How to Create a Backyard Wildlife Habitat

Backyard wildlife habitats need to have at least one source of water, and installing a small pond is one way to meet this requirement. See more pictures of gardens.
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­­Many nature lovers jump on the fastest road out­ of town on weekends to spend some time in the great outdoors, but others take a different route. When they want to bask in the beauty of nature, all they have to do is mosey out back. Although their yard may be in the depths of the co­ncrete jungle, they've customized them into an urban oasis where they can coax nature to come to them.

People with these fantastic gardens can simply enjoy them, or, if they're interested, they can apply to the National Wildlife Federation to have their yards certified as a backyard wildlife habitat. There are a number of requirements a garden must meet to be eligible, which we'll­ learn about in this article.

Gardens designated as backyard wildlife habitats (also known as certified wildlife habitats and backyard wildlife sanctuaries) serve a couple of purposes -- not all of them solely for nature's benefit. For instance, birdwatcher­s, butterfly aficionados and gardening enthusiasts all can practice their favorite hobbies without having to leave home. What's more, the habitat's style can also add a dimension of privacy and help boost a house's bottom line.

­On the other hand, certified yards help wildlife in a ­number of ways. Habitat loss and ecological degradation have taken a huge toll on animal and plant populations. Your backyard won't salvage the situation singlehandedly, but every little bit helps. For instance, you improve the environment when you care for a wildlife-friendly garden by composting and reducing the use of chemical pesticides. Soil quality gradually improves, some CO2 gets soaked up and organic garbage doesn't choke up our landfills. If everybody in the United States composted their yard waste and discarded food scraps, the effort could divert 24 percent of municipal solid waste out of our dumps [source: EPA]. Keep in mind that animals do their fair share of helpful caretaking by pollinating plants, dispersing seeds and getting rid of pesky insects.

On the next page, we'll take a look at the main elements necessary for certification and learn why each one is so fundamental.

The Basics of Backyard Wildlife Habitats

You might consider it a lot of work to keep a birdbath full of water and open for business, but catching glimpses of a little robin's enthusiastic splashing can make it worth all the effort.
You might consider it a lot of work to keep a birdbath full of water and open for business, but catching glimpses of a little robin's enthusiastic splashing can make it worth all the effort.
Steve Satushek/Photographer's Choice/­Getty Images


­Four basic components need to exist for a backyard to become a thriving wildlife sanctuary. These are food, water, shelter and space. If you plan on creating a backyard wildlife habitat, you'll want to spend some time considering how to incorporate all of these elements in a way that you and your animal friends will enjoy.

  • Food: Tempting guests with tasty treats doesn't only lure guests to your next party; it can also increase the chance that animals will want to make themselves at home in your garden retreat. Experts typically recommend stocking your wildlife habitat with native plants tailored to survive in a particular climate, and ones that can hold up in a drought. By planting a variety of flora, you'll encourage visits from the birds, the bees and many other species in between. Consider a mix of plants that produce nectar, nuts, berries, seeds, fruits and other succulent snacks throughout the year. You can supplement the food that grows naturally with feeders, especially in the cold season.
  • Water: Water is fundamental to animal survival. Your new four-legged friends need it for drinking, bathing, and in some cases, for reproducing. The water must be clean and can come from natural sources or man-made ones. If you have a pond or a stream on your property, you're way ahead of the game, but the rest of you shouldn't despair. You can install ponds, set up birdbaths or create butterfly puddling areas (shallow, rocky mud puddles). In the winter, heated birdbaths should lure animals to your yard.
  • Shelter: If you have a heavily landscaped or manicured yard, you'll have your work cut out for you here. A backyard wildlife habitat looks nothing like a typical modern suburban yard. In other words, acres of closely mown grass peppered with sparse trees won't cut it. Yards certified by the National Wildlife Federation more closely resemble natural landscapes. For example, imagine layers of blossoming ground cover, clusters of tall flowers, winding tracks of shrubbery, and trees of all sizes. A heap of scrap wood, a fallen tree nestled in one corner near the compost pile and some bushy shrubs provide a perch for birds awaiting their turn in the bath. Birdhouses and roosting boxes can house potential tenants, and you can't go wrong with natural havens like rock piles, brush heaps and hollowed out logs. For bees, creating a shelter can be as easy as drilling several small holes most of the way through a block of wood. Then, just hang it up where it's safe from the elements, like under the eaves of your house or shed.
  • Space: Many species tend to be territorial, so you'll want to provide enough supplies to keep everybody happy. This can involve duplicating resources (like hanging more than one hummingbird feeder) or supplying a variety of offerings (like giving squirrels their own feeders so they'll leave the birds' food alone). It's a good idea to gauge how the animals are interacting with each other and their environment, both in your yard and beyond, to understand how you might meet their needs better.

