The basics of a backyard wildlife habitat


It’s a fine thing we do when we share our yards with wildlife. The land we live on once belonged to them and provided all their needs for survival. Human development, which never ceases, has made it increasingly hard for dislocated wildlife to find new places to live. By provisioning our yards with the basics they need we give some habitat back to them. And, we get to enjoy watching them up close! A win-win situation! A small effort on our part makes a big difference for them. A yard of any size, even a tiny one, can provide the basics of a backyard wildlife habitat: food, water, cover, and nesting places.


Wild animals need food just as we humans do. In nature, carnivores feed on certain groups of animals and are themselves prey for others. Herbivores feed on plant materials. A food chain pyramid is a good illustration of how plants and animals feed in a backyard wildlife habitat.

It begins at the bottom with plants which are just as important as meat for wildlife. They provide nectar for hummingbirds, butterflies, honeybees, and others, as well as fruits, berries, nuts, and seeds for all manner of animals. Mammals, too, eat plants. Rabbits, squirrels, opossums, and raccoons include plant foods in their diet. So, plant plants! And, go native, they offer the greatest benefits.

Insects are the primary food for most birds, amphibians, and reptiles, as well as some mammals. In turn, these animals are prey for larger animals, and so on. The top carnivores in an urban environment are typically owls, hawks, foxes, and in some areas with suitable habitat Bobcats and Coyotes.

Diagram of a wildlife food chain, beginning with plants and ending with carnivores.

Every form of life feeds something higher on the food chain. (Thompsma / Wiki; cc by 3.0)


Wildlife needs fresh water year-round. In mild weather, terrestrial animals need it for drinking and bathing. Aquatic and semi-aquatic species need water variously for mating, egg-laying, raising young or as a habitat for themselves.

backyard wildlife habitat with two Blue Jays; one is bathing and the other is perched on the edge.

Blue Jays enjoying a birdbath. (Rachel Kramer / Flickr; cc by 2.0)

A birdbath, summer or winter, may be one of the few reliable sources of water in your neighborhood and you’ll be surprised at the amount of activity it will draw. Consider adding a heater to it in the winter. When temperatures drop to freezing, a heated birdbath can be a lifeline for animals trying to find liquid water to drink.

Concrete birdbath on a pedestal with a squirrel stretched out on the edge.

Aah! A refreshing break! (Jeff Barton / Flickr; cc by 2.0)

Water sources can take other forms, too: water feature, pond, whiskey half-barrel filled with water, or something as simple as a flowerpot saucer holding fresh water.


A backyard wildlife habitat needs “cover,” which means hiding places for wildlife. It’s essential for their protection. It includes plants and dense shrubs, rock and brush piles, hollow logs, a stack of firewood, tall grasses, and deep water for aquatic species.

Colorful flower garden with closely planted plants in a backyard wildlife habitat..

Animals can easily hide in this native garden of dense plants. (Anniesannuals / Wiki; cc by 2.0)

Although every wild animal is a potential source of food for another, you don’t want them to be sitting ducks, so to speak. Cover gives them places to run to when threatened, for hiding while they rest, and as shelter from the elements.

Northern Raccoon peeking through the leaves of a tree.

Northern Raccoon hiding in a tree. (Sheri Whala, USFWS / Wiki; cc by 2.0)

Plants can do double-duty if you put in varieties that will also produce food for wildlife.

Nesting places

Wild animals need safe places to raise their young. Hanging a birdhouse is an obvious option, but well-chosen trees, shrubs, and tall grasses also help, as they’re used by birds, ducks, cottontails, opossums, raccoons, and others. A berm might hide an entryway into a fox family’s den. A pond provides mating and survival habitat for frogs, tadpoles, and dragonflies. 

Extras to consider

Rock pile

A pile of large flat rocks placed every which way can protect animals from predators, and some wildlife live in them. Cold-blooded animals, in particular, appreciate a rock pile.

Toads, frogs, snakes, turtles, and insects can’t control their body temperature and take on that of the air surrounding them. Their muscles don’t work efficiently, or at all, without warmth. They like to bask in the sun to warm up, and rocks, which quickly absorb its heat, provide a nifty heating pad. On the other hand, too much heat isn’t good either, and rocks provide places underneath for cooling off. 

Brush pile, woodpile or both

Brush piles and woodpiles provide shelter and safety for animals. Some even make their home there. Mammals use them to take shelter from storms, and butterflies might spend the night, tucking themselves into crevices.

Virginia Opossum hiding in a woodpile..

The Virginia Opossum, gentle, non-aggressive, and beneficial, is a yard’s ideal visitor. Here’s one hiding in a woodpile. (Wisconsin gov, DNR; PD)

  *Top image: California Native Plant Society / Flickr; CC

More reading

Build a brush pile  
Earthworms: frequent questions 
Sample landscape designs  
All about the Virginia Opossum
Prepare your yard for winter wildlife      

Verified by ExactMetrics