The first step in enhancing a backyard habitat for wildlife is to assess the yard or outdoor areas as they are right now, identifying habitat elements that already exist for wildlife. Some plants that provide seeds, fruits, and nuts are important to many species of wildlife. A dense shrubbery area or stand of evergreens will provide cover for many animals, and protection from wind and predators. Begin by taking an inventory of everything in the yard, including the names, sizes and locations of all existing plants. Make a drawing to scale that shows where pathways, plants, fences, large rocks, and other objects are located.
Try looking at the yard from an animal’s point of view! Is there a dying tree in the yard that was going to be removed? The knotholes could provide a perfect home for a family of woodpeckers, flycatchers, or squirrels. Is there pile of dead brush that might be viewed as unsightly? It could provide just enough safe cover for a local rabbit.
After assessing the yard for habitat elements, become familiar with birds and other animals native to the area. Learn what species regularly migrate through the area. Consider the size of space available to devote to a backyard wildlife habitat and which kinds of animals are of interest to attract.
Some people are primarily interested in attracting butterflies. Planting beds of fragrant, brightly-colored flowers in full sunlight – like butterfly bush, milkweed or cosmos – will attract butterflies. Others may want to invite birds, chipmunks, squirrels, rabbits and frogs to their backyard. Planning and planting activities will vary with the landscape design they envision. Essential elements of wildlife habitat must be provided to attract the species of interest.
All wildlife requires 4 basic elements to survive: food, water, cover and space to reproduce and raise young. The combination of habitat elements provided should take into consideration the needs of the wildlife species of interest. As a rule of thumb, the widest variety of habitat elements will attract the greatest number of birds and other animals to the yard.
The ideal backyard wildlife management plan supplies as much food as possible in order to meet the year-round needs of many species. Shrubs, trees and other plants that produce acorns and nuts, berries, buds, fruits, nectar and seeds should be included wherever possible. Trees or shrubs that will provide food for wildlife all year long should be planted. In the Southeast, pines, oaks and pecans provide food for many species.
When native food sources become scarce, especially in winter for birds, sunflower seeds, niger seed, proso millets and cracked corn can be used to supplement native foods. In summer, hummingbirds will readily visit feeders with nectar bought commercially or prepared at home.
Wildlife need water, both for drinking and for bathing. Water can be supplied in a birdbath, a small pool, clay saucers (from flower pot), a recirculating waterfall, shallow dishes, or through a dripping hose.
Vegetation also holds water droplets from rain or morning dew, but a more constant, reliable source of water is preferred in a wildlife habitat area.
An elevated birdbath will protect birds from cats and other predators, and can be an attractive addition to the yard. A dripping hose or shallow, wide-rimmed dish will provide water for small animals when placed near shrubbery or other cover. However, if cats or other predators are an ongoing problem, keep lower shrub branches near bird baths and feeders trimmed to eliminate predator hiding or stalking sites. A small pool set into the ground can provide not only water for drinking and bathing, but cover and reproductive area for small fish, frogs, insects, or reptiles.
Water sources should be dependable all year long. In summer heat, be sure to replace water regularly; and in winter, when temperatures drop to freezing, remember to remove ice and refill with water daily. Bird bath heaters are also available commercially.
Wildlife need protective cover just as people need the shelter of a house. Cover can be provided in many forms. Plants that serve as food can also serve as cover. Dense shrubs, hollow logs, rock piles, brush piles, stone walls, evergreens, tall grass, and water provide cover for many animal species. Ideal wildlife habitats will include plants ranging widely in size and density, from small evergreen shrubs to tall, full-grown trees, so that birds and other animals can choose the appropriate cover that they need for feeding, hiding, escaping bad weather, courting, and nesting activities.
Wildlife need areas or space in which to reproduce and rear their young. Reproductive areas provide specific cover types that offer protection from harsh weather and predators during vulnerable periods. For example, mature trees offer reproductive cover for squirrels and nesting birds. Dense shrubbery provides safe reproductive cover for a variety of other wildlife species.
