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Boost Your Backyard Wildlife Habitat

Ed Robinson
February 4, 2020
Author Ed Robinson

There is a great deal of research to prove that human beings need green space, fresh air and wildlife around us for wellness and peace of mind. Those who spend their lives stuck in major cities, surrounded by concrete, noise, pollution and crowds are prone to health problems with long term consequences. Sit yourself down in a quiet meadow on a balmy spring day, with a gentle breeze wafting the smells of the earth, and listen to the sounds of the natural world while your pulse and stress levels drop.

Many of us live in homes surrounded by mowed grass. While those lawns may be pleasing to the eye, and useful for playing ball with your dog, they are relatively sterile environments for most wildlife and offer little diversity of habitat. You might be surprised to learn that a study by Environmental Management reported that the US has over 40 million acres of lawn, our largest cultivated crop. A Harris Survey puts the annual cost of professional lawn care services near $30 billion, with DIY lawn care probably double that amount. All of that comes with a cost to our climate and air and water quality. Imagine what we could achieve for wildlife if some of that acreage and funding was redirected to improved habitat!

While it would be nice for each of us to have 10 or 20 acres out the back door, many of us have plots of land that are one acre or less in size. But even small parcels of land can be enhanced to provide valuable habitat for a wide range of creatures and to give us the pleasure of seeing our natural neighbors out our windows. You are limited only by your imagination, time and money in what you can achieve in bringing the natural world a little closer. Start slowly and inexpensively by putting up a bird feeder and you will soon have the pleasure of seeing a range of song birds and other creatures stopping by to visit.

Eastern bluebirds (Photo from iStock Steve Byland)

The first step in any habitat project is to study your land and to take an inventory of what already exists. Consider the amount of sunshine that reaches the ground, the prevailing winds, the presence of water in any form and the habitat on neighboring properties. It is easier and cheaper to build upon your existing assets than to develop an entirely new landscape.

Before you begin digging holes for new plants, take the simple and inexpensive step of testing the pH of your soil, since that will play a big role in what plants will be successful. Then make a list of the wildlife that is important to your project.

All wildlife has the same basic needs that we do: food, water and shelter. While the needs of individual species vary considerably, you have to consider those needs in planning changes to your property. If you hope to attract colorful song birds, you need to consider not only the advantages of a new feeder, but also the birds’ need for water and shelter from predators. If you can add a bird bath and a few thick shrubs or conifers, your new bird friends will likely become frequent visitors.

While some of us are quite happy to pick up the chainsaw and fire up the backhoe to begin transforming our land, others are inclined to more modest projects, at least to begin. If you love watching butterflies, consider installing a wildflower garden on a patch of your existing lawn. Native plants such as asters, milkweed, bee balm and cardinal flower will bring a wide range of these pollinating creatures to your home, along with bees and hummingbirds. Select a variety of plants that will bloom early, mid and late season so you and the pollinators can enjoy colorful blossoms from spring into autumn.

Rather than maintaining expensive turf all the way to your property boundaries, consider allowing the edges to grow into a more natural buffer zone where you mow only once or twice each year, in early spring and late fall to avoid disturbing nesting birds and infant mammals. You can enhance the value of this buffer zone by planting high bush cranberries or blackberries, native grasses like little bluestem or low shrubs like ninebark and dogwoods. Go a step further by adding structures where small creatures can nest or burrow with protection from larger predators. A rock pile or stone wall is ideal habitat, or you can make a simple brush pile with larger logs on the bottom and smaller branches on top. Your local weasel will thank you for the new hunting ground!

If you have enough room, consider planting a small cluster of native trees and shrubs that will offer shade, nest sites and food for wildlife while storing carbon and producing oxygen. Hardwood trees like maples, oak and beech will provide seeds and nuts along with seasonal shade for lower plants that do not prosper in direct sunlight. Conifers like red spruce and white pines offer thermal cover in winter and cones stuffed with high nutrient seeds. Crab apples, red osier dogwood and winterberry provide colorful foliage and fruits that help wildlife make it through the colder months.

Rather than selecting just one plant for your project, choose several species so that you end up with a diverse habitat than will appeal to a wide range of creatures. There are many resources for information about native plants, including the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, the Wild Seed Project and the Audubon Society

Ideal wildlife habitat has a variety of places suitable for breeding and nesting or burrowing throughout the year. Old trees with hollow cores or den holes are valuable and should never be removed unless they threaten homes or human activity. Dead logs on the ground provide habitat for fungi and insects, and will attract small creatures like toads and salamanders looking for safe homes. Thick shrubs and ground cover like hawthorns, alders, mountain laurel and scrub oak are important to a variety of birds, small mammals and snakes.

Buttonbush with Viceroy butterfly (Leslie R. Ramey photo)

If you have water on your property, consider yourself most fortunate. A vernal pool, small pond, gentle stream or marsh is vital habitat for wildlife of all sizes and should be protected from damage and pollution by lawn chemicals. The land around those water features can be enhanced by planting shrubs like buttonbush, rhododendrons, and willows. Mother Nature will gradually introduce other plants like cattails, sedges, joe-pye weed and duckweed, depending upon the site.

If your land does not have an existing pond, consider the many advantages of adding one with the help of landscaping experts. We have created 10 of these on our old farm and neighboring properties in NY and wildlife use them heavily throughout the year.

Larger properties may have forest cover over many acres and provide both habitat and an income source from managed logging operations. Consider the opportunity of creating one or more forest openings of at least one quarter acre or more. By removing trees, you allow more light to penetrate to the forest floor, which will result in the growth of important ground cover species. Larger trees around the clearing will take the opportunity to spread their crowns and add substantial mass over time. By planting food crops or native grasses, you can convert the new opening to valuable breeding, nesting and lounging areas for turkeys, song birds and deer.

While it may seem daunting to mount some of the suggested projects, there is a great deal of information and expert assistance available to help you. Talk to the folks at your local nursery supply store. Three books have impressed me: “Make a Home for Wildlife” by Charles Fergus (Stackpole Books), “Bringing Nature Home” by Douglas Tallamy (Timber Press) and “Attracting Birds, Butterflies and Other Backyard Wildlife” by David Mizejewski (National Wildlife Federation). I’ve had wonderful assistance from a state forester, the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the Natural Resources Conservation Service of USDA. There are also consulting foresters and naturalists who can help you, like Harpswell’s Rob Bryan of Forest Synthesis, LLC.

Over many years of habitat work, I have learned a few lessons. First, improving the land is not only good, clean labor that keeps the muscles in shape, it is also good for the soul. Spending a day in the woods and fields among the sights, sounds and smells of nature makes for a wonderful night’s sleep. Second, the natural world will point the way to improvements if you simply pay attention to what is already working on your land.

Finally, I am continually surprised at how quickly wildlife will respond and adapt to the improvements made to their environment–the big whitetail buck that drinks from a new vernal pool one day after construction, the American woodcock that nests in a new brush lot, the kestrel that rears her brood in a nest box tacked to a quiet tamarack, the monarch butterflies that fill my field in late summer as the milkweed comes into bloom. You can achieve your own wildlife successes in your backyard with surprisingly modest effort and expense, regardless of the size of your piece of paradise.