Once you’ve created a backyard habitat for wildlife, it’s best to let the animals enjoy it without too much disturbance from humans. This isn’t to say we shouldn’t step right out into our yard and continue our human activities — erect a swing set, play with our children, enjoy a barbecue, have a yard party. It only means we are now carrying on side-by-side with lots of wildlife, and we should stay mindful of the consequences of human interference.
Don’t feed the mammals
It’s best to let wild animals find their food in the “wilds” of your yard by critter-proofing your trash container. The enticing smell of dinner leftovers — a mound of chicken bones, a lump of mashed potatoes, a half-eaten piece of buttered bread — will beckon wildlife from far and near. Raccoons, those smart devils, will simply lift off an unsecured lid and throw open the gates of heaven to opossums and any other animals who can climb their way inside. Even deer will graze in your trash, if possible. Not only does any spilled trash present a cleanup problem, but some of the human food isn’t healthy for wildlife. Deer are attracted to breads and sweets, for example, but these can cause them dangerous digestive problems.
Unless a can has been thwacked onto its side by a larger animal, a trash thief is probably a raccoon, or perhaps a platoon of them. Dispose of leftovers down a garbage disposer, if possible. Many trash hauling companies provide a container to their customers with lids that can be secured. If you’re using another kind of container, it may take some imaginative trial and error to outwit a raccoon. A tight-fitting lid may do the trick, but don’t count on it. You can place a brick on top to weight the lid down, but even this may not be enough. Maybe two bricks will do, or a chain run from one handle across the lid to the other handle. Or, keep the trashcan in your garage.
In addition to raccoons, expect opossums and skunks to also visit your yard. They would love nothing more than for you to place a plate of dinner leftovers on the porch for them. Resist the temptation. This places them too close to humans. Wildlife occasionally carry diseases and, especially if they feel cornered, are dangerous. Even mild-mannered, gentle opossums will sometimes fight if cornered. Wildlife can become pests through no fault of their own and in unpredictable ways.
Keep cats away
If you allow your cat outside, be aware that the danger to wild animals in your yard is increased significantly. Domestic cats, even the sweetest, most loving and well-fed ones, kill millions of small animals every year. It isn’t malicious; it’s just what they do. Not only do their teeth kill, but their saliva does, too. It carries a bacteria, pasteurella, that attacks an animal’s central nervous system. Any hapless animal that manages to escape will probably die from the bacteria.
A bell on your cat’s collar won’t work. A cat’s slow, cautious preying behavior is too smooth to ring the bell until it’s too late for the animal. Even if it does ring, an animal doesn’t know to associate the bell with imminent danger.
Locate bird feeders strategically
If cats visit your yard, keep bird feeders away from shrubbery, overhanging tree limbs, decks and anywhere else a cat can hide in, under or upon, unless you are willing to take extra precautions. For example, you can help safeguard birds at feeders by sticking short wire fencing into the ground just under the spread of nearby shrubs. This doesn’t prevent cats from lurking there, but it does prevent them from pouncing forward onto a bird. Either the cat must lay in plain sight in front of the fencing, or behind it, which forces him to jump up and over. This creates movement against the foliage, startling the bird, and it also slows the cat down by a split second. You can do this same thing around ground-level birdbaths.
The nice thing about the wire fence is that it’s inexpensive and easy to adjust. Once in place, it’s only about a foot or so high. It comes in black or green, making it inconspicuous. It’s available in the garden section of any hardware store.
Birds are an important and entertaining addition to your wildlife habitat, making it fun to draw them in close to windows for easy viewing. Consider, however, before hanging a bird feeder from the overhang of your house or on a window ledge. Fallen seeds attract mice, so don’t hang feeders near doors. Come cold weather, the mice may decide to move into your cozy house. Mice can get through a pencil-size opening.
Warn birds away from your windows
Glass is invisible to birds. Ahead of them, birds on the fly see trees and shrubbery, an open field, or clear blue sky, only to discover too late it’s a reflection of where they’re coming from, not where they’re going to. Millions fly full-bore into glass. Half the birds who hit windows die. David Sibley, celebrated author of several guides to birdwatching and bird behavior says the dead represent up to an astounding 976 million birds a year around the world. That, of course, means roughly 1.5 billion are colliding with windows every year.
Simply lowering the shades on windows that seem to be highly reflective and causing collisions may be enough to prevent mishaps. It may that be a certain window is a problem only at a certain time of day and the window shade can be adjusted for this.