Some Backyard Plants That Help Wildlife
|Trees||Bur Oak (Quercus macrocarpa)|
|White Oak (Quercus alba)|
|Northern Red Oak (Quercus rubra)|
|Black Walnut (Juglans nigra)|
|Hickory (Carya spp.)|
|Black Cherry (Prunus serotina)|
|Hackberry (Celtis occidentalis)|
|Wax Myrtle (Morella cerifera)|
|Crabapple (Malus spp.)|
|Hawthorne (Crataegus spp.)|
|Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana)|
|Pines (Pinus spp.)|
|Spruce (Picea spp.)|
|Shrubs||Dogwood (Cornus spp.)|
|Sumacs (Rhus spp.)|
|Elderberry (Sambucus spp.)|
|Wild Plum (Prunus americana)|
|Carolina Laurel Cherry (Prunus caroliniana)|
|American Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana)|
|Holly (Ilex spp.)|
|Possumhaw (Viburnum nudum)|
|Serviceberry (Amelanchier spp.)|
|Vines||Honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens)|
|American Bittersweet (Celastrus scandens)|
|Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquifolia)|
|Trumpet Creeper (Campsis radicans)|
|Wild Grape (Vitis spp.)|
|Raspberry and Blackberry (Rubus spp.)|
Other examples of reproductive space are birdhouses and nesting shelves attached to homes, trees, or poles in the yard. Water-dwelling animals use small pools and ponds for reproductive cover. Rock piles or hollow trees provide safe reproductive areas for several species of wildlife.
Natural reproductive cover will become available as habitat plantings mature. However, artificial structures can be constructed and placed in strategic locations to accelerate the process of attracting birds and mammals (squirrels, bats, rabbits) or to supplement natural nesting sites in mature habitat.
How food, water, and cover resources are arranged in the yard, also referred to as interspersion, is another important spatial characteristic to consider. Interspersion is best thought of in relation to an animal’s mobility. For species with low mobility, having numerous smaller areas of food, water, and cover scattered about may be more advantageous than fewer, larger areas. Remember that the more room an animal has to move about to access all of its required habitat resources, the greater its vulnerability to predators.
Planting for Habitat
Plants are perhaps the most important part of a backyard habitat because they provide an environment for people as well as for songbirds and other wildlife. Plants add beauty and comfort to the home and often increase the property value.
As mentioned earlier, plants provide shelter, nesting sites, and a variety of foods for wildlife. Proper selection of plants can fill family needs for beauty and comfort, and at the same time provide a haven for wildlife.
Since trees and shrubs will continue to grow, it is important to consider mature plant size, shape and placing.
Using a sketch of the yard, plan for where future shade or sun may be needed. Plants used for screening sometimes have a short lifespan. Allow flexibility in the plan to provide for replacing such trees and shrubs. Remember that open space is important, too – for viewing wildlife, for recreation, and for separating use areas.
Guidelines to Plant Selection
The location – soil type, climate, and other growing conditions – is important in plant selection. Results of a soil test can be helpful when selecting plants and in knowing what soil treatments might be needed for them. The local Cooperative Extension office can usually help in getting a soil test for a small fee.
Choose plants that are adapted to the growing conditions in the area. Plant species normally found in the moist, rich soils of a mountain cove are unlikely to do well in deep, droughty sands. Long-lived plants, such as trees and shrubs, must be able to withstand the climate during all seasons, especially winter and summer extremes. It’s good to get advice on which plants are best suited. Nursery personnel and the local Cooperative Extension office can help with plant selection.
Native species are usually the best bet as they are generally more adapted to the area, tend to be disease-resistant, and are more familiar to the birds and other wildlife.
Small herbaceous plants are also good for backyard habitats. Native sunflowers, asters, mints, and native grasses can provide food and/or cover for songbirds as well as nectar for native pollinators and host plants for butterfly larvae.
A backyard with a variety of plants generally attracts more wildlife species, and is often more attractive in appearance as well. A variety of plants also offers a greater choice of food and cover and ensures food and cover availability throughout the seasons.
Providing a variety of different plant species will alleviate many seasonal or weather-related effects. For example, unfavorable conditions such as very cold winters or drought may cause some plants not to bear fruit. Other plants, such as some oaks, bear fruit only in alternate years. Planting a variety of different species helps ensure a steady food supply every year.
Birds are the easiest backyard animal to attract, and each year more and more Americans are discovering the joys of learning about birds. Fortunately, South Carolina is an excellent place to do this.
