certified wildlife habitat

Certified Backyard Wildlife Habitat sign

According to the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), May is Garden for Wildlife month.  At least in southern Nevada, we’ve been lucky this year to have a lingering spring, so it is still possible to do some gardening in May.  If you certify your yard as a Backyard Wildlife Habitat, NWF will give you a membership and will plant a tree in your name.

So where do you start?  Most of us would like to see some wildlife in our yards, but what kinds and how do you attract them?  Usually when planning a “wildlife” garden, we talk about birds, butterflies and bees.  Of course it wouldn’t hurt to see a lizard or two.  Beyond that, we have to take into consideration the food chain and bear in mind that attracting small prey animals could possibly also attract their predators.

First we need to know what all wildlife needs:  food, water, shelter, and space.  This is what makes up habitat.  NWF refers to these elements of habitat:  food, water, shelter and places to raise young.   Food, of course, is the plant, insect, or other material that our flying friends will eat.  Food can be provided through landscaping or through supplemental feeding.  Water, especially in the desert, has to be provided.  Shelter, or cover, is often sparse in the desert as well, and the best way to provide it is through landscaping.  Space is also needed to provide air to breathe, as well as places to roam, escape and play.  Think of your own kids and what they need.

Once we know what’s needed, there are then four basic steps to creating your backyard habitat:

1)     Take stock

2)     Research

3)     Create

4)     Certify

Start with what you have.  Do you already have a good amount of shrubbery or trees for the animals to find cover?  How many plants do you have that wildlife can feed off of?  Do you have feeders?  Is there a water feature in your yard?  Is your yard crowded with landscaping and structures, or does it offer some openness for avian travel?  Make a list of what you want to keep.

Next step:  research!  Not every backyard wildlife habitat will be the same.  You’ll need to find out what animal species are yard-friendly in your area, and also what plants they prefer.  Research what their nesting habits and territory requirements are.  The NWF backyard habitat web pages have a lot of great information for designing the habitat, while other websites give detailed information on wildlife-friendly plants.  Remember that avian visitors will most likely use plants that they are already adapted to.

Grevillea flower

Hummingbirds prefer this tubular Grevillea flower

Many southwestern native plants are very attractive to birds, butterflies, and bees.  Brightly colored flowers are a good bet for attracting most of these.  Hummingbirds prefer red, orange, and purple flowers with a tubular shape for them to sip nectar from while hovering.  Butterflies prefer a round, disk-shaped flower head that provides multiple flowers to feed from as well as a necessary landing pad.  Their favorite colors are red, yellow, orange, pink and purple, as opposed to some pest moth species, which keep to flowers with duller colors.  Bees look for blue, purple and yellow flowers with pollen readily available, although some bees can climb into flowers that have closed petals.  It’s important that we encourage our native bees.

butterfly on butterfly flower

A painted lady butterfly sips from Scabiosa

Make a plan for how you would like your backyard habitat to look.  Here’s the time when you’ll need to consider budgets, how much space you have, and the time of year (important when selecting and installing plants).  Be sure to consider how your wild visitors will get to each habitat element that they need.  The landscape should incorporate “flow” and limit barriers to wildlife movement.  Ready?  Create!

Can it all be done with landscaping?  Most of it can, but you may also wish to include some supplemental items to encourage visitors.  Bird feeders are an accepted method of drawing birds in, just be aware of what the mix you are using might attract.  Thistle feeders limit the species of birds to mostly finches.  However, ground feeders like doves and pigeons will likely come in to feed off the spill.  If you don’t want those species, a good rule of thumb is to keep the area underneath the feeder clean.

What about providing a brush pile for wildlife to hide in?  Although many species may use brush piles for cover, they are probably not the species that you want in your yard.  Snakes and rodents have an affinity for these places.  Some large rocks in the landscape, however, can provide shelter for friendly lizards.

As for other nesting subsidies, it’s pretty much accepted to put out bits of materials that songbirds can use for nesting, such as lint, dog hair, cocoa fiber.

verdin's nest

A verdin’s nest

Do you actually have to provide a house for your visitors to live in?  Bird houses are not widely used in the desert, as they are in other parts of the country.  Many of our bird species are used to nesting in trees and shrubs.  So the cute bird houses that you put in your yard may end up being just a decoration.  This is often true with the different kinds of bug houses that you can buy.  Butterfly houses and ladybug houses usually sit empty.  It’s better to provide the plant material that these beneficial insects need, in which case you will be guaranteed visitors.  One exception is a bee box designed for solitary bees.  Many native bees that do not make honeycombs will utilize these structures.

Ever heard of a toad abode?  Great idea, but unless you live next to a wash or a pond, you probably won’t see frogs or toads in your desert landscape.  The Pacific chorus frog is one species that has been seen in Las Vegas neighborhoods.

Nevada Department of Wildlife biologists agree that bat boxes just don’t work that well in attracting these voracious devourers of the more pesky bugs.  With 23 species of bats in Nevada, chances are they are already around your neighborhood.  You may or may not want to see them.  If you do, check out tall lighting installations in the evening, like those at baseball fields.

The big question in all of this is how to keep the backyard wildlife habitat safe.  It’s difficult to attract only certain species, but there are things that can be done to make the landscape less inviting to nuisance wildlife such as rodents, waterfowl and predators.  General rules of thumb are to avoid feeding pets outside, clean up bird-feeding areas, keep vegetation trimmed and tidy, and keep garbage cans covered.  While some wildlife enthusiasts advocate for some “mess” in the yard to keep it natural-looking, it really has to do with what individuals are comfortable with.  If you’re ok with the occasional mouse in your yard, then cleanup won’t be as important.  If even roaches outside are unacceptable, your landscape maintenance will require more work.  Each of us has a personal tolerance level for different species that might show up in our habitat.  Nevertheless, all of us need to acknowledge the existence of the food chain.  Attracting birds may tempt the neighborhood cat along with some more “wild” predators.  Allowing rodents, rabbits, or ducks may draw in foxes or coyotes.  Finally, leaving small pets outside unattended or having a running fountain may prove an irresistible temptation for bobcats on the edge of town.  Get information from your local wildlife agency to familiarize yourself with any problems in your area.

Ok, so now you have everything you need to make your yard wildlife-friendly.  Once you see the desired visitors stopping by, you know you have succeeded.  This is the time to get certified.  Certification can be done online at www.nwf.org.  The application process is fairly easy – they will ask you for a list of plants that you have, and what other features you have that provide water and shelter.  They will also ask you if you are using sustainable gardening practices, which refers to keeping your landscape healthy and safe.  If you meet all the requirements, NWF will send you a certificate for your habitat, whether it is a backyard, an apartment balcony, a school, church, or park.  You can then order a sign that will tell all your neighbors that your place is wildlife-friendly.  But the best part is when you and your kids get to observe the natural residents of your neighborhood.

Note:  If your local garden center doesn’t carry the plants you’re looking for, try these mail order nurseries: