It's a bright, cheery Saturday morning and the children are itching to explore the natural world, peer into a bird's nest, or catch butterflies. No problem: just put down your coffee, ease into your sneakers, and take them on a field trip to the wilds of their own backyard!
Sound improbable? Hardly. With a little effort and a few strategically placed elements, you can transform your yard into a wildlife habitat that can provide hours of education and enjoyment, as well as a haven for birds and mammals. Just make sure you provide the basics, then get out your camera, bird book, and log to begin tracking your wild guests.
To attract wildlife a yard must contain four basic elements: water, cover, places to raise young, and food.
Water: Providing a dependable water source takes effort, especially in the heat of the summer, but the results are worthwhile when a family of cardinals or migrating butterflies discover that your yard can be counted on for cool refreshment. A concrete birdbath or a pie plate filled with water will do; more ambitious designers might consider building a pond.
Cover: Tidy gardeners may have trouble leaving fallen branches, old brush, or a dead tree on their property, but the reward of attracting woodpeckers, lizards, or small mammals is the payoff. Cover protects wildlife from weather and predators, and becomes a site for nesting.
Place to raise young: Most areas that provide cover also serve as places to raise young. Even a small yard can contain nesting and roosting boxes for birds, bats, and squirrels, which can be built from simple instructions and a minimum of material or purchased from your local hardware store.
Food: It might take some strategic planning to make your yard the ideal feeding trough for wildlife, especially if you seek year-round visitors. A maple will offer spring buds and flowers for an insectivorous woodpecker; a nearby blackberry shrub provides summer food for sparrows; and the bright red berry of the Flowering Dogwood in fall feeds squirrels and a variety of birds. Your best bet is to mix your plants to provide a variety of nuts, berries, and cover sources.
You may decide to concentrate on one aspect of wildlife, which can simplify your habitat plans. If your main objective is to attract butterflies or hummingbirds, the aptly named butterfly bush is a natural choice. Because these winged wonders are active from early spring until late fall, continuous blooming is important to maintain visitation. Butterfly seed mixes are popular for their simplicity and the long-lasting floral rainbows they bring to a garden.
Roll a peanut butter-covered pine cone in birdseed to see the ravenous appetites of seed-eating birds (not to mention the squirrels who mooch on birdfeeders). Find a seed mix or suet designed for the species you seek, then be vigilant about replenishing your feeder. Birds are territorial, so increase your chances of attracting a variety by separating food types in different feeders in different parts of your yard. Clean the feeders and the areas around them regularly to reduce the risk of health problems.
If you need an incentive to reintroduce native plants to your yard, consider that these are the plants that indigenous wildlife needs to survive. Exotic plants often crowd natives and may not offer the food and cover requirements needed by native wildlife. But perhaps the best reason to plant native is that these plants are acclimated to our region and require a minimum of care.
Remember that native and natural means are the best bet when it comes to controlling pests in your yard. Pesticides and other chemicals can be fatal to wildlife, so attract insectivores by installing a bat box, or plant Jerusalem Artichokes to draw ladybugs for a natural insect control.
If you'd like detailed information on creating a backyard habitat, contact the Georgia Wildlife Federation for a free planning guide, or to buy Attracting Wildlife to Your Backyard, a Georgia Department of Natural Resources handbook ($4.25 plus s/h and tax). GWF can also assist you in applying for certification as a Backyard Wildlife Habitat through the National Wildlife Federation, which maintains a national registry of habitats.
If you decide to venture outside your backyard, there are several parks, forests, and wild areas in the Atlanta area open for exploration. These are some of the sites that offer examples of both native and exotic species and are great places to view wildlife.
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