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Ask a Master Gardener: How to Make Your Backyard a Wildlife Sanctuary

BY: Barbara Boone, Mobile County Master Gardener,

Our gardening efforts welcome us into the corporeal world of edible plants and flower gardens. Our landscaping challenge is to not only welcome family, friends, and neighbors, but to also welcome wildlife. Therefore, when we set out to design a landscape, we need to be mindful that our results should appeal to humans and wildlife.

Attracting wildlife supports conservation, increases property value, provides educational benefits for our families, and contributes to a sense of wellbeing. Take a quiet moment to sit, listen, and observe wildlife either as birdsong, bees buzzing around a flower, or if you are lucky, sighting a mother nurturing her young.

Attracting wildlife to your backyard requires the same basics that we humans need: food, water, and shelter.

Food: A key component of backyard wildlife appeal is availability of food. Having native plants in your backyard is crucial. Native plants provide the best way to offer food because wildlife consumes natural food sources from seeds, berries, nuts, foliage, pollen, and nectar. One form of wildlife is consumed by another species, then another and another, traveling up the food chain. Examples are first, parts of plants consumed by insects and worms which are consumed by other insects. These in turn are consumed by other wildlife such as birds, larger reptiles, and small mammals.

Consumption at the next level of the food chain is not always eat or be eaten. Consider certain species like hummingbirds, some bats, butterflies, and bees which are nectar seekers. While gathering nectar, they pollinate plants, keeping that plant species population ongoing.

How can we ensure food for these backyard inhabitants? After making sure that native plants are in the vicinity, set up supplemental feeding stations for the population we want to attract. Hummingbirds like feeders in a safe location such as close to a protected building. Many birds relish certain seed types depending on the avian species and seed size, while some consume fruits. Smaller reptiles and frogs like availability of insects, some within a moist environment.

Water: All wildlife needs a clean water source for drinking and bathing. Availability of water is strategic in wildlife attraction, but careful placement is important to ensure that wildlife ventures out. Provide water close to shelter, nests, and food sources; a pond helps collect rainwater. Other water sources like birdbaths can be used but their water needs to be periodically freshened up to maintain water levels and to prevent bacterial and fungal growth.

Shelter or cover: Like humans, wildlife likes a place to call home. Dense and natural cover is a major appeal for backyard fauna. Planning for shelter should include consideration of the types of wildlife you want to attract to your backyard. The best cover should prevent attraction of predators (even domestic residents like dogs and cats), provide camouflage, and allow protection against harsh weather conditions. Good shelter options include native trees, native grasses, shrubs, and vines. Good examples in our area are holly, butterfly bush, privet, and honeysuckle.

Another shelter option is ground cover like random piles of tree limbs and leaves. Leaves provide an environment for earthworms, snails, spiders, and millipedes which in turn is food for small mammals such as chipmunks, reptiles such as turtles and snakes, and ground-loving birds such as coveys of quail and dove and larger birds such as wild turkeys which forage for seeds and invertebrates. Even a rock feature can serve as cover for wildlife, especially those needing temperature control like turtles, lizards, and snakes.

With wildlife reduction in many environments, the time is now to determine how we, as owners of suburban residences, can do our part in our own backyards to encourage wildlife habitat. Conserving and encouraging wildlife adds value and joy both to our lives and to our future generations.


Attracting Birds, Butterflies, and Other Backyard Wildlife, David Mizejewski, Naturalist. National Wildlife Federation, 2nd ed.

Wildlife in the garden. Courtesy of National Wildlife Federation

Wildlife in the garden. Courtesy of National Wildlife Federation

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