Creating a backyard Wildlife Habitat

>> Saturday, February 16, 2008

One of the reasons I like to garden is, of course, growing my own food. I also have a love of nature that I share with all gardeners. A couple of years ago I was finally able to begin my dream of building a perennial garden that would also provide a habitat for the wildlife that our ever expanding urban-crawl is displacing.

Of course, one of the first wildlife that comes to mind, and goes hand in hand with any garden setting, is birds.

The week of February 24 through March 2 has been designated as Homes for Birds Week®. This event sponsored by The Birding Consultant Group is held each year to encourage people to clean out and fix up their existing bird house as well as put up new homes for wild birds.

Moving into an older community with established trees has helped get my dream started because of the large population of birds already here.

Even if you don’t have large established trees in your neighborhood, erecting a post to attach a bird feeder to will bring birds. You can also attach a device to hang a birdfeeder from a fence, your house or shed or your deck or patio. Hanging a bird feeder is the single most important thing anyone can do to help maintain a bird population in your area. Yes, apartment dwellers can do it too. If you can’t attach a feeder to your building then place one in a nearby tree and take it upon yourself to keep it filled. Get your neighbors involved and ask for their help in sharing in the cost and cleanup. Keep in mind that feeders need to be cleaned once a month (every two weeks is better) to prevent the spread of fungus such as Aspergillus fumigatus, a fungus which causes respiratory infections in birds. Hummingbird feeders need to be cleaned every four days.

Here is a nontoxic solution and technique to make this chore easier and safe for the birds.
If you have more than a couple of feeders, cleaning them on a rotating schedule will prevent having to clean them all at once – a potentially burdensome task.
Obtain a tub big enough to hold your birdfeeder(s), a scrub brush, outdoor hose, gloves, scent-free liquid soap or detergent, and white distilled vinegar.
Place your feeder in the tub outdoors, fill it with warm water and a squirt of liquid soap or detergent. Wearing gloves, scrub the parts of the feeder you can reach, and rinse thoroughly with a hose. Empty the tub and fill it with clean water and 4 cups of vinegar. Let the feeder soak for 1 hour. Rinse thoroughly.
Note: vinegar is considered a non-selective, contact herbicide. Therefore, don’t get it on grass or plants you don’t want to kill. It only affects parts of the plant it actually touches so it is unlikely the roots will be affected.

Another important consideration for wildlife is to provide a source of water. A small pond, a bird bath, or even a shallow pan of water are much appreciated. As you can see here size doesn't really matter. Butterflies, bees and other insects that don’t drink directly from standing water would benefit from wet sand. I created a dam in one of my birdbaths to hold sand just for this purpose. Just keep it wet and these insects can drink from that.

Shelter and cover are also essential. I know this is just nature at work, but it is not a pretty sight! All wildlife need somewhere to hide from predators and to nestle down at night. If there are large trees in your neighborhood that already provide this shelter for birds then you don’t need to necessarily plant them in your yard. Shrubs are small enough that you can add these to your yard without too much sacrifice to open areas. Birds get very territorial in spring and summer in their search for nesting places so it is best they have multiple sources of cover. They especially like evergreens, hollies and pines.

Insect populations, as well as amphibians, like rocks and logs.

Add a toad house to your garden. OK, so not everyone finds toads beautiful, however, a single toad can eat about 110 beetles, ants, June bugs, grasshoppers, slugs, moths, sowbugs, armyworms and other bugs every day. That's around 3,000 every month! Toads are most active at night, so during the day they need a fairly dark, cool place to hide from the sun and predators. Encourage these bug-hungry hunters to have a nice long stay in your garden by providing these adorable toad houses. Place in a moist, shady area in your garden and before long you'll have a new neighbor.

You can make a toad shelter by creating a shallow depression in loose soil under ferns, shrubs or flowers and arranging flat stones for the sides and roof. Make the inside area about 6-8 inches high. Also, you can punch a hole in an 8-inch flower pot, invert it narrow side up and place in shaded and moist garden site. Or, simply prop the pot up like in this photo.

Butterfly houses are easy to build. Here’s a simple, fairly easy plan. Butterflies add a beautiful, graceful dimension to any garden or wildlife area.

A bat house would make an interesting addition to any garden, as well as a conversation piece. Believe it not, bats can eat up to 300 hundred bugs an hour! These bugs include mosquitoes, moths, locus, grasshoppers, etc. Such bugs can destroy crops and spread disease. American farmer's biggest pest is the Corn earworm moth.

One bat can eat 20 female moths a night reducing the number of crop eating caterpillars. Bat Conservation International, Inc has a website that provides all the necessary details and dimensions for building a bat house. Kids especially would love this. And aren’t they just lovely creatures? How many people do you know have a bat house in their yard?

Here are some great tips form Claire Hagen Dole of the Brooklyn Botanical Garden:
Fall cleanup often triggers us to cleanup the garden in preparation for spring, but in doing so we are removing important food and nesting materials for birds and insects. Spent perennials like purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) and globe thistle (Echinops sphaerocephalus) provide seeds that will be picked over by finches and sparrows long into the winter months. The downy fluff of common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) provides nesting material in early spring. Examine plant leaves and stalks carefully for tiny butterfly larvae, such as that of the Pearl Crescent, which favors aster leaves. If you find any, leave them alone until fresh spring growth lures them off the old plant.

Goldenrods (Solidago species) host the larvae of goldenrod gallflies—tiny insects responsible for the galls on the plant stalk—as well as the wasp larvae that parasitize them. In winter, downy woodpeckers and chickadees tear open the galls, seeking an insect meal. Juncos forage for goldenrod seeds on the ground.

In the vegetable garden, let broccoli, carrots, mustard, fennel, and parsley go to seed to attract finches and chickadees. Leave a few cornstalks standing to shelter foraging birds and field mice.

If you have a lawn, allow a section of grass to remain unmowed as a safe corridor for frogs, snakes, mice, and insects. In winter, birds will search the grass for seeds and an insect meal, such as the hibernating larvae of satyr butterflies.

If you are serious about getting your backyard recognized as a natural habitat by other than the direct benefactors, wildlife itself, the National Wildlife Fund has a certification program you can strive for.

Even spiders have a place in the garden. Of course they can make their own homes wherever they go.

For more information on:
Bats see Organization for Bat Conservation
Toad houses
All About Frogs and Toads
Butterfly shelter
Attracting butterflies


Anonymous February 18, 2008 at 8:01 PM  

That was all wonderful information. I enjoyed the pictures and your way of explaining things. One of the things on my list this year is a toad house. I will be moving to a new home that has some springs close by. I would assume this will be frog heaven. It was great to read your post. Happy Gardening.

Carolyn gail February 19, 2008 at 4:32 AM  

First visit to your blog. Awesome post on wildlife. Keep up the good work.

Greg W February 20, 2008 at 5:11 AM  

Thank you for your kind words flowergardengirl. A spring is is a wonderful place to find amphibians and other interesting wildlife. Good luck with your new home and garden.
Happy Gardening to you.

Greg W February 20, 2008 at 5:12 AM  

Welcome Carolyn, thank you for the encouragement. Hope to hear from you again.

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