Essay: Tara Allison, founder of WelcomeWildlife.com
Converting the “blank slate” your house is sitting on into a rich habitat for wildlife takes time—but it’s amazing and well worth it.
The land where your house sits spent thousands of years accumulating fertile topsoil. Developers scraped much of it away in as little as a day, along with native plants and, oftentimes, trees. Changing it from a blank slate back to a rich habitat for wildlife will take some time.
Trees need to grow large enough to hold and hide nests, shrubs need time to fill out so they’ll provide cover and quantities of fruit. Tall grasses must fill out, to form private places for nesting and cover. You’ll need ample nectar and host perennials for insects and birds. You get the point—your yard will need some maturity to reach its full potential, and it’s hard to be patient. But—here’s the good news—in the meantime, by providing some simple basics for wildlife, you’ll begin to see some early results.
Even a dirt-bare yard that offers a birdbath, a nice saucer of water sitting on the ground, and birdfeeders may be eagerly greeted by a weary migrating bird or a toad hopping by. There are plenty of satisfying things to be done in those early years: Study the insects you see living on your new shrubs and trees. Plant a large butterfly garden. Dig a pond and add fish. Learn about each new species that shows up in your yard—this site and hundreds more are filled with information. And there’s also your local public library and bookstores. Attend Audubon and Sierra Club meetings, which always offer something interesting about wildlife. Nature centers usually offer courses about local wildlife. Keep a backyard diary and photo record of changes in your yard as the months and years roll by. Take photos of new animals when you see them—some are surprisingly accessible once they sense you’re harmless, allowing you to get closer than you might expect. Almost before you know it, your yard will be all grown up!
If you’re converting an existing yard into habitat, you’ll notice new species more quickly. I started with bare ground, and maybe you will, too. But now, a few years after planting for wildlife, here’s what my yard is like:
It’s late April, and I’m looking out the window of my den. I see a Fox Squirrel and a Cottontail Rabbit eating from the same small dish of cracked corn that I’ve placed on the ground. House Sparrows are hopping around near it, darting in for small bits to carry to their hatchlings, who are growing up in a birdhouse hanging on my porch. A mother Mallard Duck is sitting at the edge of the yard on the soft, overgrown foliage of a daylily. Huddling tightly together under her wings are twelve young ducklings. Two male Mallards are standing together in a birdbath placed on the ground a short distance away. (I’m fortunate to live near a pond, and the Mallards walk or fly in for daily corn treats. In the trees, making their usual loud, screeching racket, are several Common Grackles, greedy birds who arrive in large, gregarious flocks every spring and hog the birdfeeders.
Two Mourning Doves and two Blue Jays (perhaps mated pairs) are zipping back and forth periodically across the yard. It rained overnight, so a Robin is gleefully plucking out earthworms who’ve risen to the surface of the water-logged soil. I can hear a House Wren singing. He and his mate will select one of several wren houses I’ve placed around the yard, as they do every year. I’ve noticed several warblers flitting high in the trees lately, but I’m not very good at identifying them from afar. Among them, I’ve seen two Ruby-crowned Kinglets, perhaps the same pair who spent the winter here eating at my feeders. Or maybe these are two new ones stopping by on their way north for the summer.
Intermittent thumping and pounding are coming from outside my wall. I know that it’s some Fox Squirrel babies (not sure exactly how many yet) in the nest their mom made in an old Wood Duck house I put up there. If I go outside and peak around the corner, I’ll see they’re playing, as best they can anyway, within the two square feet of the only world they know as yet. In another two or three weeks, they’ll be ready to take a giant first leap into self-sufficiency.
I mean that literally, in their case, because the duck house is fifteen feet (4.6 m) off the ground. Their mother reaches their nest circuitously by climbing a tree, following a long branch, jumping to my roof, and then scaling down a few feet of siding to land on top of the duck house. As in past years, I’ll give the babies a hand by sloping a long, dead tree branch from their house to the ground. At first, they will play on it only near the top, then tentatively follow it farther down, just a little at a time, until it eventually becomes their runway to the ground.