If you have double-hung windows be sure to use window screens, which will help soften the impact of the collision, as well as give some visual perspective to birds. Hang streamers in front of windows and glass doors (on the outdoors side). Tape strips of Mylar 10 inches apart on the outside of glass. Sibley recommends hanging string, feathers or even stained glass art outside the window. Another possibility would be to add muntin bars. Also called grilles or windowpane dividers, these make a single window look like it consists of several separate panes of glass.
Static-cling bird or butterfly silhouettes can be purchased at garden centers and birdseed stores. The idea is to place them on the outside of windows to break up the reflected image and draw the bird’s attention to the glass. The Audubon Society says this is not effective unless you space them about two inches apart. One innovative fellow suggests hanging netting on the outside of casement windows and doors that don’t have exterior screens. Draw it very tight so it acts as a springboard of sorts.
Don’t destroy beneficial and harmless insects
Almost all insects are beneficial or at least harmless. If possible, try to identify an insect before deciding it should be destroyed. If possible, plant extra plants to which you can relocate bothersome caterpillars. It seems kind to move a caterpillar from a plant and put it carefully on the ground, rather than killing it. But caterpillars feed on very specific species of plants, so removing them usually results in their starvation. Most caterpillars we see are future butterflies and moths.
Pick up litter
Seemingly innocuous items can be dangerous to wildlife. Animals are known to stick their heads through six-pack connectors while foraging, then not be able to remove them. Kite string and monofilament fishing line can become tangled around an animal, crippling it. Fishing hooks can imbed in a foot or mouth.
Cover window wells
Animals can fall into window wells, there doomed to die a slow death by starvation or dehydration. Customized window well covers can be very expensive, but all home improvement stores carry inexpensive, ready-made, plastic covers. These are lightweight and can be pushed upward or easily broken in case of the need for emergency escape from inside, so they’re not a hazard for your family. Another option is to build a simple wood frame of 2×4’s or lattice and fasten window screening across the top.
Check before mowing or trimming trees
Walk your yard before mowing or rototilling to make sure no baby rabbits or ground-nesting birds will be harmed. Keep a wide berth until the young ones have left the nest. Look for active birds’ nests or cavities before trimming trees. If you find one, it’s only a matter of weeks or even days before young will fledge and you can get back to your trimming.
Clean up spills
If oil gets on a bird’s feathers they lose their insulating properties, leading to hypothermia and death. Antifreeze is deadly, but attractive to many animals (including your family pets) because it has a sweet taste.
Ban synthetic fertilizers or pesticides
All pesticides and synthetic fertilizers are poisons. Even “organic” pesticides can be dangerous; read the label before using.
Don’t raise or keep wildlife
Wild animals don’t make good pets, they don’t like being pets and in most states, it’s illegal.
Screen chimneys, vents and hidey-holes
Destruction of their habitat has forced wildlife to face hard challenges and one of them is finding suitable shelter in an environment of turfgrass, concrete and sparse plantings. Who can blame them for grabbing any reasonable offering?
Install chimney caps and vents to bar occupancy by squirrels, birds, bats and raccoons in fireplaces and attics. If you believe a critter is living under a shed or other outbuilding, just leave him be. With the exception of skunks, what does it matter? If the lodger is nocturnal, he’ll stay tucked in, snoozing during the day, or if he’s inclined to come out, he won’t while you’re in the yard.
Never seal a hole without first making sure it’s empty.
Dealing with pests
Pest problems usually can be controlled. But if a critter becomes a pest and nothing you do remedies the problem, call in a licensed wildlife rehabilitator, a wildlife sanctuary or an experienced animal trapper to humanely catch the animal and release him elsewhere. Call animal control only as a last resort — in most areas, it’s a death sentence, as they’re required to euthanize the animals they catch.
Teach children to respect animals
Teach your children that all wildlife holds a valuable place on earth, with purposes all their own which we should not interfere with, that it’s important to leave them in peace. Show and explain their value by together watching the activity of butterflies, bees, squirrels, birds and other wildlife you see. If an animal of any kind finds its way into your home, show your children how to usher it out gently.
One mom and dad have been taking their three children on day trips to nature preserves since they were old enough to walk. They explore together, examine insects and discuss animals they see. At home, the children are taught about what’s living in their own backyard.