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Build A Wildlife Garden

Create a bird and wildlife habitat in your backyard by using native plants and creating watering spots and cover.

Peter Stangel, Ph.D
Posted: April 19, 2013, 4:00 p.m. PDT

Indigo Bunting
By adding food sources, shelter, water and nesting sites used by birds and other wildlife, you might attract Indigo Buntings to your yard during the summer if you live between southern Canada and northern Florida.
I felt green with envy — well, really pinkish-purple with envy. The two American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) bushes at the edge of my sister-in-law’s driveway looked like the backdrop to a photo shoot in the Garden of Eden. The BB-sized berries formed clusters of cascading fruit that stretched from above my head down to the ground — a good 6 feet.

The purplish fruit almost glowed against the deep green foliage.  My mind wandered to the Gray Catbirds, Northern Mockingbirds, thrushes and who-knows-what-kind-of migrants that would undoubtedly visit the feast.

That did it. I had to have some beautyberries for my backyard habitat. Like so many of the plants and features added to our yard, I first saw this one at someone else’s place, in this case at the nearby home of Bill and Susie, my in-laws. Driving back to our place, it struck me just how important — and simple — a conservation tool it is to share your birdscaping ideas with others. What better way to get others involved with creating habitat for birds than to share your passion for your own creations

Consider Certification
As you develop the habitat in your yard, place of work or worship, or local park or school, consider certifying the habitat as a first step toward sharing it with others. National Wildlife Federation offers a certification program that guides you through easy steps to create food sources, water, cover and wildlife homes.

The online application process includes suggestions for making your yard more attractive to wildlife and, for a small fee, certifies your habitat. For an additional fee, you can order an attractive sign to display at your habitat—an easy way to let others know about your beneficial project. NWF aims to certify 150,000 habitats.

Some state wildlife agencies and local conservation groups offer certification programs. One advantage of working with a local organization is the possibility of talking with an expert who can review your habitat and offer tips.

When we lived in Atlanta, Ga., the local National Audubon Society chapter offered this service. For a modest fee, one of its volunteers visited our property, reviewed our projects and provided great advice about making our yard even more tempting to wildlife. This volunteer recommended eliminating the invasive Chinese privet that had invaded the flood plain at the foot of our property and endangered the native habitat used by nesting Hooded WarblersKentucky Warblers and Louisiana Waterthrushes. Nice call!

It feels very rewarding to achieve certification status, and the resulting signs easily draw attention to your habitat conservation work. You might consider alerting the local newspaper or television station about your certification; maybe one will run a short story or segment about your efforts.  What better way to let others know about possible habitat projects?

Go To The People
Years ago, when I was involved with Audubon Society of Northern Virginia, we received a small grant to build a butterfly and wildlife garden.  As we discussed where to locate the project, most suggestions centered on remote sites, because we were thinking about where the wildlife would be.

After a while, we realized that if we wanted to help people learn about wildlife habitats, we had to go where the humans were. We chose a site next to one of the busiest bicycle trails in the metropolitan Washington, D.C., area.  I wouldn’t have given this spot a second thought as a place favored by wildlife, but people were everywhere.

During one summer, we created a modest but attractive garden that highlighted native plants and food sources, shelter, water and nesting sites used by birds and other wildlife. Dozens of butterfly species appeared on the grounds, and American GoldfinchesIndigo Buntings and other birds visited the creation. Small signs alerted viewers to the kinds of plants in the garden.

On weekends, hundreds of people passed the garden, and many stopped to investigate. We didn’t have a way to determine what impact the garden had on visitors’ habits and habitats, but I hope that we stimulated more than a few to try something new in their yards.

Demonstration gardens provide a powerful way to spread the birdscaping message. If the idea appeals to you, consider a partnership with the local gardening club. Many of these groups maintain small gardens at the highway entrance to their towns or in other prominent spots. If they don’t feature bird- and wildlife-friendly plants, see if they’ll consider adding some or expanding their gardens.

The key to this strategy is location, location, location. The more people that see your habitat, the more impact you might have on their home-gardening habits. Gardening projects like these also appeal to the media; ask the local newspaper or television station to cover the project.

Create Garden Tours
One of the highlights in our town of Aiken, South Carolina, is the annual tour of barns. In this equestrian community, there are some horse barns that I would gladly consider a great home for me! We also have garden tours, and a tour of water features recently started.

Tours offer a fantastic way to showcase the best of the best, and there is no better option for finding ideas for your space.  I’m thinking that the next step is a tour of homemade wildlife habitats. I already know a few people with some awesome birdfeeding stations nestled in habitat projects. We might even set up the tour as a fundraiser and use the proceeds to aid a local conservation organization.

When you help others see what a healthy habitat looks like, you’re guaranteed to inspire a few individuals about doing something on their properties. As for those beautyberries that inspired me, I’ve got six now. They are not nearly as radiant as those at Susie and Bill’s house, but they are coming along. They form the centerpiece of my fruit and berry extravaganza, which might lure some interesting migrants. 

Each season, my yard gets a little better for birds and other wildlife — and I owe most of my ideas to the creativity and skills of others, whom I unabashedly copy.  Thanks, Susie and Bill

Excerpt from WildBird Magazine, November/December 2011 issue, with permission from its publisher, I-5 Publishing LLC. To purchase digital back issues of WildBird Magazine, click here.

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