Create a Backyard Wildlife Habitat
Birds and butterflies will flock to your yard when their three main needs -- food, water, and shelter -- are available, no matter how urban the setting. Learn how to satisfy the needs of nature's creatures.
Everything In This Slideshow
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Cater to Critters
Singing birds and fluttering butterflies add sensory sparkle to any size garden. In the garden shown here, carefree natives line a walkway leading to a potting shed. Wild grasses -- including switchgrass and little bluestem -- offer year-round interest. Perennials such as coneflower, New England aster, prairie coneflower, and butterfly weed provide color and nectar.
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Get the Layered Look
Birds, butterflies, bees, and other critters congregate in environments featuring multi-tiered, densely packed arrangements of deciduous and evergreen trees; understory fruiting shrubs and vines; and ground-level grasses and perennials. From a distance, this garden looks like any other -- dense with blossoms. Its wildlife-pleasing composition shines through in the combination of perennials, shrubs, and trees that supply sustenance and structure through the year. Nearly everything in residence serves someone's appetite. A vast roster including coneflower, Russian sage, sedum, salvia, Agastache, phlox, and hydrangea were also chosen for pollinator potential.
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Restore Native Communities
When indigenous flowers and grasses grow freely among native trees and shrubs, they create a self-sustaining environment that supports plants and the resident birds, butterflies, bees, amphibians, and mammals that rely on them in every season. Native plants require less maintenance than exotic (nonnative) species because they are perfectly suited to the soil and climate.
Test Garden Tip: Be wary of invasive non-natives, such as purple loosestrife, Japanese knotweed, crown vetch, and multiflora rose. Some adapt so well that they rampantly spread and bully native species into submission. It's up to us to restore nature's balance by removing aggressive interlopers from our gardens and replacing them with bona fide blooms.
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Cultivate a Meadow
A wildflower meadow is virtually maintenance-free once established. For success, invest some time in planning and preparation.
1) Buy wildflower seed mixes containing species known to grow well in your region. Factor in your soil type, moisture levels, and sunlight patterns.
2) Prepare the area for planting by killing the existing turf. The most eco-friendly method involves "solarizing" the soil. Wet the soil thoroughly, then cover with sheets of clear plastic, pulled tight, and staked down. Remove after several weeks.
Most experts advise against tilling -- it brings up weed seeds lying dormant in the soil. In large areas, use a no-till drill system of seed sowing. For smaller areas, broadcast seeds by hand; mix seeds with a lightweight, inert material, such as sawdust or peat moss, and roll the site with a mechanical roller for good seed contact.
3) Water seedlings regularly the first season until they're established.
Help Pollinators With Your Garden
Learn simple gardening strategies that provide a big boost to butterflies, bees, and more.
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Put in a Pond
Create a soothing garden oasis that delights all the senses. This pond offers something for everyone: refreshing drinks; a seed buffet for birds; sweet nectar for bees and butterflies; and hiding places for fish, frogs, and other water-loving wildlife. Installing a pond is just the first step in a successful wildlife habitat recipe. Thoughtfully placed plantings -- including hardy and tropical water lilies, papyrus, dwarf papyrus, pennywort, cranberry taro, and arrowhead -- in and around the water are key ingredients that give the impression that Mother Nature had a hand in its creation.
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Provide a Birdbath
Watch your landscape come alive by adding a splashy spot where birds can drink and bathe. Birdbaths are available in a variety of styles and materials. Birds prefer shallow basins (a maximum of 2 inches deep) that have a rough surface for good gripping. For protection against lurking cats and other predators, place a birdbath a few feet from a tree or shrub so the area immediately surrounding it is open, yet close enough to sheltered perches for quick getaways. Consider using a bubbler or mister as added enticements, and provide a birdbath heater in the winter when below-freezing temperatures render most natural sources undrinkable. Above all, keep your birdbath clean. Add fresh water daily, and scrub the basin weekly with a stiff brush.
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Hedgerows and dense plantings provide birds and other small critters shelter from predators and the elements. Native trees and shrubs offer ideal spots for tending and raising young. Even a thick tangle of perennials and tall grasses can provide adequate protection when predators are near. In the garden shown here, Colorado blue spruce, butterfly weed, and switchgrass offer dense cover. Brush piles give critters alternative habitats. Leave trimmings from trees and shrubs in an out-of-the-way corner of your yard.
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Include birdhouses to entice nesting pairs to raise their broods under your watchful eye. Placement depends on the species you're trying to attract. For example, wrens like to have trees nearby, but bluebirds and purple martins need big, open areas. Holes vary by species, too -- they should be just big enough for the desired resident to fit through. (Most cavity-nesting birds use boxes with 1-1/2 inch-diameter holes.) To avoid territorial disputes, hang birdhouses away from feeding stations and allow a minimum of 25 feet between boxes. Use sturdy hardware to attach a birdhouse to a post or tree trunk. A metal baffle will help discourage egg-stealing predators, such as raccoons and snakes. Never use a nesting box with a perch -- they invite invasions by pest birds.
