Wildlife Gardening An
by Elizabeth Andrews
When I first thought to write something for the Caretaker
newsletter, I intended to write reviews of a few books on wildlife gardening. But I soon
realized that the content of the books would be of more interest than the strengths and
weaknesses of various authors' presentations. At least, it was for me. So here is a
summary of the principles I have gleaned from the portion of the wildlife gardening
literature I have read.
The Wildlife Gardening Genre:
I have discovered that there are a lot of books and sources of
information available on the subject of how to make your backyard more hospitable to
wildlife. "Wildlife" is one of those vague words that in this case means,
essentially, "more living creatures than just you and the neighbourhood cats."
The bulk of the information is targeted at attracting birds, which isn't surprising, since
more of the public seem to get excited about birds than they do, say, salamanders.
However, there is advice for other creatures, especially butterflies. Luckily, the basic
problems with a typical backyard from the wildlife viewpoint are fairly similar,
regardless of whether you are an oriole, a salamander, or a native mouse. So even a book
focused on just birds is useful.
These books seem to be shelved in the gardening section of bookstores.
Since I never go to the gardening section of bookstores, not wanting to know how to prune
roses, for me their existence was a pleasant surprise. Book sections of garden stores and
a nearby arboretum gift shop have been fairly rewarding, as has an aptly named local
store, "The Birdfeeder." Generally, I find a few books at each such place. Even
in my extremely liberal, nature-oriented town (Santa Cruz, California) wildlife gardening
is apparently not a hot topic. I found almost nothing in the public library.
For specialized information, I am learning it may be best to locate the
particular non-profit organization concerned with the cause. I wrote to Bat Conservation
International and received a bunch of helpful information about attracting bats and bat
houses which I lent to Walter Muma, Editor, before I had a chance to read it. I just got
an advertisement from the North American Butterfly Association who apparently puts out a
newsletter on butterfly gardening. If you contact such organizations, please be willing to
make a contribution in return for their publications they are doing excellent work
and deserve our support. And as we all know, putting out publications takes time and
money. I am planning to contact more of these organizations, so hopefully I will be able
to give you more useful information in future newsletters.
Personal Wildlife Gardening Experiences:
What started me on my quest to learn how to make our yard more inviting was a
conversation with a couple living in the archetype of suburbia houses with
monotonous lawns, rarely broken with stiffly pruned shrubs and a few shade trees. They
told my fiancée and I about their yard. They had attracted birds, snakes, frogs,
butterflies, dragonflies, even vultures and herons. And yet their yard looked, though more
interesting, just as tidy and well-manicured as their neighbours. In addition, although
their entire yard was probably less than one quarter acre, they had raised almost all of
their vegetables for the year.
My only personal experience with wildlife gardening has been a single
flower bed which I recently dug up and replanted. Prior to my work it had been entirely
overrun with ferns and cana lilies, neither of which seemed to be serving much more than
daddy-long-legs and themselves. I planted it to plants which are supposed to attract
butterflies and hummingbirds. I was very impressed with the results. Before I even got
some of the plants in the ground there were butterflies on them. "This," I
thought, "is the perfect caretaking job for the impatient westerner like me." I
also now see hummingbirds daily where I never used to see any.
What follows is a summary of the advice from my reading, with my own
thoughts about how it conforms to Tom's teaching. I am definitely not speaking from
extensive personal experience.
Planning and Observation:
The first thing all the books stress, which is the first thing that Tom
stresses, is observation of what is already there. Awareness, observation, sign and soil
tracking, and dirt time will save you from making some basic mistakes. For example, you
don't want to take out some feature that wildlife are already extensively
as a brush pile, a leaky faucet, or a bramble heap. It is best to observe any major
feature for an entire year, including varying weather and times of day, before making the
decision to remove it.
Don't assume that because you know a plant is not native that it is not
valuable to wildlife. Monarch butterflies in my area, for example, preferentially
over-winter in eucalyptus trees (from Australia). And the non-native blackberries which
overrun parts of my town are extensively used for food and shelter by many species of
birds and mammals, thus attracting the usual collection of predators. We took out one such
heap and lost some resident sparrows, in a rather heartbreaking incident of trying to oust
non-native plants. Also don't assume that all natives are beneficial in the quantity or
location in which they are present.
The books and Tom firmly agree that mapping is an invaluable tool to
help you assess what you have, what you want to keep and not keep, and what you want to
add. Even if you never physically draw a map, I have found that walking around the yard
imagining mapping it is extremely enlightening. Remember Tom's mapping lessons and include
a spiritual component to your observations. Also remember to visualize yourself as many
different types of animals - earthworm, grasshopper, robin, salamander, lizard, snake,
mouse, fox, raccoon, shrew, hawk, bat, hummingbird. Imagine living your whole life in your
backyard, or passing through it as part of your regular territory, or coming through once
on a migration path.
