The basics

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You may be imagining a wildlife habitat as, well, wild. It certainly can be and there’s something to be said for just letting nature take its course in our backyards. Left alone, our yards would quickly become “naturalized,” meaning whatever plant seeds find their way there will stay if the habitat suits them. Given enough time, we could end up with a yard of delicate wildflowers and fine-bladed grasses or a forest sheltering Columbine, Bleeding Hearts and velvety mosses.

But, don’t count on it. More likely, almost certainly, in the short term our yards would fill quickly with hardy, prolific weed-type plants. Weeds will homestead on all sparse and bare spots, denying soil to more desirable plants. Bindweed, which seems to have a telepathic link to every molecule-sized spot of available soil, will likely be among them, climbing, twisting, wrapping and curling until it chokes even the hose reel. Bermuda grass, which somehow finds its way into even the most carefully tended fescue lawns will find itself free to blanket the flowerbeds. Insects will survive because we’re not using insecticides, but the population will lack the diversity: a prescription for runaway infestations that may damage, if not eventually kill, desirable plants and trees.

We’d be unhappy and our neighbors, too. So, it’s best to plan and plot, have a goal in mind, and start with the right stuff. For most urban situations, “wild” may be too wild. A managed backyard habitat is one both humans and wildlife will enjoy. Even a small yard can become a wildlife habitat. It needs four things. Food sources, water, shelter and cover for hiding, and nesting spots.

Food
Food will serve itself to carnivorous species, who reside at the top of a chain that starts with insects. For instance, by banning insecticides in your yard insects become available as a source of food for numerous other species, like birds. 

Birds will spend time in your yard picking at the buffet of insects you offer. Small birds are prey for larger birds. Snakes and lizards will come slithering around and gulp down any mice who think they have found a good home in your yard. Don’t cringe over the thought of reptiles. They’re beneficial and a healthy yard will have them. Besides that, the snakes and lizards, themselves, are preyed upon by many species, including opossums, raccoons and even birds. Opossums and raccoons are prey for foxes. Rabbits are food for numerous mammals, as well as birds of prey.

Herbivorous and nectar-drinking species will find their food in the plants you provide them. Caterpillars will feed on plant juices and the butterflies they later become will sip nectar from flowers. Rabbits will eat the clover you thoughtfully included in an area of lawn grass, as well as dandelions and other wild greens. Birds will enjoy seeds that fall to the ground after blooming, as well as berries and fruits. Your choice of plant materials will determine what species you attract to your yard. You can make it your goal that every plant in your yard will produce something edible by wildlife: fruits, berries, nuts, seeds, nectar, or juices.

Water
Water is essential, summer and winter. In fact, if you had to offer water only in the summer or only in winter, you should choose winter. Especially when the temperature is freezing, critters don’t have a source of water. Your heated birdbath may be the only water available in your neighborhood and you’ll be surprised at the amount of activity it draws. Whereas, in summer, even if you don’t have a supply of water available, they can sup from dew on the grass, sprinkler system runoff or your pond. However, it’s best to provide water year-round. Most wildlife needs water for drinking and bathing. Nothing more than a shallow dish holding water could be a lifeline for a thirsty animal.

Cover
Cover provides hiding spaces and places for wildlife, an essential for their protection. Cover comes in many forms – dense shrubs, rock and brush piles, hollow logs, a stack of firewood, tall grasses and deep water. The more protection you offer, the more species you’ll attract and keep. All wildlife is a potential food source for something else, but you don’t want them to be sitting ducks, so to speak—let the cover do double duty by putting plant species in your yard that also produce food. Pond de-icers will prevent this, but be sure to use one rated for your pond size.

Nesting places
Nesting and nurturing places are needed for wildlife to safely raise their young. For instance, trees provide nesting places for squirrels and birds and host plants in your flower and vegetable gardens provide food for caterpillars. Add a pond and you’ll provide mating and survival habitat for frogs, tadpoles and dragonflies.

Extras
Rock pile
: There are at least three good reasons for providing one. Many “cold-blooded” species can’t control their body temperature. As the warmth of daytime slips into cool nighttime temps, the body temperature of these animals drops proportionately. Next morning, the sun warms them up again. The effect of warmth on these animals is dramatic. Their muscles simply don’t work efficiently, or at all, without it. So these animals — toads, frogs, snakes, turtles and insects — appreciate a basking site. Especially a pile of rocks, which quickly absorbs the heat of the sun and provides them a nifty heating pad of sorts. On the other hand, too much heat isn’t good either, so rocks provide cool places underneath for creatures to hide from the sun. And, finally, a pile of large flat rocks can provide protection from predators.

Brush pile: A brush pile provides something for everyone. Birds and dragonflies will perch on the tips of branches. Insects and lizards will sun themselves and several species will use the tangling of branches for cover. Toads may live there. Woodpeckers will pick insects out of decayed wood. Creatures will take shelter from storms underneath larger limbs and butterflies may spend the night, tucking themselves into crevices.

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