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Plant a Window Box for Butterflies
Lure butterflies to your deck or patio if garden space is scarce. Flowering delicacies, including lantana, verbena, pentas, sanvitalia, globe amaranth, zinnia, marigold, calibrachoa, and gaura, keep winged diners coming back for nectar all season to this sunny windowsill. Many butterfly species will lay their eggs on the curly parsley leaves, which provide an excellent source of food for the larvae or caterpillars.
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Include Host Plants for Caterpillars
Butterfly larvae have their own food preferences. While adults fly from flower to flower sipping sweet nectar, their wriggly offspring are content to feast on a single host plant. Parental instinct guides each species to lay eggs on the plants their offspring favor. Favorite caterpillar cuisine includes parsley, dill, fennel, milkweed (shown here), willow, Queen Anne's lace, spicebush, and white clover.
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Offer Nectar for Butterflies
To attract the greatest variety of butterflies to your garden, select bright-colored flowers that produce nectar throughout the season, including alyssum, butterfly bush, cornflower, cosmos, coneflower, globe amaranth, heliotrope, larkspur, nicotiana, pentas, salvia, sunflower, and zinnia. Butterflies prefer flowers with clustered blooms that face upward because they offer unobstructed landing pads. Butterfly weed, shown here, offers several sips in one swoop for Monarch butterflies.
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Provide for Hummingbirds
Like butterflies, hummingbirds go for flowers that produce nectar, a quick energy source. A hummer uses its long beak like a straw to sip the sweet substance from tubular-, bell-, and funnel-shape blooms, such as hummingbird mint, shown here, columbine, coral bells, bee balm, scarlet sage, trumpet vine, penstemon, hosta, cardinal flower, and honeysuckle. Hummingbirds most readily see red and orange, but once they're in a garden they'll visit blooms of other colors, too.
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Plant Flowers for Pollinators
Bees often get a bad rap, but we have these and other underappreciated insect pollinators to thank for as much as 25 percent of everything we eat and drink, as well as more than 80 percent of the flowers we enjoy. Native plants offer some of the best nectar needed by pollinators, including bees, butterflies, hummingbirds, and moths. As a rule, wild species -- such as the woodland phlox shown here -- are better choices than modern varieties and double-flowered hybrids, which tend to produce less nectar. Plant diversity is the best approach. Combine a variety of natives that bloom at different times to provide successive food throughout the growing season. Most importantly, refrain from using pesticides.
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Select Fruiting Trees
Fruit-eating birds such as robins, brown thrashers, and cedar waxwings flock to landscapes that feature fruit-bearing trees. Native species that fit into yards large and small include American mountain ash, serviceberry, red cedar, crabapple, dogwood, and hawthorn. The brown thrasher shown here dines on serviceberries.
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Tuck berried shrubs into your landscape, and you'll enjoy flocks of avian diners come berry season in late summer and early fall. Many of these shrubs hang onto their berries through the cold months to satisfy the appetites of wintering fruit eaters, such as cedar waxwings, chickadees, purple finches, and American robins. Excellent native shrubs include beautyberry (shown here), American cranberrybush, elderberry, blueberry, chokeberry, winterberry, and coralberry.
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Switch from Turf to Native Grasses
You don't have to turn over your whole lawn to native grasses, but any stands you do grow will provide both habitat and food for birds. Native grasses serve up seed in fall and winter, and if left standing, supply spring nesting materials. In summer, they provide shelter and bugs for insect eaters such as bluebirds, sparrows, wrens, purple martins, and warblers. Native grasses are easy to maintain, too -- just mow or trim them back each spring before new growth begins. Good choices include prairie dropseed, little bluestem, indiangrass, and switchgrass, shown here.
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Grow Your Own Birdseed
Wildlife gardens reward the procrastinator! Delaying garden cleanup in the fall is good for the birds, who will do the cleanup for you if you leave seed heads standing on annuals, perennials, and grasses. Good sources for free birdseed include prairie natives, such as yellow coneflower, shown here, purple coneflower, black-eyed Susan, sunflower, and cup plant. In early spring, trim back the stalks before new growth begins.
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Welcome Beneficial Bugs
Not all bugs are bad. Many notable exceptions -- such as praying mantis -- devote their lives to a noble cause: ridding our gardens of evildoers, such as aphids. This is good news for gardeners who want the best of both worlds -- a pest-free garden and a healthy habitat for both people and wildlife. Chemical controls wipe out the good with the bad, and the effects are felt up the food chain. A healthy, well-balanced environment includes bugs, which in turn attract insect-eating birds.
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Provide Bird Feeders Year-Round
Many bird enthusiasts bring out their feeders only during the cold months when birds benefit the most from free handouts. But spring and summer feeding offers big rewards, too. By keeping feeders filled year-round, you get loyal patrons. Plus, you get to enjoy up-close the colorful plumage of birds, such as the eastern goldfinch shown here, that put on their brightest wardrobes in summer. To attract the biggest array of birds, start with the basic four types of feeders: a tray feeder, a tube feeder, a suet feeder, and a nectar feeder.
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The National Wildlife Federation certifies Backyard Wildlife Habitats -- spaces that put both wildlife and people at ease. Over the past 35 years, this program has certified hundreds of thousands of individual, community, and school landscapes as wildlife-friendly. Your yard could be next! For more information about the National Wildlife Federation's Backyard Wildlife Habitat Program, visit nwf.org/gardenforwildlife/.