Remember to expand your maps to include the bigger picture. Use your
scout skills to sneak through your neighbours' backyards, or use it as an excuse to get to
know your neighbours and do it legitimately. As one book put it, "It will be much
easier and more effective to enhance the overall environment that already exists than to
create an entirely different type of environment." While you are wandering around,
take keen notice of what plants, flowers, trees, bushes, your neighbours have that
wildlife seems to favour. Do you always see mourning doves down the street but never at
your house? Why? If you are interested in attracting something that doesn't now occur in
your yard, are there nearby areas from which it might migrate in, or will you need to
import it yourself?
Baiting a tracking box is certainly a good way to learn what lives in
your area. Peanut butter and apples is a good all-purpose bait. You might also set small
animal live traps (have-a-heart traps) to trap and release rodents for the same reason. If
you set live traps, set them in the late afternoon and check them in the early morning.
Include enough bait food in the trap to give them plenty to eat, and include some bedding
material. Don't live trap in very cold weather. Never forget to check your traps!
Of the three basic essentials - food, water, shelter, (which the books and
Tom also agree on,) - water is the one typical backyards most severely lack. If your
backyard is like most, make water one of your first priorities. To be wildlife friendly,
water sources need to have gradual, shallow edges with lots of little islands and rough
non-slippery bottoms. The water itself ideally should not have chlorine (let it sit out
over night after being run from the tap) or pesticides (don't use them and pray your
neighbours don't either). However, a leaky faucet or hose is a great way to create a water
source, and animals seem to like it even if it has chlorine. I saw a leaky faucet in
Florida which consistently attracted frogs, salamanders, insects, and lizards, even though
the faucet was in the middle of a swamp!
Traditional pedestal-style bird baths are great for birds on two
conditions. 1. They are placed somewhat in the open, for good visibility, but with good
cover (like a dense bush) nearby. Wet birds don't fly well, and they know it. I have put a
bird bath out with no cover nearby (I was planning on planting a bush), and not one bird
has come to it. 2. If you get a lot of birds coming, clean your baths regularly because
they can harbour and spread diseases.
Pedestal bird baths are obviously not any help to ground dwelling
animals, so consider installing a similar bath right into the ground, also near good
cover. Remember the importance of shallow sloping sides, and some rock islands. Birds will
come to ground baths too, though they run more of a risk from predators such as cats.
If you have a naturally wet place or seep on your property you can
encourage it to become a marshy spot or pond. Many times these areas are hampered from
being what they were meant to be by attempts to drain them. By removing these drainage
devices you can save yourself the work of creating artificial ponds.
If you are really into pond, bog, or marsh creation you can go all out
and install a larger pond, which requires a liner, perhaps a circulating pump, a lot of
planning and digging, and more information than I can give you here. However, it is a
well-understood process with lots of excellent, detailed information available from many
sources. If you do install a pond, please give some serious thought to stocking it with
native frogs and not goldfish. Many amphibian species are having a hard time world-wide
and could very much use our help. Most frogs prefer sunny ponds, but nearby vegetation and
shallow edges are still important. Larger ponds also attract herons, snakes, dragonflies,
other insects, raccoons, etc. In suburban areas well-planned ponds tend to become a magnet
for wildlife. Think about locating your pond so that you can see it from a window,
especially if you spend a lot of your life inside.
One way you can increase the use of any water source is by including
the sound of dripping or running water. Allowing a full bucket or faucet to drip into a
bird bath, or including a small waterfall, fountain, or stream as part of your pond will
allow local animals to find the water faster and make migrating animals more likely to
find it at all.
There are typically five backyard zones where wildlife live and forage - soil
and underground, lawns, taller grasses and flowers, shrubs and vertical vines, and trees.
What follows are some suggestions for improving each of these zones for wildlife.
One important guideline for all zones is to avoid using any pesticides
or herbicides. It helps not to get too attached to any individual plant. If some species
is irresistibly yummy to snails or whatever, give up and plant something else.
"Pests" are food sources to something else, and poisoning them also poisons
whatever eats them. If you really are having a problem and working around it is not
satisfactory, seek some of the non-chemical control options that are detailed in many
gardening references. Some of these are quite clever. Many consist of encouraging natural
predation, turning yourself into a predator, or creating physical barriers.
Chemical fertilizers are definitely not as bad as chemical pesticides,
although some people say it is important to use milder, natural fertilizer. Avoid
over-fertilizing with strong chemical fertilizers; they are salts and can harm sensitive
critters and sometimes even the plants.
