Creating a Wildlife Habitat Garden

Credit: Audubon Society

I recently moved into a house on a small lake (OK, actually it’s a retention pond) and I find myself fascinated by the birds and wildlife here.  There is a family of hawks…I don’t know what kind yet, as well as creatures of the night which I have not yet seen, only heard.

My last home was immersed in sun all day long and the gardens I created needed to be as drought and salt tolerant as possible.  Here, at my new digs, I have large trees creating shade most of the day.  This new “environment” has me researching gardens that are best suited for this type of soil and light conditions. The UF Extension Center’s mantra “right plant, right place” has me thinking about every plant in my landscaping future.  In my planning I ran across an extremely informative article from This Old House about creating wildlife habitat gardens.  I hadn’t thought much about the diminishing butterfly and bird populations as a result of our millions of manicured lawns and the fertilizers used to maintain those lush yards and the effects on wildlife until I read this article.

You might not be re-vamping your entire yard and may only want a small section that will create a habitat for butterflies and birds in their travels, but at least you will be doing something to help lessen the toxic effects on our wildlife environment due to our growing population.  There are lots of links to take you further into areas of interest whether it be birdhouses, butterfly habitats or the Audubon Society.  I hope you find this article as fascinating as I did.

From Tabitha Sukhai and This Old House:
Who doesn’t enjoy the sight of a brightly colored bird, or a passing butterfly? These natural visitors add appeal to our landscapes, help control pests, and seed and pollinate our gardens. But we’re in danger of losing them through our own actions. According to the National Audubon Society, the 20 birds on the Common Birds in Decline list have lost at least half of their populations in just four decades due to residential and industrial development.
It’s not too late to coax fine flying friends into our yards, though. This summer—with skyrocketing fuel prices putting the squeeze on your vacation plans—instead of going to visit nature, why not bring nature to you? Encourage birds and butterflies to come to your place and stay awhile with these easy habitat gardening tips. And, don’t forget to keep your birdhouses and feeders out in the cold season, when native and migrating birds need your help most.

Reduce Your Lawn
According to the National Wildlife Federation, about 20 million U.S. acres are planted as residential lawn. That’s not good news for the environment. All that lawn eats up 67 million pounds of synthetic pesticides annually, contaminating wildlife food sources. “Trace pesticides in insects, including caterpillars and butterflies, can harm the birds that depend on those populations for nourishment,” says Steven Saffier, the coordinator of the Audubon Society’s Audubon at Home program. Lawns are also water wasters. According to The Handbook of Water Use and Conservation, roughly 2 trillion gallons of water are used on lawns annually. Half of that is wasted due to evaporation, wind, or run-off caused by overwatering. Finally, lawnspace provides none of the cover, fruiting and seeding plants, or nesting sites that birds and other wildlife require.

A wild-life friendly habitat garden replaces manicured lawn with plants that attract native and migratory birds, butterflies, and other wildlife seeking food and cover. Habitat gardening essentially replicates pre-development land conditions. “You have to ask yourself, ‘What is my ecological address? What plants were here before this house was built?’ Then try to replicate that,” advises Saffier. You can learn about your property’s natural history by visiting a local nature center or contacting your local native plant society. Ask for specific forest type or dominant habitats to mimic in your backyard. “If someone learns that, historically, their house sits on what once was maple-beech-hickory forest type, they wouldn’t want a sabal palm or magnolia because those have native ranges far outside an MBH forest,” explains Saffier.

You should also eliminate the use of wildlife-harming chemical pesticides and fertilizers, and employ organic gardening solutions instead. “The idea is to encourage biodiversity. Birds eat insects, and insects eat plants,” explains Saffier. “So, habitat gardeners are just going to have to expect some imperfection in their gardens.” In return for that imperfection, you’ll not only enjoy the birds and butterflies; you’ll also save the time, money, and water it takes to keep that part of the lawn pristine.

Start Birdscaping
The Audubon Society has counted over 650 bird species nesting in North America. Invite some of them with birdscaping. Nesting and cover sites, food, and water are all that birds need to thrive. Replacing lawn with native trees, shrubs, and other plants provides nesting, cover and food. Add water with a birdbath or garden pond.

Follow these additional guidelines to create a truly bird-friendly yard:

Do your homework. Consult your local Audubon chapter to learn more about common birds in your area. Then research native varieties of the nut-, fruit-, and seed-bearing plants they prefer. See our Plants for Backyard Birds to start.

Preserve & replace. In addition to replacing lawn with native plants, reconsider the removal of dead trees from your property. The hollow cavities are valuable nesting sites for birds.

Add supplemental housing. Pole-mounted nesting boxes and houses will give your birds added security—they’re harder for predators to get to than tree-mounted boxes. You’ll want to give your birds an advantage, especially if your hosting birds with declining populations.

Add supplemental food. In addition to a water feature, consider adding well-placed feeders, positioned where squirrels can’t raid the food. Homeowners typically mount springtime feeders, but it’s best to provide seed in cold weather, when natural food sources are low. See suggested feeders, along with other backyard bird accessories, in our Wildlife-Friendly Yard gallery.

Invite & protect. Keep unsupervised pets indoors. House cats, in particular, are responsible for killing millions of birds every year. Further, about 1 billion birds die each year due to fatal window collisions. This can be prevented by drawing curtains on windows that reflect habitat or appear to be transparent to birds. Window decals create a visual interference to warn birds of solid surfaces, and bug screens also reduce window glass transparency, while providing a “bouncy” barrier to reduce the harm of impact.

As Steve Saffier explains, “It’s one thing to add a birdhouse to your yard, but the key is to build a healthy environment around it.”

Build a Butterfly Garden
Butterflies are avid pollinators. To invite some of the 700 North American butterfly species identified by the Audubon Society, consider replacing at least some of your lawn with nectar-rich plants. Make sure there’s water, exposure to minerals, and plenty of sunlight, too.

Here are some things to keep in mind as you create your garden:

Do your homework. Research plants that will attract butterflies in your region. Get started with our Butterfly Garden gallery. Since some butterflies are world travelers, their favorite plants may be considered invasive to your region. Check the USDA Federal Noxious Weeds List before planting to make sure you are not introducing invasive growers. Consider the native plant suggestions in the American Beauties butterfly garden plan.

Get planting. There’s a variety of colorful and nectar-rich plants that attract adult butterflies. But, if you want to encourage habitation, you need to grow plants suitable for larval stages, too.

Create mineral sources. A small patch of wet soil will attract butterflies seeking minerals. “A shallow dish or bowl with rocks or pebbles covered halfway with water will create a butterfly puddling site,” advises Saffier. “During the summer, this requires some vigilance because water evaporates quickly,” he adds. Butterflies will visit the dish to take in trace minerals from the water. Untreated tap works fine here, as chlorine dissipates into the air after 24 hours. A garden pond lined with flat rocks is a permanent alternative.

Essentially, birds and butterflies require food, water, nesting, and cover sites. A great way to welcome wildlife to your yard—and save on your water and lawn care bills—is to replace some of your grass with a bird or butterfly garden featuring native growers. As a finishing touch, you can put your beautiful new habitat garden—and your commitment to wildlife—on display with a Certified Wildlife Habitat yard sign from the National Wildlife Federation.

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