This Land is Their Land

How to Make Your Property Wildlife-Friendly

While environmental headlines make much of the rift between property rights advocates and conservationists, a growing number of land owners are working to make their backyards more attractive to wildlife, benefiting both the human and animal worlds. However large or small, any backyard or garden space can be made more friendly to wildlife.

The National Wildlife Federation (NWF) has been encouraging the creation of wildlife-friendly private property since 1973, when it launched its hallmark Backyard Wildlife Habitat certification program. To date, the program has certified more than 30,000 private property owners across the United States.

Become a Detective

The first step is to identify the habitat that's already there, or which used to exist, and then expand from there. Because exotic species are ubiquitous in the American garden, you almost have to become a detective to learn which plants in your yard—if any!—are native to the area.

Does your yard provide good wildlife habitat? Animals need four basic requirements—food, water, shelter and places to raise young.
Jerry Pavia

Beyond that, does your yard provide good wildlife habitat? All species have four basic survival requirements—food, water, cover and places to raise young. By satisfing these four elements, anyone can transform a sterile yard into a thriving wildlife habitat.

It may be tempting to remove dead or dying trees, but woodpeckers depend on them, as do cavity-nesting birds from owls to chickadees. Rotting logpiles can be an eyesore, but they are excellent habitat for small mammals, reptiles and amphibians. Mulch piles, rocks and logs can serve as nesting sites for small animals, too.

Evergreens and shrubs—including junipers and hollies—offer protection. Since wildlife is attracted to water, if your yard doesn't have a pond or stream, consider adding a birdbath or a recirculating fountain with a thermostatically controlled heater.

Native perennials and annuals—besides needing little maintenance—are a natural smorgasbord for birds, animals and butterflies, providing fruits, seeds, nuts and nectar. Sunflower, niger, safflower and millet are popular attractors. Nectar feeders attract hummingbirds.

Preserving Prairie

One of the NWF's certified sites is Mary and Jim Norton's 45-acre restored tallgrass prairie in New Hartford, Iowa. The Norton's Prairie Hill Farm has been in Mary's family since 1893. At that time, Iowa was a sea of grasses and wildflowers, home to hundreds of different plant species and a huge diversity of wildlife.

Due to factory farming and urban sprawl, though, the prairie grasslands once so abundant across the Great Plains are now considered North America's most endangered ecosystem. Ninety-nine percent of the nation's tallgrass prairies and 70 percent of the mixed grass and shortgrass prairies in some states have disappeared. Where once 85 percent of Iowa was prairie, now less than one percent remains.

Intent on returning their acreage to native Iowa tallgrass prairie, the Nortons spent considerable time learning about the prairie species indigenous to New Hartford. Tending their restored grassland prairie has been a 30-year commitment, but the effort has paid off. In fact, the Nortons now share seeds with schools and neighbors who want their own prairies.

The Nortons don't use chemicals on their prairies, a testament to the strength and diversity of native plants. Deer, skunk, raccoon, opossum, badger, beaver, coyote, turtles, frogs, red-tailed hawks, meadowlark, eagles and monarch butterflies are just some of the wildlife the Nortons have seen since initiating their restoration efforts.

“We are in awe of what is happening on our island of restored native habitat,” says Mary Norton. “None of this has ever seemed like work; it's just happened in a beautiful, natural way.”

The wildlife corridor concept gives landowners another reason to make their property as friendly to wildlife as possible. First espoused in the 1960s by Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson, the now widely accepted theory holds that habitat “bridges” between protected areas improve the chances of survival for many species. “Without connectivity, landscapes may be reduced to pathetic remnants that sustain few species and provide little ecological value,” Wilson says. Property owners, then, can see their land as a nurturing stopover for wildlife.

There's a growing consensus that private property owners across the U.S. have a responsibility to make their backyards as friendly to wildlife as possible, and we're learning just how to do that.