Feeding is the simplest way to bring a variety of birds within easy viewing range. When feeding birds, remember that some eat seed, others eat fruit, some eat insects, still others eat animals, and hummingbirds feed on flower nectar. The right kinds of seeds will attract many seed-eaters. Suet (hard beef fat) is relished by many insect-feeders such as woodpeckers, and a sugar-water solution attracts hummingbirds.
Generally, birds should be feed during the colder months of the year when their natural foods are less available. Some birds will come to the feeders throughout the summer, but the availability of natural foods usually reduces their numbers. During late spring and summer, many backyard birds eat insects and feed insects to their young. This can be beneficial to gardens and lawns. Be sure the feed does not become moldy or spoiled when feeding during warm weather.
Suet is hard fat, usually beef, available at butcher shops. It is especially attractive to insect-eaters, and is a good winter energy source. Birds like un-cooked suet just as it comes from the butcher. It can be fed in a hanging onion or orange sack or in a suet feeder. Suet is sometimes supplemented with a protein source such as canned dog food, dried eggs or peanut butter. Prepared cakes of processed suet are also typically available commercially where wild bird seed is sold.
Homemade Suet Recipe
1 part peanut butter
1 part cornmeal
1 part shortening
1 part cracked corn
1 part flour
1 part mixed seed or sunflower seeds
Melt the peanut butter and shortening then add remaining ingredients and cool.
Commercial seed combinations, readily available from a variety of stores, provide a convenient way to get started in bird feeding. However, commercial mixtures often contain large amounts of seeds that most birds do not prefer. A good alternative is to create a custom mix. Recent research has shown that small oil-type sunflower seeds and white proso millet are preferred by many backyard birds. One good seed combination includes:
- 50% sunflower seed,
- 35% white proso millet,
- 15% finely cracked corn.
Many other combinations also work well.
Many types of feeders are available commercially or they can be made at home. Simple feeders can be made from milk cartons or jugs, from a piece of wood used as a platform, or even from a pine cone.
Bird Feeding Tips
- Place feeders where cats cannot hide and harm the birds when they come to feed. Try to situate it so that feeding birds are protected from strong winds. A good spot is a somewhat open area with bushes or trees nearby for shelter and escape cover.
- Begin feeding early – about September or October – and continue without interruption until spring.
- Use a variety of feeders. Aggressive birds may prevent other birds from feeding if only one feeder is used. Small feeders without perches are good places for small grasping birds to feed. Feeders placed low to the ground will attract ground-feeding birds such as juncos and native sparrows. Larger above ground feeders will draw in cardinals, grosbeaks, mourning doves and other larger birds.
Bats in the Backyard
Bats are increasing in popularity as a desired backyard visitor. Bats are important in nature, and can consume up to 500 insects in an hour, including mosquitos! The actual health hazard to humans is small, since very few bats actually carry rabies. The main health hazard comes from bats roosting in the house, which can be a source of histoplasmosis if bat droppings are allowed to accumulate.
To increase the bat population around the house, there are two things that can be done: 1) grow plants which attract night-flying insects, and 2) provide roosting areas for bats.
Planting for Insects that Attract Bats
The following is a list of plants which attract night-flying insects that bats like to eat:
- Four O’Clocks
- Cornflower/Bachelor’s Buttons
Bat “Houses” or Roosts
There are several bat houses available commercially, or homeowners can build their own. Size and design will make a difference in the species and numbers of bats attracted to the roosts. A small single-chambered design will usually only attract solitary male bats, whereas a large, multi-chambered design is preferred by females as maternity colonies.
The chances of a bat house being occupied are increased if bats are already seen in the area and there is a body of water nearby. It is best to put houses up by late February or early March to give the houses time to “season,” and to be available before the females return in spring.
Bat Box Installation Tips
- Orient boxes southeast or southwest to receive at least 7 hours of sun in morning and/or afternoon.
- Attach boxes at least 15 feet high to side of building or pole. Boxes can be placed on trees if they receive enough sun.
- Place boxes near a water source if possible.
Don’t be discouraged if bats are not attracted right away. Sometimes it takes quite a bit of time before bats will establish in an area, but once they do, they will usually return.