Chipmunks dart from one spot to the next, occasionally stopping for a cool drink from the goldfish pond. Caterpillars munch copper fennel right down to the ground, without ever encountering a lethal dose of pesticide. In each of five vine-covered arbors songbirds are nesting, while somewhere nearby a raccoon sleeps away the day. And so it goes in the back and front yards of Angela Green, an Atlanta resident whose property is a certified wildlife habitat.
Angela's rather unique yard started to evolve about three years ago, stemming from her desire to completely do away with her lawn. "It seemed like a waste of time, energy and money," says Angela. "First you fertilize it to make it grow, then as soon as it does you whack it off. That seems so contradictory to me." As her lawn shrunk, flower gardens, shrubby areas and eventually a pond sprang up. The fact that Angela's property backs up to a horse pasture with woods beyond, made it an ideal refuge for all types of "critters," as Angela calls her wildlife visitors. She has added a wood pile and stone pile to the backyard to provide additional shelter, and every structure on the property does double duty by creating nooks and crannies -- for example, all of Angela's garden benches are closed in and raised up slightly with stones so her critters can hide out underneath.
This backyard habitat, which includes a butterfly and hummingbird garden, has given Angela so much enjoyment that she has just about moved into it, spending most of her time on a large, screened-in porch that provides optimum views of the yard, with all its activity. During the warm months she even sleeps on the porch. The wildlife garden has also captivated neighborhood children.
A Growing Trend
In 1973, the National Wildlife Federation established a program under which homeowners and gardeners could certify their property as a wildlife habitat. In the 1980s and 1990s, with environmental concerns a key issue, interest in the program has skyrocketed. According to Judy Tindall of the Georgia Wildlife Federation, schools, churches and even corporate facilities, such as the UPS world headquarters, are certifying.
In order to certify your property, you must fill out a simple form stating how you have provided food, shelter and water for wildlife. Why go through this process? "The primary motivation is to be part of a mini-network of property owners around the country that are reversing the destruction of natural habitats," says Judy. "You can actually have a hands-on effect on the environment in your own backyard, even if you can't do much to stop rain forest destruction."
Occasionally a homeowner will express a fear of attracting "dangerous" animals that might be harmful to people or pets. "A lot of these fears are not rooted in reality," says Judy. "The key is education. Take snakes, for example. Once you understand their role in the environment, you have to value them. Some people have concerns about possums or raccoons, but these creatures are typically nocturnal and don't impact a homeowner. Occasionally we have a rabies problem, so you have to be educated about recognizing atypical behavior."
Planning Your Backyard Habitat
While gardening for wildlife tends to go hand-in-hand with reducing the amount of lawn you have, your backyard doesn't have to go totally wild. Maintaining a small lawn area not only visually separates your house from your wooded wildlife areas, it can give you a sunny area to maintain gardens that will attract butterflies and hummingbirds. Beyond the lawn, the ground can be covered with natural pine straw, bark or leaf litter.
Basically, all wildlife have four basic needs to survive: food, water, shelter and a safe place to raise young. How you meet each of these needs determines which species you will attract. For example, to attract birds, you may be able to provide shelter as easily as providing a few nesting boxes. To attract small mammals like chipmunks, however, you might have to add a brushpile. The greater the variety of these four elements in your yard, the more diverse your wildlife visitors will be.
The key here is to maintain a clean, dependable water source through all four seasons -- even in the dead of winter when you don't feel like trekking out to check on it. Unclean water or a source that's allowed to dry up too often will not be visited as regularly by wildlife. Any type of birdbath or garden pond will do, as long as there are shallow spots (place flat rocks inside, if necessary) that give birds and small mammals a safe foothold. It's also important to protect your visitors from predators, so place your water source at least 15 feet from shrubbery that could harbor neighborhood cats.
Wildlife relies on shelter for protection from the weather and predators, as well as for sleeping areas and safe travel lanes. Low shrubbery, especially berry bushes that also provide a food source, makes an effective shelter. If it is dense enough, shrubbery can provide a home to ground-nesting birds such as doves and thrushes as well as small mammals like rabbits. You can also construct a brush pile from dead branches, Christmas trees and crepe myrtle prunings to provide this kind of shelter. Stone piles will provide a cool home for garden snakes, toads and lizards; all of which help to control insect populations. Also, consider leaving one or two dead trees standing, to attract cavity-nesters such as woodpeckers.
Places to raise young
For the most part these requirements can be satisfied by meeting basic shelter needs. The exception is birds, which benefit from nesting and roosting boxes. These can be purchased or made at home. Each species has specific requirements for entry-hole size, so contact your county extension office or the Georgia Wildlife Federation for instructions or plans for many types of nesting boxes.
Rather than relying on feeders exclusively, it's best to let Mother Nature provide a constant source of food by planting shrubs, vines and trees that produce edible nuts, seeds or berries. Holly, beauty berry (Callicarpa Americana) and blackberry together provide nearly four seasons of berries. Oak trees provide acorns, dogwoods and sumac provide red berries through the fall and winter and serviceberry (Amelanchier species) bears edible berries in late spring or early summer.
Birdfeeders are often used to supplement the winter diet of birds. For general feeding, most species will eat black sunflower seed. Ground feeders like doves are partial to a scattering of cracked corn. Suet attracts insectivorous birds such as woodpeckers.