Turn Your Backyard into a Wildlife Habitat

It’s that time of year (at least in the Northern Hemisphere) when we’re raking up leaves, cleaning up our backyards, and preparing for winter. But as we prepare for the first frost, we’re spending more time inside than outside and our backyards may be a bit of a mess.

I read an interesting article in The Independent (UK) the other day, “Why Untidy Gardens Make the Best Habitat for Wildlife.” My in-laws live in England and “garden” more or less means the same as “backyard” to Americans, though most English yards have a flower border. British readers, please correct me if I’m wrong!

Anyway, the article points out that town and city gardens provide a vital refuge for birds, insects, and other animals, including amphibians. Small gardens are as good as large gardens, urban gardens as important as suburban ones, and non-native plants are not always harmful to birds and insects.

Both city and suburban backyards can provide what Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson called “bridges” between protected areas, providing refuges for wildlife. These bridges serve as a vital corridor, for example, for amphibians, migrating songbirds, and other animals.*

My backyard falls into the category of “untidy.” I have a lax attitude as to what I allow to grow in it, including a Norway maple, which no one in my family likes. They claim it’s taking over the tiny backyard, which is true. Yet the tree also draws lots of birds. I have vines growing up walls that provide places for birds to hide in, and I have two birdbaths. I don’t use pesticides or herbicides.

What I’ve noticed is that this time of year I get lots of animal visitors. I have a robin couple living in the yard (not common the rest of the year). An amazing bird that I can’t even find in the bird book stopped by the other day. Birds come this time of year to eat the grapes on my grape vine, swooping down almost the same week each year.

You don’t have to do much to make your backyard a wildlife habitat. Just don’t be too neat—don’t hurry to clear up everything when the garden stops flowering. Some of this “debris” is important for wildlife to hide in or to eat.

Of course, I realize that some animals are pests and steps have to be taken to keep them out. When we’re in New Hampshire, we need to use special bear-resistant garbage cans. Some parts of the country have real problems with deer.

But I think we should try to give a helping hand to those animals and insects that need these wildlife bridges–amphibians, birds, honey bees, and so on.

Here are some more tips for fall planting from the Independent article:

  • plant large shrubs—shrubs and trees produce more vegetation where wildlife can live and eat
  • allow at least some flowers to turn to seed and let the lawn grow tall.
  • create a pond for insects and frogs, or buy or make a toad abode
  • don’t illuminate your garden/backyard at night with bright lights. This will disturb many nocturnal creatures
  • create a compost heap—they are miniature nature reserves in themselves.

See also the National Wildlife Foundation‘s site about attracting wildlife and getting your yard recognized as a Certified Wildlife Habitat.

This time of year we gardeners get a bit depressed as winter approaches. What are we going to do with ourselves until the first seed catalogs arrive in the mail in late winter? This fall I am looking at ways I can make my backyard more amenable to wildlife. I just received my Gardeners Supply catalog that has all kinds of birdbaths, birdfeeders, birdhouses, and other products to create an animal-friendly garden/yard.

Please add your suggestions for ways to attract backyard wildlife.

courtesy of Loudoun (VA) Wildlife ConservatoryCreating a frog pond, courtesy of Loudoun (VA) Wildlife Conservatory

*I got this from Earthtalk: Expert Answers to Everyday Questions about the Environment (Plume, 2009), an excellent book, by the way.