Suburban Habitat Restoration Reimagining Our Yards from the Birds—and Butterflies—Perspective

Honeysuckles attract hummingbirds to the yard. © Wellsphere

Whether you lament dwindling rainforests or the disappearance of neighborhood cats to hungry coyotes, most of us recognize loss of wildlife habitats as a growing environmental concern.

As an alternative to hand-wringing, the National Wildlife Federation offers ordinary citizens the means to take action by establishing a Certified Wildlife Habitat in their own backyards. This is a great initiative to encourage locals to turn their backyards and vacant properties into a home to animals and prevent other rooms of the house from turning into a local squirrel community. It’s not only enjoyable, but also easy. I know because I did it in a matter of weeks despite starting out a gardening illiterate.

Here’s how the program works. A yard has to qualify in all five areas outlined below, but each offers several options. Then there’s a two-page checklist to fill out—works on the honor system—and a $15 processing fee. That’s it.

Food Sources

A diversity of food sources is a must, whether via vegetation-bearing fruits, pollen, berries, or seeds or just man-made feeders. To get acquainted with my yard, I consulted a local nursery and came away smiling after learning the red and white trumpet flowers of lush honeysuckle vines and purple floral clusters on Abelia shrubs are providing nectar for hummingbirds.

As a lover of butterflies, hearing that dainty tea tree flowers supply them with seasonal nourishment was welcome news, too. It seemed a fitting move then to hang a saucer for rotting fruit, a butterfly favorite, to supplement scarcer times.

That birds and ground squirrels enjoy the fruits of my treasured peach and Japanese persimmon trees was already obvious, but I was surprised to discover that other resident trees and shrubs are abundant producers of tiny fruits or berries also favored by birds—cotoneaster, American pepper, and Indian hawthorn to name a few.

As four birdseed feeders already dotted the yard, I installed, at ground level, easy-to-open peanut-filled boxes to both support the local squirrel community and entertain my family.

A word of caution to the squeamish: The food chain can rear its head in unanticipated ways. Red-tailed hawks come around now in search of morning doves for which my yard has become a routine foraging stop.

Water Sources

Tea tree flowers supply butterflies with seasonal nourishment. ©

Water sources for drinking and bathing is the category I low-balled because several of the options, like a lake or stream, aren’t in the cards in my seriously suburban neighborhood. An existing birdbath was enough to qualify, but adding a second, placed more strategically to avoid predators, seemed prudent.

A “butterfly puddling area” is another easy choice and can be done without spending a dime. Male butterflies apparently congregate on wet gravel surfaces to sip mineral-laden water. Scientists think it enhances their sex appeal. A pie pan filled with gravel and water, buried to ground level, makes an excellent butterfly puddle.

Places for Cover

As my taste in landscaping runs in the less-manicured direction, places where critters can find shelter from weather and predators abounded from the get-go. Perennial shrubs of pittosporum and Indian hawthorn and xylosma trees all provide excellent off-ground cover for birds year round. A shady grove of Boston ferns, in turn, provides ground level refuge for lizards and hordes of insects. Even a long-neglected woodpile has earned new status as a safe haven for ground-dwellers.

For larger properties, grander scale options are available, like a meadow or pond. However, a humble rock pile, already visited by lizards, and a simple plywood butterfly house, were the only wildlife refuge add-ons I made.

Places to Raise Young

Venues for wildlife to mate and raise young range from commonplace dense shrubs and tall trees to more exotic wetlands and caves. Living in an older neighborhood where multi-story trees are the norm, my assortment of mature California sycamores, Aleppo pines, American peppers and Crepe Myrtles more than sufficed.

However, an irresistible opportunity presented here to dust off a long-forgotten wooden nesting box my daughter made at camp and tuck it among the patio rafters, awaiting any comers.

Sustainable Gardening Practices

This category covers strategies to conserve soil and water, minimize applied chemicals and encourage native plant species.

Having abandoned chemical pesticides and fertilizers years ago in favor of composting and mulching was alone more than enough to qualify my yard. Moreover, a largely neglected compost pile serves to recycle leaves and small cuttings on site.

My yard is now Wildlife Habitat #107457, but the certificate is anything but an endpoint for me. How I perceive landscapes is forever changed.

Where I once saw just eye-pleasing colors and textures, I now try to imagine my yard from the perspective of a bird, squirrel, butterfly, lizard or honeybee. I want it to be more about them than it is about me.

I will admit to some pride that I can name many of my plants now. But the flip side is disconcerting awareness that most are non-native species, some even considered invasive or water-thirsty and ill-suited to this dry climate where annual rainfall is short of 15 inches.

Although I’ve no mindset yet to evict such interlopers, rest assured that any future plantings will be native and drought-resistant. For starters, I’ve broadcasted native wildflower seeds in a sunny spot in hopes of establishing a feeding and breeding ground for local butterflies come summertime.

Certify by mail or online. Showing off your accomplishment with a small yard sign from the National Wildlife Foundation is optional.

SARAH MOSKO, PH.D., is an environmental writer and sleep expert living in California who blogs at