Landscaping for Wildlife

Introduction

Landscaping to attract wildlife brings nature close by welcoming it into our backyards. Planting certain trees, shrubs, and flowers can create an inviting atmosphere for songbirds, butterflies, and other wildlife. Another advantage of landscaping for wildlife is creating habitat for animals that have been displaced by community growth and development where space is limited.

10 Tips for Creating a Wildlife-friendly Landscape

Limit the Amount of Lawn You Have

Grass offers very little food or cover for wildlife. By reducing the amount of mowed lawn around your house, especially in areas of low traffic, you will be creating shelter and food for many animal species. To help speed up the replacement of lawn, you can remove the grass and plant seeds of native wildflowers that are adapted to the conditions in that part of your yard (sunny, shady, wet, dry, etc.).

Replace some lawn grass with groundcovers. These are more valuable to wildlife. Lawn grasses require a lot of maintenance--mowing, fertilizing, and watering--all of which have high energy costs. Groundcovers also provide food and shelter for small animals.

Add islands of vegetation. These can be planted with native groundcovers, wildflowers, or other vegetation. If possible, locate the islands so they are near each other. A group of islands reduces the amount of open space animals have to cross.

Photo: Mark HostetlerPlant a butterfly garden. For butterfly habitat, add plants for both the adult butterflies and their larvae (caterpillars); they often feed on different species of plants. Keep in mind that the food plants for larvae will be munched on and may look tattered at times. Another way to help butterflies is to create a small, bare area of moist sand in your yard. The butterflies sip water from the damp sand to obtain the needed salts and minerals (a behavior called puddling).

Increase Vertical Layering

Increasing plant structure between the ground and the tree canopy is called vertical layering. Planting a variety of vegetation in different sizes and heights provides more cover and feeding opportunities for wildlife species. Clumps (or islands) of native vegetation with plants of different heights are best.

Provide Snags and Brush Piles

As trees become diseased or die, consider leaving them standing as snags for wildlife such as woodpeckers to use for feeding and nesting.

A brush pile or two, especially if near other vegetation, will provide excellent cover and feeding opportunities for small mammals, birds, and butterflies. It will also serve as cover in open areas.

Provide Waterbirdbath

Water is an essential part of productive wildlife habitats. Wildlife will benefit from any water source you provide, such as a birdbath or small pond. Ponds also attract a variety of amphibian and reptile species and add amphibian breeding habitat.

Plant Native Vegetation

Use native plant species in your yard whenever possible. Landscapes with plants that are native to Florida provide better food and cover for native wildlife, and require less care and resources to maintain than those with non-native plants. Native plants are better adapted to local soil conditions, generally do not require fertilizing, and are more resistant to natural pests and diseases.

Information on where you can purchase native plants for Florida can be found at the Association of Florida Native Nurseries. Check the Internet for a similar association of nurseries that sell native plants in your state, such as the National Native Plant Nursery Directory

Provide Bird/Bat Houses and Birdfeeders

Birdfeeders.--Adding birdfeeders of different designs or with different seeds may increase the diversity of birds you can attract to your yard. Be sure to clean all feeders thoroughly, at least weekly during warm weather. Old or wet seeds can rot and make birds sick.

Locating the feeders near cover (bushes, trees) is helpful for songbirds if they have to escape a predato, but keep the feeders at least fifteen feet away from vegetation so that squirrels cannot jump onto the feeder.

Bird and Bat Houses.--Adding birdhouses (nest boxes) and bat houses in your yard will provide nesting and roosting shelter for widlife. Several factors will determine which animals will use these sites including:

  • Photo: Mark HostetlerThe size of the bird/bat house (overall size, as well as depth)
  • The size of the entry hole
  • The height at which the bird/bat house is mounted
  • The amount of surrounding vegetation
  • The habitat adjacent to your yard andin your neighborhood

For more information on bats and bat houses, visit the Bat Conservation International Web site. Be sure to check out their information on Criteria for Successful Bat Houses.

For more information about birds and birdhouses, visit Cornell University's Lab of Ornithology, specifically Birdhouse Basics, which includes construction plans for birdhouses and a Nest Box Reference Chart with size specifications for each cavity-nesting species. This information is also useful when buying a pre-built birdhouse. Also check out Cornell's Birdhouse Network.

Remove Non-native Invasive Plants

Non-native invasive plants aggressively take over natural habitats and can replace all the native vegetation. What we do in our individual yards can affect areas far beyond our yards. Once established, these non-native plants destroy wildlife habitat, resulting in areas with fewer plant species and fewer food and shelter opportunities for wildlife.

Before buying plants for your landscape, consult the IFAS Assessment of Florida Non-native Plants (Conclusions) for invasive status, and the Florida Exotic Pest Plant Council (Plant Lists).

Manage Pets

Both cats and dogs can drastically impact wildlife. Cats are extremely good hunters and are thought to kill millions of birds and small mammals each year. Cats and dogs hunt for fun, not necessarily for food, and can be especially problematic if you are attracting wildlife to your yard.

Keeping your cats indoors will also keep them safe from strays, diseases, and traffic. This idea is widely supported by veterinary, conservation, animal welfare, and scientific communities. For more information, visit the American Bird Conservancy's campaign Keep Cats Indoors! The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission also has information on the effects that domestic cats have on wildlife, as well as an official assessment on the issue and an official policy.

Reduce Pesticide Use

Anything you can do to reduce pesticide use in your yard will benefit wildlife. Most pesticides do not target one species or pest, but affect anything that comes into contact with the pesticides. By blanket-spraying your lawn, you are also killing beneficial insect species. Almost all wildlife species are connected to insects in some way. Even if they do not eat insects directly, their prey do!

For more information about the alternatives to pesticides, visit Beyond Pesticides.

Expand the Scale of Habitat

The required habitat for many species is much larger than what you could provide within your yard. Consider speaking with your neighbors about creating larger wildlife habitat patches. The combination of several different yards will draw more species to the neighborhood. Discuss with your neighbors about designing wild areas at the property lines or on adjacent corners of your properties. See A Bird's-Eye View: How Birds Select Habitat.