“How do I attract wildlife to my backyard? Or “I want to see more animals in my yard.” I often hear this question/statement from wildlife-loving homeowners. It is important to note that you do not have to have large acreages to attract wildlife. You just need to meet their basic needs. All living things require four things: Food, Shelter (Cover), Water, and Space.
To attract wildlife to your yard, I would first survey the property to determine which elements you may be lacking. Ask yourself, do you have water available? Do you have a food source that is available year-round? Are there places for wildlife to hide?
While you are surveying your yard, make a note of the diversity of plant species. This will help ensure that you have food sources and cover year-round for wildlife, especially during times of drought. Be certain to note your hard and soft mast plants. Hard mast plants produce hard-shelled seeds like acorns and hickory nuts, and soft mast plants produce seeds that are covered in fleshy fruit like blackberries and persimmons. Some great examples of hard mast producing plants would be oaks, hickories, and beech trees. These trees produce seeds that will be available for wildlife to eat during the fall and winter months. The seeds also typically have a longer shelf life. Soft mast plants are your typical fleshy fruit, high in sugar and carbohydrates, and can be a source of moisture for wildlife during years of drought. Examples of soft mast producing plants would be blackberry, blueberry, American beautyberry, persimmon, American holly, and pokeweed. If you can, use native plants rather than exotics or nonnative plants for wildlife. Native plants can better withstand drought or other tough environmental conditions, and wildlife is already well adapted to the native plants.
Shelter (cover) is also an important factor to consider whenever it comes to wildlife. If you were a rabbit, would you rather look for a meal in the middle of a wide-open field or somewhere that has a mixture of habitat types- open areas, herbaceous understory, mid-story, and canopy of plants to protect you from a circling hawk? The answer is pretty obvious, and this goes back to having a wide variety of plants available to offer shelter and protection year-round. Evergreen trees or shrubs such as hemlocks or eastern red cedars also offer thermal cover for wildlife species, especially during the winter! If you cannot provide shelter, nesting boxes, such as bluebird boxes or owl boxes, can be a good alternative too!
Once you determine your food and cover sources, you need to figure out where wildlife will get their water. Water is essential to life. If you are lucky enough to have a stream or pond nearby, this part is easy. However, most backyards do not have water available, but you can add water sources in the form of bird baths or butterfly baths. Butterfly baths are a simple craft that you can make. Just fill a shallow bowl with water, and then fill the bowl with rocks or marbles to allow butterflies and other insects to rest. Many wildlife species obtain water from their diets, which is another good reason to have a wide variety of plants available.
Your backyard wildlife habitat can be big or small. As long as you have food, shelter, water, and space for the animals, you can create your own wildlife oasis.
For more information, see HGIC 2900, Backyard Wildlife Enhancement.