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Your Backyard Wildlife Habitat: Start Planning Now

Early autumn, when the summer perennials and annuals are at their peak of size and often bloom, is a good time to assess your yard.

Leaves are beginning to fall, migrating birds are settling in, my favorite wildflowers, the autumn asters, are blooming and I'm planning what I'll grow and do in my yard next year.

Enjoying the experience of an mild autumn afternoon or helping the birds through a cold winter day is a pleasure as I share the awareness of life in this little piece of wilderness, here in Backyard Wildlife Habitat No. 35393.

Planning Ahead

If, like me, you keep a garden of flowers or vegetables or both, you’re probably already planning out your garden for 2013. And if you feed birds summer or winter and have an awareness of other flora and fauna in your yard and area, you might want to work a plan for a backyard wildlife habitat into this year’s garden, or you might find that you’ve already got the important parts and you want to enhance or start expanding it.

Many people think of late winter or spring as the best time to plan a garden, in part that's because it's when we gardeners actually have some time because we aren't out there in the dirt. But it's easy to overplan and overplant when you're longing for planting season to arrive and long sweaty days trimming and mulching and such seem like a joy on a cold snowy day. Early autumn, when the summer perennials and annuals are at their peak of size and often bloom, is a good time to assess your yard to see what changes you should make and what additions you can realistically include.

Take a look at the size and shape of what grows in your yard now, and think about what you'd like to have or what may make your habitat complete, then determine if you have a spot where it would thrive. Also think of how much time you've spent developing and maintaining what you have and if there are any changes you can make to use your time more effectively, and if you have time for more stuff; I've always wanted a pond, but I know in my shady north-facing tree-surrounded yard it wouldn't thrive unless I spent a lot of time with it and realistically, I don't have that time right now.

Just What Is a Backyard Wildlife Habitat?

It’s not turning your yard into a weed patch, as I’ve heard some people worry. It’s simply providing for the needs of your native species of flora and fauna so that they can thrive and reproduce.

Basically, if you have a bird feeder and bird bath, you or your neighbors have a few mature trees of various species and some dense twiggy shrubs or evergreens and flowering plants in your yard, you are providing for the needs of many species. And you can even provide habitat if you live in an apartment; if you feed birds outside your apartment window and have hanging baskets of plants that attract hummingbirds, and your neighbor has trees with nesting opportunities for wildlife, you have created a habitat.

And not just for birds and mammals. You are also providing opportunities for growth and reproduction for plants and trees by allowing them to grow in an appropriate habitat, and, since they are pretty much stuck in one spot and depend on insects, birds and animals to reproduce and spread their seeds, you’re providing that as well by attracting the birds.

Insects use plants for food, nesting and reproduction, and birds and other species such as bats eat insects. It all works together.

You can build on this basis and provide specific native plants that flower in various seasons, not just summer, you can feed all year, provide nesting boxes, leave the plants in your garden through the winter, and so on, each action providing more and more for your native species.

The concept is really not any more complicated than that. I had mine registered through the National Wildlife Federation in 2003 after I had spent a few years doing an inventory of all that was here and adding and arranging things until I felt it was ready.

Today I see information on these habitats in garden centers and birding stores and organizations, at the zoo and through local environmental organizations. I’m glad to see it’s so readily available and easy to understand, and especially that many schools are using backyard wildlife habitats as learning tools.

You can go as far as you want with it, and if you stay with bird feeders and bird baths and the right kind of shrubs and native plants to provide cover, nesting sites and nesting materials, you are providing a great service to your local area in helping to preserve your native species.

The Eco-system

Nature finds a balance that allows all species within a given area to thrive. That area can be your back yard, or it can be an entire geographic region in which the plants and animals that depend on each other for their basic needs all tend to live together in balanced numbers.

For instance, American Goldfinches depend on milkweed, thistle and other plants with energy-rich seeds and downy fluff in flowers or seed parts for nesting material and food to the extent that they don’t nest until midsummer when these flowers are finished blooming and going to seed. They use the down to line their nests, and their young are fledging and they are about to migrate when the rich seeds are mature, and they feast on the seeds, leaving on their migration when the local seed heads are just about spent. Birds migrate by day length, not food supply, so unless there is a shortage in seeds it just works out that it’s time to go at about the time the thistle are finished.

I have managed my yard organically since I moved here in 1990. I have my share of insect pests but they never get out of control, and I think it’s because the resident birds take care of them. I may see a cluster of aphids on the top of a broccoli plant in the morning, by evening they are gone. When the blue jays find a tomato hornworm, they drop everything and have a Hornworm Festival, tossing it from one to another all day. I feel bad for the poor thing, but I’d feel worse if it laid its eggs and infested my precious tomatoes!

