Create Wildlife Habitat

Enjoy all kinds of birds, butterflies, pollinating native bees and other fun and fascinating critters right in your own back yard.

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    A downy woodpecker is attracted to suet placed in a hole in a tree.
    Richard Day/Daybreak Imagery
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    Successful backyard habitats attract both predators and prey.
    David R. Frazier
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    Above: In this Maryland back yard, a pond provides reliable water, and a dense shrub border, upper right, provides both shelter and a place for wildlife to raise their young.
    Jerry Pavia
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    Native plants produce cover for a variety of wildlife, including the common garter snake.
    Rick Wetherbee

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New Yorker Barbara Feldt recently went for a walk in her neighborhood, near Times Square in the heart of the Big Apple. As she returned to her apartment building, this big-city dweller saw something extraordinary. "I looked up, and there was a bird on a block of suet I'd hung from a tree," Feldt says. "It was a downy woodpecker, with the red patch on the back of its head. It was gorgeous." As if the bird's appearance was news unfolding, a crowd gathered to watch with Feldt. "Everyone stopped and looked at that bird. People were saying, 'Oh my God, look at that!"'

New Yorkers halting to observe a woodpecker is just a minor example of our innate affinity for wildlife. Pulitzer Prize-winning author and scientist Edward O. Wilson calls such a response to nature "biophilia." He writes about these "connections humans subconsciously seek with the rest of life" in his book, Biophilia: The Human Bond with Other Species. Human attraction to the natural world is undoubtedly why millions of us enjoy hiking and camping, identifying wildflowers and trees, and taking part in myriad other outdoor activities — including putting out bird feed, like Feldt did.

The New York City woman and her fellow apartment building residents transformed their urban yard into wildlife habitat with help from the Backyard Wildlife Habitat program of the National Wildlife Federation (NWF). They're among some 35,000 nature lovers who have participated in this 30-year-old program.

The Four Elements

The NWF program is organized around four key elements that wildlife need to flourish — food plants, water, shelter and places to raise young.

Food plants

Many of the most popular ornamental plants sold at garden centers have been bred for bigger, showier flowers, compactness of growth or other "human-pleasing" qualities. Many are hybrids that don't produce seed. These "improved" plants are not as attractive to wildlife as native varieties, which produce various foods. (Don't worry, native plants still are very attractive — just not quite as flashy as many commonly grown ornamentals.) Check with your state natural resources or wildlife departments for information on the best native plants to grow in your area. Also, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center offers excellent regional lists of native plants (including photos), together with lists of nurseries that specialize in natives, and state and local native plant societies.

Add some native plants to your property each year, and soon you'll have lots of seeds, nuts, berries, pollen and nectar to attract all kinds of birds, insects and other animals. To attract specific kinds of wildlife, such as butterflies or hummingbirds, grow specific plants that they like. In no time at all, you'll be able to sit back, relax and watch your wildlife because native plants need very little fertilizer or supplemental water after they become established.



Fall 2021!

Put your DIY skills to the test throughout November. We’re mixing full meal recipes in jars, crafting with flowers, backyard composting, cultivating mushrooms, and more!


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