Creating attractive wildlife habitats

There are many reasons your landscape should be attractive to wildlife. By meeting the four main needs of wildlife — food, water, shelter, and space — you can have a wildlife-friendly yard and even have it certified as such.

Both the National (U.S.) and Canadian Wildlife Federations have Backyard Habitat Certification Programs whose goals are to increase wildlife-friendly, earth-friendly, and naturalized yards. Reasons you should consider this in your landscaping, if you aren’t already, include:

-It’s fun attracting birds, butterflies, hummingbirds and similar to your yard and watching them. This is also relaxing, a great stress reliever, a good hobby.

-It makes your yard more attractive, often with less pests, when landscaping for all seasons and with a diversity of plants.

-Habitat restoration is especially critical in developed areas, where natural habitats have been destroyed.

-Earth-friendly and least toxic practices such as reducing chemicals and conserving water helps improve soil, air, and water quality.

To help wildlife, whether you apply for certification or not, the application form serve as a great checklist. For food, plants are the best source, with feeders a good supplement. Encourage a natural diversity of creatures, creating a healthy ecosystem on your landscape.
Realize that some creatures will become food for others.

For food, consider plants that provide seeds, berries, nectar, nuts, fruits, sap, or pollen. You might have several feeder types for birds and others with various feeding preferences. These include tube, suet, platform, squirrel, butterfly, and hummingbird feeders.

Wildlife need a clean source of water for both drinking and bathing. You can provide this from birdbaths, along a stream or lake, a seasonal pond, a water garden, or a wetland. Even a small puddling area is useful for butterflies. If using a heated birdbath to provide water during winter, place a screen just below the surface to prevent birds from bathing during winter. In very cold weather birds have been known to bathe, then freeze when they fly away.

Wildlife need cover, places to find shelter from adverse weather and protection from predators. This can be provided by a wooded area, bramble patch, ground covers, log piles, roosting boxes, dense shrubs or thickets, evergreens, a rock wall or pile, a meadow, or burrows. Similar areas provide places for wildlife to court, mate, and to raise their young.

The foundations of habitats for all wildlife are the plant communities. To appeal to a diversity of wildlife, a diversity of habitats is best. Evaluate your landscape for this, and try to have at least some evergreen trees and shrubs along with deciduous ones (those that lose their leaves in winter). Add some vines, wildflowers, grasses and grass-like plants (upright with thin leaves), aquatic plants if a small pond or water feature, and ferns. Plants that are native to your region are best.

In addition to these plants and other elements of the landscape, how you manage these also is important. Earth-friendly gardening practices are best for the environment of you and your wildlife, and are sustainable — they endure with the least maintenance. Sustainable gardening practices for water conservation include vegetative buffer zones around ponds and water features, rain gardens, rain barrels to capture water from the roof, drip or soaker hoses, reducing lawn areas, mulching, and reducing or eliminating chemical use. Several of these, in addition to composting, also conserve soil.

One area of great interest is the control of invasive, often exotic or non-native, species. Check your local state lists (usually available on the internet) to see what species of plants are invasive. Remove any from your garden, and make sure not to plant any. Add more native plants. Monitor nesting boxes and clean yearly to make sure birds haven’t brought in seeds from invasive plants.

Once you have some of the plants, landscape elements, and practices underway, consider having your yard certified. This is a quick and simple self-process you can do online or with a form through the mail. You’ll then get much more information about wildlife and their habitats, can get a certificate and even buy a sign acknowledging your efforts, and just may inspire others to do their part for wildlife and the environment. To find out more online about the Backyard Wildlife habitats and certification, visit either the National Wildlife Federation ( or Canadian Wildlife Federation ( Be sure to learn more at these sites about how your local school, even your whole community, can become a certified wildlife habitat.

Dr. Leonard Perry is Extension Professor, Department of Plant and Soil Science at the University of Vermont. Visit his website at