Backyard Wildlife Habitat

Our home property in a suburban neighborhood in Montgomery County, Southeastern Pennsylvania, about half way between Philadelphia and Quakertown, is a registered Backyard Wildlife Habitat. Most lots in our immediate neighborhood are about 0.8 acres large, ours is roughly twice that size. The additional land allows us to create the habitat at some distance from the house and keep a mown area in which our dogs can run close to the house.

In our favor works also that two very large properties are adjacent to ours on the south and west sides with no buildings near the property lines. Because of that, the western part of our property remains relatively quiet and undisturbed all year round.

Many people complain that we no longer see the number of June bugs, or lightening bugs we remember from our childhood years. Butterflies have also become very scarce. What, if anything, are we doing to promote the return of these critters beyond asking questions ?

Most people in our area grow grass as if it was a treasured agricultural product that served a greater purpose. In reality, a well-maintained lawn offers very, very little to the environment. All plantlife other than the grass and small lifeforms in the soil are eradicated by weed-killing, or insect-killing chemicals, selective fertilizers and/or hoes. Invasive and unwanted grasses are removed and a monoculture is created. Along with insects and grubs that are considered harmful die beneficial insects. Consequently, birds don't find suffient numbers of insects to feed on, butterflies won't hang there chrysales on plants on your property, and small invertebrae don't survive. Since the ground remains permeable, rainwater can sink in and refurbish the aquifur while portions run off into gullies where they enter public sewers. Whatever is on the ground including chemicals gets washed away with the rainwater and may enter the aquifur. While we hope it doesn't there is no guarantee that it won't. The carbon foot print of mowers, garden tractors and other machines as well as the fuels and lubricants that make them work adds to the problem with the typical American suburban lawn. For all these reasons, we are no lawn growers. Instead, we chose a very different direction for our land management.

However, in all fairness, it must be said that the development of this habitat included the use of machines, and we still regularly cut the grass alongside the road and near the house.

Providing a backyard wildlife habitat is not the same as leaving your land untended and allowing whatever wants to grow there to either flourish, or die. Even though some parts of the land may look untended at times, the habitat manager needs to pay close attention to the plants and wildlife as a lot can be learned from their presence, or absence, their condition and size.

Backyard wildlife habitats are based upon the idea that native species are encouraged to grow and provide the needed food resources and shelter for a wide variety of native animals, native birds and native insects. While it is nearly impossible to keep non-native life forms out of your gardens, astonishing results can be achieved with just a little effort in the selection of plants.

Allowing native species to grow here provides the necessary living conditions many animals, birds and insects enjoy as the list below shows. Allowing grasses to grow high provides food for some, shelter for others, space to live, hunt and multiply for a large number of insects. We have resident rabbits, have seen coyote, fox, raccoon and deer search for food on our land, and enjoy a variety of birds in our nesting boxes.

If you allow uncontrolled growth of all seeds that germinate on your land in this area, you will eventually be the owner of a property that is overgrown by invasive non-indigenous plants that crowd out all desirable native species. Frequent checks and the management of plant growth are prerequisites for development a successful wildlife habitat.

TREES and BUSHES on our property:

  1. arborvitae
  2. blueberry
  3. cedar
  4. honeysuckle
  5. magnolia
  6. maple, sugar
  7. maple, Norway
  8. mimosa
  9. mulberry
  10. multiflora rose
  11. oak
  12. pear
  13. pine
  14. Rose of Sharon
  15. spruce, blue
  16. walnut
  17. willow, pussy
  18. willow, weeping

ORNAMENTAL FLOWERS: (These flowers are not part of the wildlife habitat but we enjoy them in a few small beds on the property.)

  1. bleeding hearts (non-native)
  2. cardinal flower
  3. chrysanthemums
  4. crocus
  5. daffodils
  6. dahlia
  7. hyacinth, grape
  8. lilies (variety) - enjoyed by hungry deer
  9. perrywinkle (grows wild)
  10. roses, bush
  11. roses, tea (variety)
  12. Star of Bethlehem (now growing in large numbers because they have not been cut with the lawnmower in years)
  13. tulip (variety)

OTHER PLANTS we enjoy:

