Skip to main content

Create a Backyard Habitat for Wildlife

Julie Bawden Davis

One day several years ago, my sister, Amy, called me when I was out doing errands. I don’t remember the reason for her call, but I can still hear the wonderful symphony of birds in the background as she spoke. Picturing her at the local arboretum or an aviary, I asked where she’d snuck off to.

“I’m at your house,” she replied. “In the backyard.”

The symphony of birds consisted of hundreds of feathered friends that visit, dine, and live in my backyard wildlife habitat, certified by the National Wildlife Federation in the 1990s. In addition to birds, my backyard attracts possums, raccoons, squirrels, butterflies, hummingbirds, salamanders, dragonflies, and a whole host of insects.

While it might sound like my property is located near a forest or wildlife corridor, neither is true. I’m actually right smack in the middle of the concrete jungle of Southern California.

It was for gardens like mine that the Garden for Wildlife Program (formerly Backyard Wildlife Habitat) was created. Founded in 1973, the program’s purpose remains the same today. In order to fulfill the National Wildlife Federation’s goal of protecting wildlife for future generations, it’s necessary to restore habitat within cities and towns where development has gobbled up wildlands. The best way for this to happen is for individual gardeners to create environments in their yards where wildlife can dine, rest, seek cover, and raise their young.

“Considering that our landscapes are dominated by human activities, it’s tough for wildlife to navigate,” says David Mizejewski, who's a National Wildlife Federation naturalist and the author of the book Attracting Birds, Butterflies and Other Backyard Wildlife. “The Garden for Wildlife Program provides opportunities important for wildlife survival, such as locations for migratory and non-migratory birds to refuel and seek shelter.”

Perhaps best of all, the Garden for Wildlife Program gives the average person an easy way to do something to improve the world in which we live.

“So many conservation challenges are big issues, and that can seem overwhelming to many people,” says Mizejewski. “Add to that the fact that even if you do get involved in those efforts, there are no easy or quick answers. By participating in the Garden for Wildlife Program, you take a personal action by creating a refuge for animals in your own landscape, and the results are immediate.”

(scroll to keep reading)

Related Stories

You don’t need a large, elaborate garden to become certified. “The program is not exclusive, but is designed to be very accessible and has certified more than 176,000 gardens of all kinds and sizes to date,” says Mizejewski. “You can create a habitat on a balcony in pots.”

To create a wildlife friendly garden eligible for certification, you need to supply four elements:

Food. While feeders are okay for birds, only a handful of species actually use them, which is why it’s also important to plant a wide variety of native plants, says Mizejewski. "Native plants are your best bet, because they have co-evolved with wildlife and are therefore the plants that wild animals require to survive," he says.

Plant shrubs and trees that produce tasty fare like nectar, pollen, berries, nuts, seeds, fruit and foliage for birds, butterflies and other creatures. Also add supplemental feeders and sources of food, if you like.

The National Wildlife Federation will soon have a database that allows you to check natives that grow well in your area. You can also learn more about what natives to grow by checking on the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center’s website.

Water. Wild creatures require a clean water source in order to drink, bathe and reproduce. Water sources could include a backyard pond that has a shallow end where birds can bathe, and a birdbath set directly on the ground without a pedestal, which allows animals that can’t fly, such as box turtles and toads, to jump in. Birds are drawn to trickling and dripping water, so attach a mister to the side of the birdbath.

Cover. Animals need a place to feel safe from predators and bad weather. Good locations include native trees and shrubs, including thickets and brush piles.

Place to raise young. The same sheltered places that animals go to for cover work well for raising young. Also consider adding a nesting box.

Becoming certified is easy. Once you’ve provided the above four elements, apply online. And while you’re at it, purchase a certified wildlife habitat sign to announce to friends, family, and even passersby that they are about to enter a wildlife habitat.

Mary Phillips

More Like This