How Can I Attract Wildlife To My Backyard?

Dear EarthTalk: How can I attract wildlife to my backyard?

— Adam Joshua, Sebago, ME

The key essentials for attracting wildlife to your property include an abundance of native plants as a food source, a water supply, and some form of shelter to encourage nesting. Birdbaths and fountains work well in the likely event that you don’t have a natural stream or pond in your yard. And, while it may be tempting to remove dead or dying trees, woodpeckers depend on them, as do cavity-nesting birds such as owls and chickadees. Likewise, rotting logs and mulch piles may seem eyesores, but they provide excellent habitat and nesting sites for small mammals, reptiles and amphibians.

backyard wildlife coyote
Credit: Roddy Scheer

In regard to plantings, the more native perennials and annuals you plant, the more success you”ll have attracting birds, butterflies and other wildlife. Further, if your plants are truly native to your region, they will require little maintenance, as they have evolved to succeed there. They are adapted to local soil, rainfall and temperature conditions, and have developed natural defenses to many insects and diseases. Because of these traits, native plants will grow with minimal use of water, fertilizers and pesticides. Wildlife species evolve with plants and use native plant communities as primary habitat, helping to preserve the balance of the local ecosystem.

Beyond the thrill of viewing wildlife out your window, there are other reasons to create a mini-refuge in your backyard. Back in the 1960s Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson likened backyards to wildlife “bridges” between protected areas that improved the chances of survival for many species. “The average American garden is home to hundreds of species of wildlife and acts as a vital corridor for migrating animals such as songbirds,” agrees Jake Scott, an educator with the Backyard Wildlife Habitat program of the National Wildlife Federation (NWF). Since 1973, NWF has been encouraging everyone from homeowners to teachers to community leaders to plan their landscapes with the needs of wildlife in mind. Since the program started three decades ago, NWF has certified thousands of backyard habitats all over the U.S. and Canada as “wildlife-friendly.” Their program provides tools and resources that make getting started a snap.

The first step is to track down a good assortment of plants native to your region. NWF offers an easy-to-use online Native Plant Guide that covers the continental U.S. and Alaska. Similarly, the Canadian Wildlife Federation’s book, Backyard Habitat for Canada’s Wildlife, is available for $19.95 plus shipping and taxes. If you’re a novice, finding a store manager at a nearby nursery to serve as your personal advisor might be the best way to go, as there’s nothing like local experience to make the most of attracting native wildlife to your yard.