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When you’re an urban bird or critter, yards are your home. The better homes have the essentials: water, food and shelter. Large expanses of green lawn might look great to you, but they look pretty bleak to most wildlife. Much better to have a spot that provides something to eat or drink, as well as a place to hide and escape the elements.
Water. It’s critical, especially in an area where there is much more surface area given over to concrete and asphalt than water.
A Small Pond
For years we had a nice back yard, but it was sort of ho-hum. Then in 2008 we put in a small pond with two waterfalls.
What a difference! Add water and everybody shows up.
The sound of water is captivating and we believe it attracts all sorts of wildlife. Bullfrogs, Leopard and Green Frogs show up on their own, and sound great at night. Dozens of dragonflies have given us our yard back in the summer by eating lots of the mosquitoes. And occasionally a Great Blue Heron drops by for a visit. No more ho-hum.
Lots of Birdbaths
They are all over the yard. Some small ones for the little guys and bigger ones for those who really like to splash. And evidently it’s OK to drink out of your bath tub. We keep a couple of bird baths heated in the winter to prevent freezing. And they are used by everybody – birds and critters alike.
What’s for dinner? Well, who’s coming and what do they like to eat? Providing food for wildlife may be as much about what’s growing, blooming, buzzing and crawling as it is about putting out seed for the birds and corn for the squirrels. More than just birds come into our yard. And they come because there’s something good here for them to eat.
Bird feeders are a good thing, especially in urban settings. They attract birds and help them out in the months when it’s cold and other food sources are scarce. Almost everybody loves Black oil sunflower seed. We also put out thistle, or Niger, seed for the Goldfinches and, in the cold months, some hummer food for the those early to arrive and late to leave.
Suet is also popular, more so at certain times of year, and contains a high fat content which boosts energy.
We’ve noticed that having several feeders in a group significantly increases the traffic, probably because there is safety in numbers.
In season, plants that have fruit, berries or seeds can be a big draw.
In the fall and winter birds get a lot of food from seed heads. Leave your dead plants through the winter and you’ll be amazed how many birds you find taking advantage of the fee meal.
Insects as Food
Insects and worms make up the majority of the diet for birds during spring and summer, especially when they are nesting. The extra protein is helpful for producing the shell of the eggs. Notice that the female Eastern Bluebird on the house below has a worm, and you can watch as the adults feed feed insects and worms to their young.
Food for Insects
Insects need food too, and some plants we have just to help them. In other words, we plant them just to be eaten. Such as the Pipevine which feeds the Pipevine Swallowtail butterfly larva. Eggs are laid in the Pipevine so there will be food when they hatch. It’s fun to watch the caterpillars grown and morph into a beautiful Pipevive Swallowtail butterfly.
Wildlife as Food
And of course many birds and critters are carnivores or omnivores and eat other animals.
It’s cold, or hot, or raining. You need a place to spend the night, or spend the winter, or escape a predator, or raise your young. You just need some shelter.
Stylish is not a requirement and neither is prominent; functional is. Many forms of shelter are provided by growing things: trees and plants. Others can be as simple as a log, a rock or hollow reeds. And some can be down right fancy such as bird houses and bee boxes.
If you think about what you would need if you were any manner of wild thing living out doors, you can come up with your own ideas of how to add shelter to your yard. Some of the photos below might jump start your thinking.
There are two items of shelter in the picture to the left: an owl house and a snag. The snag has been used; the owl house has not. Notice the cavity to the left of the house – it was hollowed out last spring by two Brown-headed Nuthatches and used to raise their young (watch the video). The owl house has yet to have an occupant, but we are hopeful this will be the year.
Just like the terracotta pot above, things that give shelter can be tucked away, hidden behind other things or snuggled up to the edges of the yard. Some examples:
Those who make the pond their home need sanctuary from predators too. The log and leaf litter on the pond floor and overhanging rocks are good safety spots.
Ground cover like Himalayan Sweet Box, river oats left in place over the winter and ample leaf litter are usually buzzing with inhabitants
And let’s don’t forget about the native bees. Below are two forms of housing: Hollow bamboo reeds and a specially constructed bee box.
The chipmunk in the sights of a Cooper’s Hawk needs a place to hide. So do the frogs, skinks, box turtles and rabbits. Hiding places in your yard are greatly appreciated and easy to create. Just pile up those shrubbery clippings and broken up limbs in a far corner of the yard or along the side out of sight under a bush or shrub. You’ll cut down on yard waste and help wildlife at the same time.
Hedges and thick evergreen shrubbery can also provide safe harbor and a row of shrubbery can create a wildlife corridor.
The Importance of Trees
Trees are what make Peachtree Park great. We love them, brag about our tree canopy and unite to protect them from the developer’s blade. They provide shade, beauty, erosion control, screening, sound-proofing and much more. But what do they mean to wildlife?
Easy question you say. Birds and squirrels nest in them. And… Is that it? Not by a long shot.
Trees supply food. Nuts and berries of course but how about sap, and a most important item for birds, bugs. This last one is a win for the tree as well since the birds, while eating, rid the tree of bugs that may do it harm.
Trees give shelter. Shelter from the storm: the wind, rain and hot sun. They not only provide an arbor for nests, but have hollows and cavities for all manner of wildlife: squirrels, raccoons, skinks, snakes, lizards, native bees, treefrogs – it’s along list. Dead trees (snags) can also be of great value as these nuthatches will tell you.
Trees provide a place to hide. How many times have you walked outside to hear a bird singing at the top of his voice in a close by tree. It’s a beautiful song and you’d like to see which bird it is. He’s just right there, but chances are good that you walked away never having seen the singer.
On a walk late one afternoon we heard a murder of crows and spotted them way up in a tall pine at the top of Dale Drive. They had somebody cornered, but it took quite a while to see the Great Horned Owl hiding in the branches.
Not all trees are equal: If you’re going to plant a tree, consider planting one that is good for wildlife. In other words, we recommend a native tree that supports native wildlife. See the topic below on Natives.
Suppose you are a small bunny. You’ve found a good source of clean water, but it’s 100 yards away from your nest. And the best food supply another 200 yards from home. Not much traveling distance in the woods, but if you are in an urban neighborhood it’s more than just the distance, it’s the obstacles in your path: fences, walls, streets.
There’s not much to be done about streets, other than to slow down and watch for wildlife. But you can help with fences and walls by creating just a few small openings close to the ground.
By opening up these man-made barriers just a little, you’ve constructed a wildlife corridor. These openings make it possible for someone small to move safely from water to food to home and may also provide an escape hatch to escape from a predator.
Certified Wildlife Habitat
One good way to make your yard better for wildlife is to get it certified. There are several organizations that will do this. Here are links to the three programs shown above:
The benefit to you is that you will be asked questions about elements of your yard which becomes a form of self-audit. Once certified, most organizations will send you a sign or marker which spreads the word and lets others know you think it’s an important thing to do.