- Soil: Allow leaves to accumulate and decay in some areas, especially
moist shady areas. This is very helpful for amphibians such as salamanders, as well as
providing good places for skunks and shrews to forage for insects. Use mulch to cover bare
soil, if you have any, so that it will not dry out, grow too many "weeds", or
blow away. Start a compost heap and use your compost to enhance areas with poor soil. If
you know nothing about composting talk to someone who does or read about it. You can tell
your compost heap is healthy when it is filled with many species of bugs and worms,
including carnivorous bugs like centipedes.
- Lawns: In my opinion there is no such thing as a weed in a lawn,
except possibly something so "stickery" that I can't stand to walk barefoot on
it. Anything that grows is fair game. Allowing broad leaf plants such as clover,
dandelions, and daisies to grow undisturbed greatly increases the wildlife value of lawn.
We have had oregano growing happily in our lawn for twenty years, which is an impressively
easy way to grow an herb. It is also beneficial to use a high lawn mower setting so that
your lawn stays as tall as possible.
Lawns are good for kids and picnics and lying around and
bowdrill and lots of stuff. But most of us have much more lawn than we use for those
purposes. Give some serious thought to how much lawn you really use (observe yourself) and
consider turning the rest over to other types of vegetation or uses. Suburban wildlife are
definitely not suffering from a shortage of lawn environments.
- Taller Grasses and Flowers: Patches of less manicured, taller
flowers and grasses are enormously valuable to all kinds of wildlife. Even a clump as
small as one square foot will typically contain insects, seeds, and shelter not otherwise
available. Flower beds are great opportunities to cultivate native wildflowers; seeds can
be obtained from commercial wildflower seed mixes or from abundant local sources. (Don't
take seeds from rare flowers.) If you have a flower bed that gets a lot of sun, consider
including flowers that are particularly attractive to butterflies or native bees.
Night-flowering plants often are nectar sources for moths. Don't forget to include the
specific plants caterpillars eat, so that butterflies and moths can complete their life
cycle. In my area, native grasses are almost extinct, but I hope to include some in my
next project, purchased from a local nursery that specializes in natives. Remember that
the more insects, caterpillars, spiders, etc. you attract, the more food you are providing
for other animals. Also try to include plants that produce abundant, desirable seed, and
allow them to go to seed. Leave some dead flowers to go to seed, both for the wildlife,
and to have flowers next year.
- Shrubs and Vertical Vines: Tom has a delightful sketch in his Field
Guide to the Forgotten Wilderness about the micro-world inside and under hedges. All
kinds of things find shelter and food there, even when the outside of the hedge appears as
neat and trimmed as any neighbour could want. Encourage hedges to remain dense all the way
to the ground.
If planting new shrubs, select species which will serve multiple
purposes: for example, a dense shrub that provides good shelter, but also blooms and
attracts pollinators, then produces berries attractive to birds (there are, in fact, many
such shrubs). Plants with thorns make particularly good shelter. If you have a long line
of hedge, include many species. You can also create a somewhat natural thicket by
stringing a wire between two posts over originally empty ground. Birds landing on the wire
will "plant" seeds from their favourite edible berries, and you will soon have a
diverse and valuable thicket. Keep it pruned to an appropriate size for your space.
If it will not cause structural damage, allow posts, railings, fences,
and walls to become covered in vines. Again, select vines for their food and shelter
- Trees: Tall, developed trees are an enormous asset to a yard. Be
hesitant to remove any which are already there. Rely heavily on your observation and
spiritual skills before making such a decision. If you do decide to remove a tree, explain
to it why you are doing so and how other plants and animals will benefit by its loss.
Also, consider killing the tree but leaving it standing. This can be done by girdling it
(removing a band of outer and inner bark all the way around the base, thus destroying
nutrient flow) or driving copper nails into the base (giving the tree copper poisoning).
The resulting snag will provide rotting wood which attracts many insects and other
creatures, and if it is large enough may provide nest sites for cavity nesters. If it is
not safe or possible to leave the snag standing, it still has considerable wildlife value
as a rotting log on the ground. Even small chunks of rotting log or tree stumps provide
homes for insects and salamanders.
When planting new trees take the time to do some research. Ideally your
yard should have both conifers and broad leaf trees, as they serve very different purposes
for wildlife. Decide what size tree is appropriate, whether it is important whether it
grows fast or slow, what limiting conditions are present (sun/shade, dry/wet, soil type,
etc.), and what wildlife functions your yard or neighbourhood lacks. Like shrubs, seek
trees which serve many purposes. They could provide food for adult or larval butterflies,
seeds, nuts, berries, or fruit for you and/or the animals, etc. Look around your
neighbourhood for trees that always seem to have birds in them. Often trees whose leaves
always have holes in them from being chewed on are the most attractive to wildlife, since
they are filled with insects. Trees whose leaves are always in perfect condition tend to
please people, but not animals.
