How to Make Wildlife Friendly Backyard Landscapes, Part 1

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When I’m not a bumbling, fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants homesteader, I earn my living as a wildlife biologist (About Page). A big motivation for wanting some land of my own was to be a good nature steward. I want the wildlife to feel as welcome as I am at Keeper’s Croft.

Over the years, I have taught many courses on how to make wildlife friendly backyard landscapes but up until now I’ve only had a tiny, shady, urban yard to play with. I have the opportunity to work on a much larger landscape at the Croft. There have already been so many thrilling wildlife observations!

I’m going to share what I know in a series of posts about creating a welcoming landscape for wildlife. This post will be a basic introduction and overview. I plan to focus other posts on particular groups (ex. birds or pollinators) and will get into more detail in those posts.

An Introduction to Landscaping for Wildlife

The Three, No Four Basic Needs of Wildlife

Why the stutter? The fourth need that is often bandied about is a little hard to wrap one’s head around but I do think it’s important to mention. The first three needs you likely already know or can guess because they are the three most basic needs of humans as well: Food, Water and Shelter. The enigmatic fourth? Space.

Food

Food can be provided naturally or artificially. I prefer to try and provide food in natural ways because that means I get to play with plants:). When planning a nutrient rich landscape, it helps to envision the food web you learned back in biology class. There are the (1) producers, aka plants (mostly),(2) primary consumers, aka things that eat the plants, (3) secondary consumers, aka things that eat the things that eat the plants, (4) tertiary consumers, aka the things that eat, the things that eat, the things… well, you get it. Real world example: grasshopper eats black-eyed susan, bluebird eats grasshopper, cooper’s hawk eats bluebird.

Natural Food – Blackberries

Point is that plants are the foundation and by supporting healthy, diverse and abundant plant life, you are supporting the whole system! If you plant black-eyed susans, you could have grasshoppers, bluebirds and a cooper’s hawk on your property as long as their other needs are met as well. So focus on providing abundant and varied plant life and you are most of the way there. You can than tweak it and get specific if you are hoping to support x,y, and z species on your property. For example, to support Monarch Butterflies be sure to include a milkweed in your planting plans.

Monarch Caterpillar on Swamp Milkweed

What does providing food artificially look like? The most common example are bird feeders! Ideally, your property would provide enough food naturally that birds would not NEED the feeders. But being able to observe these feathery jewels up close is a blessing. Just be careful, with whoever your feeding, to spread feeders out so as not to concentrate the animals too unnaturally.

Water

Like food, water can also be provided artificially and more naturally. Unless you are lucky enough to have a naturally occurring stream or pond on your property, most water will be in some way created by humans hands.

An ephemeral (it dries up) pond at Keeper’s Croft

A basin of water like a bird bath is the simplest and least sophisticated way to provide water. Add a water agitator (not particularly recommending this one – search and choose what will work for you) and that will make it even more attractive to birds, who like moving water. Placing some stones in the basin to create shallow spots provides a place for insects, like bees, to get water. A heating element in the winter keeps the water open during freezing temps. In that way, a simple basin can fulfill many water needs.

If you’ve got some money or a strong back, one of the most beneficial and creative things you could do is build a water feature. I have dreams of one that could double as a dog wading pool, ha, ha. Creating something with a flowing stream into a pool would serve the needs of many kinds of wildlife – birds, amphibians, dragonflies to name a few. Be sure to include some aquatic plants and provide shelter around the edges!

Shelter

Shelter is anything that will protect animals from predation or the elements. A brush pile is shelter to snakes, insects and rodents. An evergreen tree makes fantastic year round cover. A snag (or dead standing tree) or fruit-bearing shrub (like serviceberry) provides both shelter AND food. And of course nest boxes for birds and bat boxes for bats are artificial means of providing shelter. Heck, we’ve had more than one report of old rusted out BBQ grills left outside being used as nesting shelters for southern flying squirrels!

Snag tree with Woodpecker hole at Keeper’s Croft

The strategy with shelter is to provide a variety and pay attention to where it is installed. For example, providing shelter in close vicinity to water and food helps animals to use those resources more safely. If space is limited, it is also smart to think about those elements that provide both food AND shelter, like fruiting shrubs and some evergreen trees among others.

Space

This concept is two-fold. It’s about giving animals enough space from each other but also being respectful and giving them enough space from us. Wildlife should be allowed to do their thing without any interference from the most intrusive of mammals, aka humans.