A male American Goldfinch just landed on a feeder I’ve filled with chopped sunflower seed hearts. His winter-dull coat is now splotchy, but soon he’ll be fully feathered in new, bright-yellow summer finery, fit for catching the eye of a desirable female. A few feet away, a Brown Thrasher flew to the ground for a piece or two of corn. As I’m watching, a female Northern Cardinal stops by, landing on a small, decorative boulder. She looks down at the corn feeding station, decides it isn’t worth approaching, and flies off. Not to worry, as the unshelled sunflower seeds elsewhere in the yard will seduce her periodically throughout the day.
To my surprise I see a Harris’ Sparrow has just landed near the corn dish. I usually don’t notice them here this late in the spring. He has undoubtedly stopped by to eat and rest up for the next leg of his trip. This sparrow migrates to Canada from the Great Plains and as far south as Texas.
I hoping the Black-capped Chickadees will choose a birdhouse I just put up, sized just about right for them. I’ve never successfully gotten them to nest in one of them. I feel like a nervous landlord trying to rent to Royalty.
My backyard wildlife habitat (in my case, my front yard, too) is also “buzzing” with activity. Bees, wasps, and ladybugs are out there chewing, sipping, building, and mating — living an insect version of the high life. Probably hidden in the grasses that border part of my yard is a cottontail nest with four babies snuggled in it, safe and sound. And, although I don’t see them right now, it being daytime, I know after dark the opossums and raccoons will visit. I’ve recently seen a young opossum residing in one of the owl houses.
There’s a sly fox around. It used to loll at the edge of my yard. The baby squirrels were making a clatter in their nest box again, so I stepped out and peeked around. One of them, hanging half out through the round opening, stared back at me, fearless, at least for now. Just a few days ago, the only bravery they could muster was to stick their noses out. I’ve been trying to take a picture, but every time I point a camera, they become shy. On the way out there, I passed by the House Sparrow’s house and heard the babies “cheeping” with glee, telling me Mom or Dad was in there with them, delivering a slithery worm or juicy bug. Most folks don’t like House Sparrows, but I do, and this family lives in their house year-round, nesting there in summer and roosting in winter.
If this year is like the past few, Screech Owl babies will be raised in one of the owl houses I built (learn how to build one) and hung fifteen feet (4.6 m) up on a tree trunk. Later they’ll terrorize tiny mammals and birds in my yard. The owls usually spend the winter in the houses, too, and most afternoons, they pop up and perch at the openings. It’s fun to watch them fly away at dusk. But it happens fast—look away for an instant, and they’re gone.
My small, hand-dug frog pond plays host to turtles, frogs, interesting insects, and lots of other animals, too. If I’m lucky, I’ll catch a glimpse of a lizard darting under some shrubs or a snake basking on a rock nearby. (Reptiles don’t worry me, they’re more afraid of me than I am of them. Learn why.)
Some wildlife I see because they’re obvious; others because I look for them. Occasionally a rarity stops by, like the four wild turkeys who stayed for a week or the family of quail who spent a few years here. When something uncommon visits, it’s exciting, of course. Particularly for my neighbors next door. They’re wildlife-friendly and also avid birdwatchers who can name dozens more bird species sighted in their yard than I can in mine. (For birdwatchers, this is part of the fun of a backyard wildlife habitat. You may want to do the same.) The last time I asked, their checklist of birds sighted in their yard included 100 different species. No doubt, these birds are visiting my yard, too.
These are just some of the animals I’ve enjoyed watching over the years. The species who visit my yard are changing over time, as developers are clearing land in a radius farther and farther out from my neighborhood, forcing some country-loving animals away. I don’t know if it’s related to the changing environment, but I noticed the Great Horned Owls who lived nearby in a huge tree for at least eighteen years seem to have left. In early spring, the male began his mating calls but got no reply. He has gone looking for a female. I hope the pair make their way back here.
It makes me sad about what it may be saying about the changing environment. And it reminds me how important it is to offer everything I can to those animals who remain, move in, or pass through. I enjoy my yard for whatever enters it, plain or fancy.
“My” species are determined by my climate, plantings, food sources, water sources, and shelter options. Your yard and locale may have the potential to draw in many more species of wildlife, and some I would consider “exotic” because we just don’t see them where I live. The best part of having a backyard wildlife habitat is knowing I’ve created a place that feels something like a “home” to some of the animals who found themselves homeless not so long ago.