of the sun and provides them a nifty heating pad of sorts. Meanwhile, under the rocks are cool places for creatures to loll in to get away from the sun when necessary.
Let plant litter lay
Use your mower to mulch fallen leaves and scatter them in plant beds. Using yard waste reduces some of the stress on landfills, as we know, but mulch has other benefits. It provides insulation both summer and winter for plant roots. But, more importantly, we destroy habitat for countless microbes and insects when we rake the surface of flower beds spotless. Many insects feed on plant debris and their fecal matter becomes a nutrient-rich part of the compost. They also live among, burrow into, breed and raise their young in the mulch. Microbes help in this process and, like magic, gardeners reap the big reward of a new layer of rich soil topping.
Add nesting, resting places
Nesting and nurturing places are needed for wildlife to safely raise their young. Trees provide nesting places for squirrels and birds. Birdhouses may be nesting places for birds, squirrels, owls, even opossums, depending on the size of the entry hole. Leafy host plants in your flower and vegetable gardens help hide caterpillars from hungry birds. Shrubs provide limbs to hang from and leaves to hide among. Tall grasses can be home to ground-nesting birds. Add a pond, even a teensy one (such as a half-whisky barrel filled with water and a water lily), and you’ll provide mating and survival habitat for frogs, tadpoles and dragonflies.
Create a toad shelter
Create a special toad shelter with a small “cave” of rocks. Or knock a large entrance hole in the side of a flowerpot saucer and lay it upside down in a damp, shady part of your yard. See more ideas here.
Install a butterfly or bat house
At night and on cloudy, rainy or cool days butterflies and moths tend to hunker down in natural crevices, such as between rocks or logs, under tree bark or even tall grasses. A butterfly house may offer an alternative. They’re billed as houses for hibernation, too, but most butterflies and moths overwinter as pupae or larvae. Place the house near or in a butterfly garden, in a shady spot. Many charming styles are available at online stores or your local birdseed shop. They’re also pretty easy to build. See here for instructions. Note that most folks find these shelters go unused, even when they “prime” them with foods enjoyed by butterflies, such as banana slices or rotting fruit. Nevertheless, they’re a pretty ornament in the garden and thoroughly appreciated by spiders and wasps, who play important, beneficial roles in a backyard wildlife habitat.
Maintain a mud puddle
Many butterflies obtain moisture from streams, ponds, dew and standing water. You can help them out by maintaining a shallow puddle of damp mud or sand n the garden — not a pond, just keep it wet. Look for them to gather around it especially in mid-day, when temperatures are hottest.
*Top photo: Mallard Duck hiding in her nest. (WW)