Getting it all together

This topic has so much information that I have it broken into a series of four articles covering:

  • how I established my yard as a habitat using my diagrams and plant lists as examples
  • how to find information on native species in your area
  • converting more of your lawn to vegetation
  • moving toward non-chemical methods of yard maintenance
  • feeding this, that and the other
  • identifying birds in your area
  • insect-eating residents: bats, spiders, toads, garter snakes and birds

Stay tuned for the next installment when frost comes at the beginning of November and we plan on cleaning up the yard to naturally eradicate fleas. Until then, get those wildflower, tree and bird books and start making lists!

Also read the next articles in this series:

What’s in Your Backyard? The First Step in Planning Your Backyard Wildlife Habitat

What Else is in Your Backyard: The Fauna That Fill It

Bringing it All Together: Enhancing and Developing Your Habitat

About the art and photos used in these articles and on this blog

All the images used in this blog are mine, and nearly all the birds, animals, flowers and insects are from my own backyard. I originally planned this yard as my own convenient subject matter for painting and photography and so for years I’ve been documenting the flora and fauna here in photography and art. All of the images are also available as prints and notecards, some of which I have printed and sell regularly, but I can custom print any image on my site.

If you are interested in purchasing a print of this image or a product including any image, check the Marketplace on my website, which outlines everything I sell as merchandise, and my Etsy shop or Fine Art America profile to see if I have it available already. If you don't find it there, visit Ordering Custom Artwork for more information on a custom greeting card, print or other item.

Also read about my art, photography, poetry and prose inspired by my backyard wildlife habitat:

Art Inspired by My Backyard Wildlife Habitat

Photography Inspired by My Backyard Wildlife Habitat

Poetry Inspired by My Backyard Wildlife Habitat

Prose Inspired by My Backyard Wildlife Habitat

All images used on this site are copyrighted to Bernadette E. Kazmarski unless otherwise noted and may not be used without my written permission. Please ask if you are interested in using one in a print or internet publication. If you are interested in purchasing a print of this image or a product including this image, check my Etsy shop or Fine Art America profile to see if I have it available already. If you don't find it there, visit Ordering Custom Artwork for more information on a custom greeting card, print or other item.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Sandra October 15, 2012 at 12:36 PM
Our cat is an indoor cat, but we occasionally let her outside to eat grass and to get fresh air and sunshine. When we do, we put her on a leash for her own safety. She knows she has to wear the leash in order to go outside and lets us put it on. My daughter sometimes walks her like a dog with the leash. A couple of times she has run out of the house without the leash when we open the door. Luckily she doesn't get too far. She loves watching birds through the front door that use our birdfeeder. We caught her several times chirping like a bird when she sees them. We have chipmunks, squirrels, rabbits and deer outside. One good thing, last year we had a couple of mice inside and she helped us catch them.
NE12Ukid October 15, 2012 at 12:59 PM
I would also add that talking to people who are actually out in the field and observing wildlife, they are not finding cats to be a problem. >>>> Maybe ferals, strays, and "outdoor" cats are no problem out "in the field", but in OUR NEIGHBORHOODS, they are!~ Killing birds is just a part of the destruction they cause. And all because of people who have no sense in their heads.
Parent of 2012 Grad October 15, 2012 at 03:07 PM
Mike and Sandra -- your responsible efforts/actions are commendable and should be emulated by all pet owners. The juncos and white-throated sparrows have yet to return this year in my neighborhood, but I'll take the warmer temps that we enjoyed this past weekend!
Sandra October 16, 2012 at 12:56 PM
We also have a couple of big dogs that play in my neighborhood without a leash who are friendly with owners who are nice and don't let them go in people's yards. They play in their own yards and an open field. I have no problem with them because they are friendly and their owners are responsible. I have a problem with laziness and irresponsibility when someone tries to get by without cleaning up it's mess. Also if your dog is mean, by all means keep it on a leash.
Sandra October 16, 2012 at 01:01 PM
Thank you Parent of 2012 Grad. My sister's cat was hit by a car and killed years ago. I also ran over a cat in my brother's neighborhood and killed it. It broke my heart. I was driving down the road and saw a white flash in the corner of my eye and then felt a bump. I stopped and realized it was a cat. I went door to door to track the owner and had to break the bad news. It was horrible. I wouldn't want that to happen to my cat.

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