When reasonable, leave dead limbs in trees. Birds like perches with
good visibility, and leaves obscure their view. Furthermore, dead limbs attract lichens,
fungi, and insects that often do not live on live limbs.
Wildlife likes edges and
transitions. As you are planning and enhancing these zones, think about improving
transition areas. Break up large lawns with flower beds or shrubs. Allow grass to grow
tall at the base of a tree, or plant a bush. Try to design your yard so that good cover is
near as much of it as possible, while still maintaining open areas for sun and visibility.
At his Tracker School Tom Brown Jr teaches about making a mouse shelter, and shelters for larger animals.
There are also numerous other types of shelters which can be made for various animals.
Bird houses can be built for a variety of cavity nesting birds, from
small song birds to large owls. All bird houses should have small drainage holes in the
floor, ventilation holes near the top, a roof which over hangs the entrance hole, and a
hinged panel for cleaning. Placing a metal plate over the entrance hole prevents squirrels
from enlarging it, and using a hole through a thick (1 1/2 inch) block makes it more
difficult for raccoons to steal eggs. An entrance hole less 1 1/2 inches in diameter deters
European starlings, while a perch near the entrance hole encourages house sparrows and
starlings, and does not enhance the box for native species. If possible, construct nest
boxes out of natural rough materials, such as rough-cut aged cedar or old fence boards.
Avoid plastic, metal, wood stains, and most paints. If mice, bees, or wasps move in you
can remove them, but I suggest leaving them and building additional boxes for birds.
Locating your nest box correctly is at least as important as constructing it. Different
species have different requirements, but in all cases the entrance hole should have fairly
good visibility and face away from prevailing weather and excessive sun.
It is also possible to build boxes specifically for bats, bumblebees,
raccoons, mice, and squirrels. Research their specifications, or write to me for what
information I have.
A versatile ground shelter can be made from four pipes leading into an
overturned box or bucket. Once assembled, vines or other plants can be encouraged to grow
over it. Such shelters are utilized by animals from toads to chipmunks.
Many animals will utilize piles of stones, logs, or brush. Brush piles
can be made tepee style, and vines, either native or agricultural (beans, squash) can be
encouraged to grow over. Adding conifer boughs provides more shelter. Stone piles can take
the more decorative form of a loose stone wall, which is valuable for many small
creatures. Deliberately incorporate nooks, hollows, and entrances into your construction.
Consider including some form of the ground shelter described above at the base any type of
Don't forget to spiritually empower any shelter or nest box you create
like we learned in class. Seek spiritual guidance in its placement as well.
Creating Food Sources:
You can, of course, directly feed wildlife. Whether feeding is appropriate
depends on you. If you feed animals, be responsible. Don't go on vacation and stop feeding
in the middle of winter. Make sure the food is clean, sound, and not a vector for disease
(especially important in hummingbird feeders). Personally, I would rather focus my efforts
on enhancing the food value of the yard than directly feeding.
There are two major issues to providing food: variety and timing. The
major sources of food in a yard are: nectar, leaves, seeds, berries, fruits, nuts, and
small invertebrates. Other sources of food include small vertebrates, birds, carrion, and
water creatures like fish, crayfish, and water bugs. Obviously these lists are not
complete, but can be useful. Does your yard contain a variety of good nectar plants for
various kinds of pollinators? Is it short of nut-bearing trees? Also think about timing.
Are there hummingbird flowers available through the entire season in which hummingbirds
are in the area? Is there an abundance of berries at one season but none before or after?
Thinking species by species, try to provide a variety of appropriate foods year round. A
few books have extremely helpful sections on the seasons that different plants blossom,
fruit, etc. Also, use your field guides to learn what different species eat at different
times of year.
Keep a notebook and record what food sources are present in your yard
at what times of year, and what animals utilize them. This will be enormously helpful in
deciding what you need to augment or introduce.
In the end, after all the reading, observation, planning, and information
gathering, it is time to do. I suggest you work along on the doing part as you are still
planning. Some needs are obvious, easily addressed, and don't require a lot of fretting
over whether you are really doing the right thing. Start with those, whether it is
installing a birdbath or changing your lawn mower setting. Don't allow yourself to get too
perfectionist. I believe that a humble attitude and earnest desire to serve and learn from
the land will go a long way.
If you don't have any land of your own, start caretaking a vacant lot.
Or go to houses where it is obvious no one cares about the yard and ask permission to
garden. The worst that happens is they say no. Or get involved, legitimately or not, in
caretaking a park.
But do. Take action. Try something. A frog can't live in the idea
of a pond.