Urban sprawl and development are reshaping our natural world, and by encroaching upon and fragmenting their habitat, the homes of birds, animals, insects and other wild creatures are permanently lost each day. You can make a significant contribution toward re-establishing habitats for wildlife by creating a sanctuary for small animals and birds in your own backyard. A refuge to sustain life would provide food, water, nesting areas, and shelter; all of which are easy to accomplish. And you’ll gain a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction, enjoying the wildlife you have invited to your yard, and knowing they are well and thriving.
A backyard sanctuary can be simple or complex—it’s completely up to you. To start, first think about how much time you will want to dedicate to your project and how much money you are willing to spend. Sometimes the best way is to start off with just the basic habitat requirements and add features over time as you decide what best suits you and your visitors.
When thinking about plantings such as trees, shrubs, grasses and vines, try to select plant materials that are native to your area and require minimal maintenance and upkeep. And for maximum year round appeal choose attractive plant materials that offer four seasons of color—flowers in spring, fruit in summer, leaf color in fall and interesting branching or stems in winter.
Depending on your budget you may choose to purchase inexpensive, immature seedlings that require several years before fruit or nuts are produced. While you’re waiting for your plantings to mature and begin to provide food and shelter, supplement these requirements by adding several bird feeders and nesting boxes in the area. Also, be sure to include a few evergreens in your planting plan. Evergreens are important shelters during the cold weather months, when deciduous plants become bare.
Vegetation should include a variety of heights beginning with ground level plantings and ending with taller canopy trees. A typical design would consist of a first layer of ornamental grasses, followed by a border of shrubs with an assortment of heights and finally a few evergreen and deciduous trees. This layering effect consisting of graduated heights is attractive and functional. It’s an environment that is familiar to birds and offers cover for smaller animals foraging in the underbrush. Also, consider bloom times and flower color on so you’ll have an abundance of color throughout the growing season.
Take an inventory of your yard and make a list of all required elements you already have in place for your habitat. Do you have a source of fresh water? Perhaps a pond, stream or even just a bird bath? What about shelter and nesting places such as dense shrubs and trees? If you are living in a new development, this might be your most important consideration, while more established areas might already have adequate shelter areas. What types of food sources are currently available? Do your plants produce seeds or fruit? Once you have taken your inventory, it will be easier to determine which areas of habitat are adequate and which might need to be supplemented or created.
Seed-eating birds such as cardinals, chickadees, titmice, nuthatches and goldfinches will visit backyard feeders to supplement their diet of insects and berries. Offer a choice of several different types of seeds to increase the variety of species you will attract. Favorite foods are black oil sunflower seed, Nyjer seed and shelled peanuts. In addition, consider offering suet. Suet is a high energy food that is readily used by birds in winter and is also a good food for nestlings. And nectar feeders will draw hummingbirds and orioles to the area. To provide natural food, you can plant fruit-bearing trees, shrubs and vines such as blueberries, June berries, elderberries and grapes, and flowers that produce nectar for hummingbirds, butterflies and bees and later seeds for the birds.
When you provide a source of fresh water you are supplying a drinking and bathing area of course, but birds also need water to keep feathers clean for proper flying ability and body insulation. Adding a water feature can be as simple as buying an inexpensive bird bath or as complex as having a stream or pond installed. Keep in mind that birds are attracted to moving water so whenever possible, add a dripper or mister to your bird bath. Moving water also prevents mosquito larvae from hatching. If you use a ground level bath, you might attract frogs and other small animals to the area.
When you give birds a place to nest and raise their young, you can enjoy watching bird behavior like mating rituals, and the tireless efforts of adults rearing their young. Birds will nest in thick, dense groupings of shrubs, tall canopy trees and cavities of older mature trees. Some birds will use nesting boxes, bird houses and roosts. Install a few of these around the yard for your birds to use while new plantings mature. Shelter can often be something as simple as a brush pile in a corner of your yard. Whenever you prune your trees, just pile up the branches. Birds, squirrels and other small animals will find it an easy place to hide and also to take shelter from wind, rain and snow.
That’s all there is to it! You have successfully created a wildlife habitat in your own backyard! If would like to have your yard certified as a wildlife sanctuary, there are several organizations you can contact including the National Wildlife Federation.