Providing space is really something you should consider at the outset. For example if you have a smaller area you may only be able to support one pair of bluebirds so don’t try to put up and fill four bluebird nest boxes. However, at the same time, your small space could support a great number of pollinators so be sure to include plenty of pollinator habitat in your plans!

Providing for Diversity

Within the main three basic needs you can also start thinking about diversity. There are a few different kinds of diversity that you can provide which in turn will support a diverse array of wildlife: plant diversity, shape diversity and structural diversity.

Plant Diversity

Planting a variety of different plants will in turn support a variety of different animals. Pretty simple! Shoot for including a lot of plant diversity, flowers, shrubs, trees, and you’ll have the best shot at creating a functioning ecosystem in your yard. You’ll also have a good shot at creating a gorgeous landscape that has blooming flowers spring through fall.

Shape Diversity

Think about creating layers of plants with increasing height. Just as in a vegetable garden you structure it with the shortest plants up front, taller in the back. Use the same concept with wildlife habitat. This is especially useful in smaller paces as each layer of plants with different heights supports different species. This concept is particularly important for birds which key in more on the plant height and density rather than what species of plants they are.

Structural Diversity

Structural Diversity refers to the number of different kinds of structures you include in your landscape such as bird feeders and nest boxes. And it doesn’t have to be human created structures, it could be a brush pile or a large rock strategically placed in the sunniest spot of the pollinator garden for sunning.

Two Final Things to Consider

Tolerance

Most of the calls I get through work from folks is to complain about things that wildlife are doing on their property. Most of us homesteaders are trying to be self-sufficient so any threats to our food can be devastating. And wildlife can do serious damage to buildings and infrastructure and in rare cases even be dangerous.

Instead of blaming wildlife for doing what they are instinctually meant to do, usually for survival, I ask that you prepare for these inevitabilities. If the damage or loss is too much, have a plan and do the work to protect the garden/buildings/animals/infrastructure. And if not, just prepare and be tolerant of the loss.

At my old house my next door neighbor would fume to me about the squirrels/rabbits etc… that were ruining her peppers/tomatoes/other produce. Once she brought me a bucket full of baby bunnies to “handle”. I refused and told her to put them back in the nest from where she dug them. (She refused and I don’t know what happened then). This same neighbor would shower me with bags and bags of extra vegetables from her garden later that year. She was growing enough to provide for herself and others -not just me – and yet she was still incensed that any animal dare interfere with her gardening.

Plant more than you need to prepare for loss. Protect what you plant/build/raise. Understand that the human race has been successful beyond all imagining and that we have moved in and taken over a good portion of the planet. However, we share that planet with so many other living creatures that deserve our respect and care.

*Steps off soapbox.*

Wild Inventory

Maybe it’s the scientist in me but I am SO excited to observe AND RECORD how the wildlife community on Keeper’s Croft changes and develops. The record could be as simple as making a list of wildlife you observe or it could be a nature journal with illustrations and detailed descriptions of all you see.

I’ve been recording some lists in a home book but also using the iNaturalist app. iNaturalist not only allows you to record what you see and connect with other naturalists, it also has a pretty powerful AI (Artifical Intelligence) which can identify a lot of species from a picture. And if the AI doesn’t get it, the community of naturalists will weigh in and help with I.D.!

I recommend doing this because it’s fun and motivating. More importantly, I think it also develops and encourages observation skills and will help you appreciate and understand your land even more!

Wrap Up

This is an insanely long post and I could have kept on writing for days! It’s a big topic with complexity and plenty of rabbit holes to go into:). I’ll get into more specifics in future posts but I hope this has been a decent surface introduction to making a wildlife friendly backyard landscape. If you have specific topics or things you’d like covered in future posts, let me know in the comments! I’d also love to hear about any adventures you’ve already had with landscaping for wildlife!


Book Recommendation

I love books and reading, so I can’t resist including a book recommendation with each post. The book will, in some way, correspond to the post.

My recommendation with this post is really an author. Doug Tallamy is a professor at the University of Delaware and he has become a strong voice and advocate for the use of native plants in landscaping and more broadly thinking about our yards as ecosystems. I haven’t actually yet read his most recent book but I hope to soon, and he has two others that are going to be helpful references in either changing the way you think about your yard and/or increase your appreciation for and understanding of native plants! Check it out by clicking the the book cover below! You can also visit his website Bring Nature Home.

I am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for me to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites. Buying the book below from amazon will earn me a commission.  

If you want to know more about me and Keeper’s Croft, check out the ABOUT page.

Let me know what you're thinking!

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