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For the Birds

There are wild things in my backyard. They drop by for a quick meal, perch on twigs and branches, catch a quick sip of water and move on. Others beat bright wings in the breeze passing from flower to flower. Birds and butterflies pass through the island of my backyard, stopping to sample their respective gastronomical preferences. They are among the more colorful creatures that visit. I like to sit back and watch them in my backyard habitat.

The word “habitat” is of Latin origin, derived from “habitablis,” which refers to a place that is “fit to dwell in.” Each species of living things has a preferred environment within which it will thrive. While my backyard is a human habitat, I have changed it in some relatively simple ways to meet the habitat needs of other species. I have actively modified my backyard to encourage the visits of birds, butterflies and other living things. While natural wildlife habitats are shrinking, I decided to make my yard a small refuge for creatures that are finding it difficult to survive in the spreading human habitat of mass housing, chemically treated lawns, paved streets and rushing traffic.

Many of these visiting species enrich my yard by pollinating plants and devouring insect pests. They also add an enlightened vigor to the space with their songs, color and liveliness. In general, the more diverse the environment, the greater the variety of living things that will be nurtured by it and the healthier that environment will be. A yard that consists solely of a manicured lawn has little diversity. It will be avoided by many creatures because it doesn’t meet their nutritional and safety needs. Add some trees, bushes and bird feeders and the mix of wildlife will change dramatically.

I have seven trees of six species standing over my yard that are of varying age and height. There are also more than a dozen large bushes from at least seven different species. Most of these trees and bushes produce flowers, fruits or seeds that the wild winged things prefer. About a quarter of my backyard is devoted to vegetable and flower gardens. Rising from the vegetable garden are dozens of sticks I salvaged from domestic pruning projects and curbside debris. The sticks support snow peas and tomato plants as well as providing convenient perches for birds that glean insect pests from the garden.

In the middle of the vegetable garden, I planted a small island of flowers that brightly beckon butterflies and other pollinators. The garden also contains three large trellises that I built from tree branches, collected from the streets after severe storms. The trellises support gourd plants, climbing nasturtiums and morning glories. They also serve as perches for birds and sunning spots for butterflies drawn to the blooms of the spreading vines. Thick grape vines line the fence on the yard’s southern border. I have two bird feeders in the yard. A large one hangs from a mature cherry tree I planted 20 years ago. A small one hangs outside my kitchen window, behind a large bush that provides cover and a “waiting room” for birds waiting their turn in the pecking order to approach and feed. I can observe feathered feasters from a few inches away through the window that separates us.

To develop a wildlife-friendly habitat in one’s backyard, there are four basic resources to consider: food, water, cover and space. You don’t have to have a huge yard to make it more inviting to the wild creatures of the world. A well-stocked bird feeder alone can attract a wide range of feathered wonders. Even in a small yard there are a number of plants that can be grown to entice your winged friends. Birds are particularly partial to the seeds of sunflowers, black-eyed Susans, Echinacea, and the fruit of elderberries, holly and dogwood trees. Butterflies can be lured by the nectar of butterfly weed, Queen Anne’s lace, daisies, dill, lavender, primrose, sedum, verbena and other flowering plants and bushes. Including plants that provide a succession of blooms and seeds throughout the growing season will keep the winged ones coming back.

Providing water can be done with a shallow bowl or birdbath. I have a plastic bowl sitting beneath the faucet I use to water the gardens. It catches the small drips of water that drop when the faucet is on. The bowl is a favorite bathing spot for one of the blue jays that frequents the yard. I also have a ceramic saucer from a large flowerpot that I keep filled in another part of the garden that is favored by smaller birds and butterflies. Cover is one of the most important resources for backyard wildlife. Bushes, trees and vines provide perches, escape routes, hiding places, nesting sites and shade for wild visitors. Tangles of vines and bushes may not look good, but they provide excellent shelter. The bushes, trees and vines that outline my yard provide varying heights and layers of protection. In one corner of my yard I also keep a brush pile of bush branches, tree limbs and leaves that also serves as a good wildlife hiding spot.

Space is a factor that generally has the most effect on who shows up in urban backyard habitats. Many species of creatures have territorial needs that are far larger than the dimensions and terrain of one’s yard, reducing the likelihood that they will take up residence or drop by for a visit. For some, your yard might just be a small part of a much larger territory that crosscuts a number of local yards. For more details and information on how to attract wild things to your yard, check out the National Wildlife Federation’s Guide to Gardening for Wildlife by Craig Tufts and Peter Loewer at you local library. For an excellent Web site on developing wildlife habitat, visit the Windstar Wildlife Institute at www.Windstar.org.

—Tom Nattell


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