  1. butterfly bush (attracts butterflies) [see picture on right]
  2. forsythia (rows and clusters of forsythia provide shelter for birds and small mammals)
  3. goldenrod (a large number of insects live where the goldenrod grows in dense clusters)
  4. honeysuckle (sweet fragrance)
  5. milkweed (attracts birds)
  6. multiflora rose (invasive plant that offers protection to small birds and mammals)

BIRDS (excluding birds of prey):

  1. blackbird, red-winged
  2. blue jay [see picture on right]
  3. bluebird, Eastern
  4. cardinal, northern
  5. cedar waxwing (brief annual visitors)
  6. chickadee, black-capped
  7. cowbird
  8. crow, American
  9. finch, house
  10. finch, purple
  11. flicker, yellow-shafted
  12. goldfinch, American
  13. goose, Canada
  14. grackle, boat-tail
  15. grackle, common
  16. junco, dark-eyed [see picture on right]
  17. mallard duck (three frequent visitors after heavy rainfalls)
  18. mockingbird
  19. mourning dove [see picture on right]
  20. nuthatch
  21. oriole, Northern
  22. pewee, Eastern
  23. robin, American
  24. sapsucker, yellow-bellied (clearly identified on 03/15/2012)
  25. sparrow, fox
  26. sparrow, house
  27. sparrow, song
  28. sparrow, white-throated
  29. starling [see picture on right]
  30. turkey (wild) (occasional visitor)
  31. woodpecker, downy
  32. woodpecker, hairy
  33. woodpecker, red-bellied
  34. wren, Carolina
  35. wren, house

BIRDS OF PREY: (These birds hunt on our land but no nests have been found to date.)

  1. hawk, Cooper's [see picture on right]
  2. hawk, red-tailed
  3. hawk, sharp-shinned
  4. Northern goshawk
  5. owl, great-horned
  6. owl, common screech
  7. vulture, black

MAMMALS:

  1. coyote
  2. fox, red [see picture on right]
  3. ground hog
  4. mouse, white-footed
  5. oppossum
  6. rabbit
  7. squirrel, grey [see picture on right]
  8. vole
  9. whitetail deer (daily visitors passing across our land)

REPTILES:

  1. snake, garter
  2. snake, black water ?? (not clearly identified)
  3. turtle
  4. turtle, box
  5. turtle, snapping

INSECTS: (This list is limited to those easily identifiable with the naked eye.)

  1. ants, black
  2. ants, pavement
  3. aphid
  4. bees, various
  5. butterflies [see picture on right]
  6. box elder bug
  7. cadedid [see picture on right]
  8. caterpillars, various
  9. earth worms
  10. Japanese beetle
  11. June bug
  12. lady bug
  13. lightening bug
  14. preying mantis [see picture on right]
  15. soldier beetle
  16. spiders, many common varieties
  17. spider, black widow
  18. stink bug
  19. thousand leggers
  20. wasps, various

 

LAY-OUT

The property is - very roughly - a long rectangle with the house, detached garage and vegetable garden located in the southeastern sector. The lawn in this area is mown regularly during the growing season with the exception of the grass under the tall trees. The grass is relatively thin there and does not require frequent mowing. This part of the property is rarely walked upon.

The vegetable garden was partially converted to a container garden. The Japanese beetles that were once prevalent in this area moved to other sections of the property.

Our butterfly garden of the 1990's has gradually deteriorated into a weed garden. While some butterfly weed is still growing there, weeds have taken over 90% of the garden. By 2010, this garden, located south of the house, was basically defunct as far as its original purpose is concerned but it was home to a large variety of insects.

The larger expanse on the western side of the house collects much sunlight, absorbs rain well, and allows a large variety of weeds to grow freely. While the grass is cut frequently along the perimeter, the center part remains uncut with the exception of a few trails that allow me to walk through the weeds that grow there. In late August, the goldenrod has grown so tall that I could hide there if I wanted to do that. Deer and fox are frequently seen in this area.

At the western end of the property is a wooded lot. This part of the property is purposely left undisturbed. I rarely set foot inside. Bunnies, squirrels and a variety of birds are frequently observed there. The ground cover includes wild grasses, decidious and coniferous saplings, a few thin bushes and thin multiflora roses as well as a dense patch of pachysandra. The western end is almost impenetrable because of fallen branches, twigs, etc. that were piled up there to create shelter from strong winds, particularly in the spring and fall. The view of the road is blocked by vegetation during the "green" months.

