Your Backyard Jungle
A National Wildlife Federation program promotes natural environs at home.
By Jodi Helmer
Instead of setting traps or screeching in fear when she sees possums, mice and snakes in her backyard, Martha Crotty feels a sense of accomplishment.
“We love animals and wanted to make sure our yard was a good habitat for wildlife,” she says.
Her commitment to providing a natural environment for wild animals led Crotty to turn the backyard of her Asheboro, North Carolina, home into a Certified Wildlife Habitat in 2006.
The National Wildlife Federation (NWF, www.nwf.org) introduced the program in 1973 to combat the impact of development on wildlife habitats. Since the program’s inception, the group has certified 150,000 wildlife habitats in the US, 125,000 of them between 2000 and 2011.
“The program helps wildlife but it also helps connect people to nature,” explains NWF naturalist David Mizejewski. “People get certified because they care about wildlife and like to feel like they are part of a bigger movement and cause.”
Crotty hung several birdfeeders and placed a birdbath in the garden. Instead of hauling yard waste to the curb, she piles cut brush in one corner of the yard to provide a shelter for wildlife. These simple steps, combined with planting native species and eschewing chemical fertilizers, allowed her to attract a range of animals—including turtles, birds, raccoons, squirrels and snakes—to her yard.
Not-for-profit organizations such as the North American Butterfly Association (NABA, www.naba.org) and regional chapters of the National Audubon Society (www.audubon.org) also offer wildlife habitat certifications, each with requirements that are simple to implement.
In order to encourage more homeowners to create wildlife habitats, NWF designed its certification to appeal to the masses, asking participants to provide basic habitat components of food, water and shelter.
“The habitat components can be implemented in so many different ways,” Mizejewski says. “It doesn’t matter how much space you have or where you live.”
Sources of food can include seeds, nuts, berries and nectar.
Supplemental feeders will bring more birds to the yard but are not necessary for a thriving wildlife habitat, according to Steven Saffier, director of the Audubon at Home program for the Audubon Society of Pennsylvania.
“Birds are adept at finding natural food sources and don’t depend on feeders,” he explains. “But feeders do bring birds to the yard and help put us in touch with nature.”
Saffier recommends using high-quality seed, such as black oil sunflower or safflower, instead of seed blends with a lot of fillers.
Water is also an essential element of a wildlife habitat. For NWF certification, water sources can include ponds, streams and birdbaths. Moving water, including tabletop fountains, helps attract birds that flock to the sound it creates.
Providing water is about more than just providing something clean for animals to drink. Birds use shallow water for bathing while butterflies absorb nutrients from the soil/water combination found in natural puddles.
To ensure adequate protection from predators and suitable nesting spots, all habitats need a combination of thickets, rock piles, dense shrubs, nesting boxes and birdhouses.
Go Native with Plants
The NWF, NABA and National Audubon Society also encourage the use of native plants in wildlife habitats. The reason? In addition to providing shelter for wildlife, some birds won’t eat berries from exotic plants.
“Native plants also attract more native insects, which birds rely on for food,” Saffier says.
Even butterflies prefer to lay their eggs on native host plants.
“Native plants provide the most reliable food source for caterpillars,” adds Jane Hurwitz, director of the butterfly garden and habitat program at NABA.
Providing at least three native caterpillar food plants and three native butterfly nectar sources are the minimum requirements for earning Butterfly Garden certification.
While none of the programs require organic gardening practices to earn certification, habitats free of chemical pesticides, insecticides and fertilizers are better for wildlife. In fact, research shows that up to 67 million birds die from chemical exposures each year.
“Pesticides and other synthetic chemicals, including fertilizers, make their way into the aquatic ecosystem through the groundwater and runoff, which negatively impacts wildlife,” says Saffier. “We encourage everyone to develop an organic program for their yard and garden.”
Getting certified is one way for homeowners to make a commitment to the creation and preservation of wildlife habitats.
“The rewards of habitat gardening far outweigh the work required,” Saffier says.
If a total transformation seems too daunting, consider replacing just 10% of your lawn area with native plants. Even this small action will help provide food and habitat for wildlife such as birds, butterflies and frogs.
Crotty notes that becoming certified formalized her commitment to being a good steward of the environment. “By getting certified, we agreed to provide fresh water, refill the birdfeeders and not use pesticides in our yard,” Crotty says. “We want to keep our promise.”