Have you considered that there are more reasons to create a backyard wildlife habitat than just to watch wildlife? As you’ll see below, there are three more important reasons to do it — not only for your yard and your area, but for the world at large.
By every measure, the earth is losing natural habitat and species at an alarming rate. Extinction rates for plants and animals are so high they’re threatening our planet’s ability to sustain the resources humans need for survival, like forests, oceans, healthy soil, potable water.
Extinction is nothing new. Every year some new species emerge and some are gone forever. But the earth is now experiencing an extinction rate that’s huge: Scientists estimate that every year up to 50,000 species disappear forever because of human activity.
Take birds, as an example. The expected extinction rate for them is about one species per century. Yet, 500 species have gone extinct in the past 500 years and current studies predict that 10 additional species will go extinct every year from here on if something isn’t done to reverse this pattern. What’s causing this? The usual suspects: habitat destruction, over-hunting, the ill-advised introduction of alien species into established ecosystems and, now, global warming.
You get to observe exotic species. The idea of our urban wildlife as “exotic” may seem far-fetched. But consider that most of what we deem commonplace in our part of the world is exotic to someone living in a very different place. Conversely, their most commonplace species may be exotic to us. Consider this:
• The Northern Cardinal, that brilliantly colored favorite of many backyard birdwatchers, is an exotic species to anyone who doesn’t live in the Americas.
• The cheery Carolina Chickadee is known in only a handful of states in the southeastern U.S. and nowhere else in the world.
• The California Condor, our largest bird species, lives only in California, Arizona, Utah and Baja, Mexico. People travel from around the world just to catch a glimpse of one of these majestic birds living on the edge of extinction.¹
• The Florida Scrub Jay lives only in one small area of Florida. The Yellow-billed Magpie lives only in California. The rest of the U.S. will never see one of them.
• There are 15 bird species that live only within the geographic borders of the U.S. and nowhere else in the world.
• One hundred sixty bird species are unique to North America and Mexico. Another 750 bird species live only in North America and south to Panama and the Caribbean. No one else in the world gets to see these species, at least in the wild, without traveling to do so.
• In the U.S., about 91,000 species of insects have been described so far by biologists. Thousands of these species live in your part of the country and nowhere else on earth.
• Two hundred thirty-three mammals are endemic only to North America and Mexico.
• Among plant species, 7,807 are unique to North America and Mexico.
Have you ever dreamed of a vacation in one of the most scenic, naturalized spots in the world? Perhaps your dream is an Amazon cruise or an African safari. Maybe it’s birdwatching in Europe or New England in the fall. How about camping on tree-studded mountains in Colorado or rafting through the Grand Canyon. We’re drawn to areas of beauty defined by forests, wilderness, and unspoiled vistas. We listen in wonder to the sounds of wildlife — the sweet voices of songbirds, the haunting call of the coyote, a tiger’s roar, the trumpeting of elephants, the other-worldly song of a whale. We love natural areas so much that we wage war against politicians when they propose to drill for oil in the Arctic or threaten to build roads in old-growth forests.
Urban land — the land we city folks live on — was once some of that wilderness we so admire. Before humans stripped it of its native life, your own plot of ground was covered with trees and undergrowth. Or, depending on where you live, maybe it was a savanna, playing host to a tangle of grasses and an oasis of trees. Or a prairie dotted with wildflowers and tall, windblown grasses. All the original loveliness of your land was the result of millenniums of animal and plant activity.
When developers tame property into urban standards of acceptability, they obliterate our stake in nature. Not only that, but they rob indigenous animals and plants of habitat, and sometimes their lives.
The good news is that nothing prevents us from inviting nature back, even in the heart of a city. We can’t put it back exactly like it was before. Even if we could, most of us don’t want to go quite that far. But, more and more, people are coming to realize that some of what was taken must be returned, and it’s within our power to do it. We’re looking for a balance that fits the needs of both humans and wildlife. Even if your “outdoors” is an apartment patio or a pocket garden, even if your wildlife habitat is only a corner of your yard or a butterfly garden surrounded by lawn, you’re giving something back. When we provide the essentials needed to live, there will be life all around us — in the trees and shrubs, in the soil, in the water, under the rafters and in the air.
Planting for backyard wildlife improves air quality, nourishes the soil and reduces erosion. Shade from trees planted judiciously cools our home. Shrubs can create privacy and buffer the noise of street traffic.
Trees, shrubs and flowers add beauty and interest to your yard (and, incidentally, adds value to your property).
Here’s some of what goes missing from our yards when we don’t provision it for wildlife.
• Birds (no insects or desirable seeds for them to eat)
• Rabbits (no tasty wild greens for them to forage on)
• Bats (no flying insects for them to feed on)
• Bees (no rich, nectar-producing flowers they rely on for survival)
• Butterflies and moths (no nectar for adults; no host plants for caterpillars)
• Wildflowers (death by herbicide)
• Ladybugs, fireflies, all other insects (death by insecticide)
• Tree frogs (no insects to eat)
• Turtles (no insects or wild greens to eat)
• Carnivorous mammals (no rabbits, other meaty foods available)
• All of the above (no places for nest-building or safe rearing of young)
¹Driven to the brink of extinction by human encroachment, habitat destruction and killing, by 1982 the California Condor population was down to a mere 21 individuals. They were captured in the late 1980s and introduced into a captive breeding program. As of December 2014, there are 421 individuals, with 228 of them living in the wild.