Your own back yard probably isn't what comes to mind when you think of a wildlife sanctuary. But wildlife is feeling the squeeze everywhere. Your patch can make a difference.
Habitat is the technical name for any area that provides an animal with food, water, shelter and a place to raise its young. By keeping these basics in mind when you plant your garden, you can make your yard habitat to a host of species.
Not all wild animal species are appropriate in residential areas, however. Your neighbors won't appreciate it if you encourage urban pests such as raccoons and possums. These animals turn over garbage cans, roll up sod and can carry diseases such as salmonella and rabies. Keep pet food indoors and put tight-fitting lids on your trash cans. Your neighbors will welcome songbirds and butterflies.
Today I'll provide enough information to get you started. A good nursery can advise you on plants likely to attract the critters you'd like. Next week, I'll list the best resources I know, and perhaps you'll be inspired to do a little research.
If you have the space, consider planting a few additional trees and shrubs. Choose varieties that are native, or at least hardy in your region. Flowering trees attract insects, which attract birds. Acorns, nuts, berries, buds, catkins, fruit, nectar and seeds also attract birds. Tree branches and leaves provide shelter.
Create one or more clumps of layered vegetation -- that is, a tree, several tall shrubs, some shorter ones, some wildflowers and some ground cover. Animals like this varied, vertical habitat, which is similar to the natural arrangement found at the edge of a forest.
If you have a dead tree on your property, consider letting it stand. Or, if it's threatening to squash your neighbor's garage in the next gale, trim it judiciously. Partially hollowed dead trees are the natural nesting sites of dozens of birds. They also attract insects. This is good -- put away that insect spray.
Add a birdbath. Place it near cover but not so near that a cat could leap from the shrub onto your unsuspecting bathing beauties. If you have the space, consider digging a tiny
pond. A good garden store can advise you on this.
Build or buy a couple of bird houses. Hang boxes that exclude starlings and sparrows and other non-native species that are already crowding our less hardy natives out of existence.
For the same reason, cover any openings under the eaves or other places around your house where sparrows and starlings might nest.
Set out a variety of bird feeders in the winter. One feeder for millet, another for sunflower seeds, and another for suet can help support a wide variety of birds. Set them near a window, where you can watch from indoors, and you may eventually attract some fairly uncommon birds. Keep a field guide handy.
If you live in an apartment and have windows that open, setting out bird feeders can be a wonderful thing to do. Add a window box with wildflowers, a saucer of water and a nesting box.
Keep your cat indoors. The Humane Society will be happy to tell you why this will greatly increase Puss' longevity. It will also increase the longevity of the birds you are working so hard to attract.
Now, pesticides. I have been saving this tip for next-to-last in the hope that you'll be so charmed by the vision of your back-yard sanctuary, you won't mind kicking the habit. Pesticides kill animals.
If you like to make things official, you can register your yard as a certified back-yard sanctuary. Many state departments of wildlife have such programs. Two national groups also keep registers of official back-yard sanctuaries. These are the National Wildlife Federation, 1400 Sixteenth St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20036-2266, and the Institute for Urban Wildlife, 10921 Trotting Ridge Way, Columbia, Md. 21044. Once registered, you will receive a small plaque to post on your property.