Immediately in front of the wooded area is a field. Once a wildflower meadow (2008 and 2009), this area is now used to grow buckwheat, winter rye, or other beneficial cover crops that we do not harvest and leave to wildlife to enjoy and use.

 

MAINTENANCE

Inspect your land frequently. This is best done on foot but using a vehicle, or horse may certainly help on large properties. Look for foreign (not indigenous) plants and remove them before their roots develop more fully and make removal more difficult. Encourage the growth of native species.

It is OK for you to prune your trees if you really know what you are doing to the trees and shrubs and bushes in your gardens. If you are not sure, it is best to either leave the job to a trained professional, or to take classes and become a Tree Tender. Many townships offer such courses in cooperation with the Horticultural Society.

Do not remove leaves in the fall. They feed the ground when they decompose, provide a suitable habitat for small mammals and many kinds of insects, and allow some insects to lay their eggs (including some butterflies).

It is unfortunate that so many people consider fallen branches on the ground eyesoars. Actually, they, too, provide habitats for insects and microorganisms that contribute, in one way, or another, to the decomposition of branches over time. Meanwhile, they provide shelter, food and also security to small birds and mammals who are fairly safe from predator attack while they feed, or hide under them.

 

FINANCIAL CONSIDERATIONS

In most cases, maintaining a Wildlife Habitat requires less work than striving for the perfect lawn. You will not spend money on weed killers and chemical fertilizers. The weekly mowing of the lawn is reduced to the twice yearly cutting of walking paths - if you have any at all - which saves fuel and maintenance costs for your mowing machines.

Indigenous (domestic) plants, if you have to buy any, are often much less expensive than imported species. Again, you realize savings.

 

LEGAL CONSIDERATIONS

This is a tricky area to discuss here. In many states (US), you owe it to anyone walking on your land to make his travels reasonably safe. This includes people you have not invited !! If your property is protected by fences high enough and dense enough to keep people out, you have more freedom in that respect.

Perhaps more importantly, your township, or home owner's association may limit your freedom to create a wildlife habitat. Grass height ordinances and planting regulations may make it necessary for you to deviate from your plans and provide less of a habitat than you would ideally want to provide. Unfortunately, too many of us have to fight "city hall" to be permitted to do what seems so right in view of the pollution and habitat destruction caused by conventional lawn growing and manicuring.

 

WILDLIFE OBSERVATIONS

If you are a wildlife enthusiast and like to watch birds and mammals from a window of your home, then the creation of a wildlife habitat is certainly worth your consideration.

Start with plants that attract any one desirable species and watch the domino effect unfold as companion species as well as predators move in. Most people who live in suburbia have probably seen this effect but have never quite thought about it in this way. The birdfeeder you fill in the winter to feed sparrows, finches and cardinals also attracts other species. Squirrels, for instance, are known to raid birdfeeder for sunflower seeds. Even raccoons may join the attack on your provisions for wild birds. Squirrels may draw hawks who feed on them. Fox and coyote are adapting increasingly to "city life" and live among us. Even bears move into neighborhoods in other parts of the country.

 

THE LAST WORD

I have reduced the amount of time I used to spend mowing my lawn by reducing the area I mow. Proportionally, I also reduced the amount of fuel I need to run my lawn-mowing tractor and accordingly also the amount of emissions I release into the atmosphere. Instead, I walk my land more frequently and pay attention to the changes I see. I like "tool time" as much as the next guy but I feel more closely related to the land with its flora and fauna today than in my mowing days.

Try it ! It's inexpensive fun that serves the greater good of life on earth.



Brown-eyed Susan - beauty in great numbers


Wildflowers in 2010


Wildflowers in 2010


Small entrance to a rodent den


Red Fox on one of his daily patrols near our house


Cooper's Hawk watching bird feeder near our deck


Sunrays warm up shaded area


Butterfly crysalis in weed area


Jewel Weed (before climax of blossom development)


Tiger Swallow Tail on fragrant Butterfly Weed


Red Daddy Long Legs on common thistle


(Eurasian) Starling


Blue Jay looking for crushed corn at a bird feeder


Gray Squirrel


Mourning Dove


Dark-Eyed Junco


Buckwheat field attracts bees, wasps, butterflies, mammals


Cadidid in vegetable garden


Praying Mantis (Look carefully in center of photo.)
This one was particularly large.