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Creating Wildlife Habitat in Your Own Backyard
7/6/2018 10:09:18 AM
By Kathy Shelton

As the popularity of wildlife viewing increases, many homeowners are looking for ways to attract more animals to their yards. Landscaping your yard to be more wildlife friendly can be a fun and exciting venture, but it does take some planning.

All habitats need three things: food, water, and cover. Food can be from native trees, shrubs, and plants, or it can be from feeders. Ideally, it would be a mixture of both. Water can be from a natural source such as a pond or stream, or can be provided in a birdbath, or shallow dish. Most wildlife will use the water source for both drinking and bathing. Wildlife needs cover for protection against the weather and predators and to provide nesting areas. Cover can be anything from shrubs, hollow logs, tall grasses, trees, or nest boxes.

One of the best food sources for wildlife comes from native plants. Select plants that provide natural foods, such as leaves, fruits, seeds, nuts, and nectar. To attract the widest range of animals, you want a variety of plants. For example, hummingbirds tend to visit tube-shaped, red flowers, such as native coral honeysuckle and trumpet creeper. Butterflies prefer flat or clustered flowers such as phlox or wild azaleas. You should also plant species that benefit a variety of wildlife. Wild blackberry or dewberry patches will benefit many animals. Songbirds will use the fruits for food and will nest in the branches, while deer will browse on the leaves and twigs. Oak trees will provide acorns for a variety of wildlife.

 

Your water choice should provide a constant, reliable source of water year-round. It can be supplied in something as simple as a birdbath or shallow dish, or you can be more elaborate and create a waterfall or small pond. Building a small pond or water feature in your yard will not only supply water for drinking and bathing but also provide areas for breeding and cover for small fish, insects, amphibians, and reptiles. Whatever you decide on a water source, it must be kept up year-round. If you are in an area where freezing weather occurs, you can purchase thermostatically controlled birdbaths to keep the water from freezing. Be sure and keep your birdbath clean. Dirty birdbaths can help spread disease among wildlife.

When choosing plants for your backyard habitat, you want to consider the different types of cover you can provide. Evergreen trees and shrubs, like magnolias and hollies, will provide year-round cover because they don’t lose their leaves. Low bushes and shrubs will provide ground cover for protection from predators.

 

 

Wax myrtle will provide good nesting and escape cover while providing seeds for songbirds well into winter. Trees may provide shelter for squirrels and raccoons as well as nesting areas for many species of songbirds. Leaving areas of your yard or a nearby field un-mowed will not only provide cover but food for many animals. And don’t forget about dead trees. Leaving a standing dead tree or stump in your yard will provide insects for birds as well as nesting cavities for squirrels, owls, bluebirds, and other cavity-nesting birds.

The key to providing backyard wildlife habitat is variety. Animals need a variety of food sources and cover. Try to create a good mix of trees, shrubs, and smaller plants to provide cover at all levels of your yard. Pick plants that will provide food at different times of the year so there is always something for animals to eat. It is probably a good idea to find a native plant guide to help choose which plants you want to put in your new backyard habitat. One such book is Forest Plants of the Southeast and Their Wildlife Uses by James H. Miller and Karl V. Miller. This book not only lists what wildlife will use certain plants, but also lists the range where the plant is commonly found. This could help with deciding whether a plant is right for your area. In addition, the National Wildlife Federation can certify your backyard as wildlife habitat.

Go to www.nwf.org/backyardwildlifehabitat for more information. By creating backyard habitat, you can enjoy viewing wildlife all year long.

 

DRAWING IN THE WILDLIFE 

BELOW IS A STEP-BY-STEP PLAN ON HOW TO CREATE A PRODUCTIVE AND ATTRACTIVE ENVIRONMENT FOR MANY BACKYARD WILDLIFE SPECIES:

1. Determine the species that you would like to attract:

Because wildlife species have different habitat requirements, your success in attracting wildlife depends on how closely you can incorporate a species’ habitat requirements for food, cover, water, and space into your backyard.

2. Identify existing plants, trees, shrubs in your yard:

Some things to note when making your inventory are the condition of the plants, whether they are evergreen or deciduous, whether they are a valuable wildlife food plant, and how much shade they provide. If you have trouble identifying plants, your local county forester or wildlife biologist can help.

3. Make a sketch of your yard, emphasizing existing plants, buildings, utility lines, pathways, and roads:

This sketch will help with laying out future plants, shrubs, and trees. Once your sketch is done, add valuable wildlife plants to your plan. Pay close attention to which wildlife plants you add, and try to include only those that are native to your area.

Using native vegetation is logical because these plants are adapted to your area’s climate and soil type. Also, native plants typically require less water and maintenance than non-native species. Not all plantings have to be done at once. A gradual process will be less taxing on the pocketbook since you are spreading your costs over a longer time period. After planting, it is important to watch and evaluate growth.

SOME COMMON NATIVE MISSISSIPPI PLANTS BENEFICIAL TO BACKYARD WILDLIFE:

Trees: White Oak, Red Oak, Black Walnut, Hickory, Black Cherry, Dogwood, Hackberry, and Persimmon.

Shrubs: Sumacs, Elderberry, Wild Plum, Chokecherry, Cotoneaster, and Wild Azaleas.

Vines: Wild Grape, American Bittersweet, Virginia Creeper, Trumpet Creeper, Honey-suckles, Blackberry, and Dewberry.

Other plants: Sunflower, Marigolds, Thistles, Asters, Millet, and Milkweed.

Kathy Shelton is a Conservation Resources Management Biologist for MDWFP’s Mississippi Museum of Natural Science.

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