Here's how you can enjoy all kinds of birds, butterflies, pollinating native bees and other fun and fascinating critters right in your own back yard.
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 NWF program is organized around four key elements that wildlife need to flourish — food plants, water, shelter and places to raise young.
1. 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.
2. Water. Water sources for wildlife are especially crucial in urban areas where creeks may be covered with concrete and puddles are polluted by gasoline and antifreeze. Even a few shallow dishes or birdbaths scattered around your property and kept full of clean water will help attract and sustain many creatures. If you have space, consider installing a pond.
3. Cover. Plant a variety of evergreen and deciduous trees, shrubs and grasses to shelter wildlife from weather and predators. Tall trees work like high-rise apartments — different species will occupy each level, from ground to canopy. Leave the plants in your flower garden standing through the winter so that birds can feed on the seeds and beneficial insects can overwinter in the plantings. Don't rush to clear out dead trees; they provide habitat for flying squirrels, raccoons, owls, woodpeckers and other birds. If you have room, make piles of stones or brush to provide dense cover for small ground creatures.
4. Places to Raise Young. Many areas that give cover also will be suitable for rearing offspring. In addition, you can put up nesting boxes for birds, bat houses and even bee blocks.
Learn the life histories of your favorite species to accommodate their different life stages. Tadpoles and young dragonflies, for example, are waterbound during their initial development, so they require a pond with clean water and aquatic vegetation. Butterflies need native wildflowers from which to harvest nectar and host plants to feed on in their caterpillar stage.
After you've introduced new habitat, be sure to keep your eyes open. Kay and Jim Charter, who have 47 acres of NWF-certified habitat on the Michigan peninsula, noticed immediate results after planting cedar trees as habitat. "Within hours," Kay Charter says, "here came this song sparrow that would never have appeared there, and it started foraging."
If you want to make your habitat "official" through NWF certification, fill out the application form on this page. The Federation also offers a Backyard Wildlife Starter Kit ($25), which includes an application, a 50-page habitat-planning guide and several other resources to help you create and maintain wildlife habitat.
Watching wildlife is a fine form of entertainment for us "biophilic" humans, but backyard habitats also help to counter the No. 1 threat to wildlife—habitat loss from human activities. As the human population increases and suburbs encroach upon wild and rural areas, natural resources the animals need to survive are lost. To make matters worse, the popularity of groomed lawns, ornamental hybrid plants and bug—free yards drives out native plant species.
In urban settings, where many natural resources have been eliminated, wild animals are especially responsive to backyard habitats. Kay Packard lives in Chamblee, Georgia, an entire community certified through the NWF program and located close to Interstate 285, which surrounds Atlanta. "It's amazing to see a great blue heron in my tiny pond," Packard says.
Retirees Deck and Robert Hunter live 15 miles from Sheridan, Wyoming, in the foothills of the Big Horn Mountains. Three years into the habitat program, they have planted more than 400 trees and shrubs on their formerly barren ridge and used rocks dug up during tree plantings to build a wall around their home. Now, Deck Hunter says, she can look out any time and see wild creatures on the land. Chipmunks, followed by ermine, took up residence in the rock wall, and soon thereafter, pheasants arrived. Moose and golden eagles appear occasionally, too. "One thing attracts another," she says. "You have to expect that you are going to call things in. We called in the pheasants, and then one day I looked out and here came a red fox with one of the pheasants hanging out of its mouth. There's a chain reaction, that's just part of it. The fox lives here, too."
Feldt shares her New York backyard habitat with other residents of her apartment building; what once was primarily concrete now is lush with trees, shrubs and a pond. The habitat is a popular stopping point for migratory birds, and for transplanted human nature lovers, too. "If you put a few simple things in your back yard," Feldt says, "the benefits you will reap from the habitat will equal those the wildlife will reap."
John Rockhold is a green car enthusiast and Contributing Editor for MOTHER EARTH NEWS. Find him on Google+.