Observing how the habitat functions can also be useful as you continue to develop it. You want diversity and a nurturing environment for any visitors to your yard. You don't want anything isolated: Food should be nestled into shelter and water should be close to protective cover.

Now that we've got a better idea of what a backyard wildlife habitat entails, let's get into a little more detail in terms of planning and maintenance.

Sustainability Gardening in Backyard Wildlife Habitats

Butterflies can be very picky about the company they keep so if you want them to stick around, try planting something enticing.
Butterflies can be very picky about the company they keep so if you want them to stick around, try planting something enticing.
Christopher Wilhelm/Stone/­Getty Images


­In order to create enough food, water, shelter and space in your habitat to lure animals there, you'll w­ant to begin this endeavor with some careful planning. If you head down to the nursery without doing any research, you could end up wasting a lot of time and money on plants that won't attract the critters you crave. Dra­wing out a design can help you organize your thoughts and create a smart layout.

Plant selection can be tailored to certain species. It's a good idea to choose a diverse selection of hardy native plants that can provide food and shelter year-round. You may also want to choose species that are resistant to pests, although your new animal friends should help on that score.

When picking out plants, you'll want to consider all the ways that the native fauna interact with the local flora. Beyond food and shelter, plants also provide nesting material and places to lay eggs. For instance, different butterfly species need diverse host plants (and nectar plants) to thrive, so not including particular ones could be a deal breaker. Another important consideration to keep in mind is the habitat outside your yard. Is there a pond and a grassy plain nearby or just your noisy neighbors? You can use these pre-existing resources to gauge what your yard will need.

Sustainable gardening is another key feature of a backyard wildlife habitat -- especially if you plan on getting your garden certified. These gardening practices can include composting and mulching, reducing grassy areas while increasing other plant populations, choosing drought-resistant and native plants, and making use of rain barrels to collect water. You'll also want to heavily restrict your use of chemicals like pesticides. Many species have a very low tolerance for toxins, so using harmful chemicals could kill your newfound friends or have them heading for the hills. On a related note, birdbaths and feeders should be cleaned regularly so they don't make anyone sick.

The bees are buzzing and your garden is blooming -- looks like you're ready to get your certification.


Certifying a Backyard Wildlife Habitat

To get your backyard wildlife habitat certified, you'll need to talk to the folks at the National Wildlife Federation, who focus on a variety of conservati­on, advocacy and education initiatives. Once your backyard is able to provide a suitable environment for species survival, you can practice sustainable gardening. The process can be completed online; you simply fill out a straightforward checklist detailing what your backyard features. The categories include natural food sources, supplemental feeders, water, shelter and nesting provisions. There's also a list of sustainable gardening habits that include soil and water conservation, control of invasive species and organic practices.

After that, you'll answer a couple of general questions about your habitat's size and topography, and you're good to go. You can even order a sign for an additional fee if you want passersby to acknowledge your finished habitat. You might also be able to register your yard with some state agencies, such as the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and Texas Parks and Wildlife. Community wildlife habitats are another option for groups looking to greenify en masse.

Even after you've achieved certification, you might still find yourself pacing impatiently: Where's all the wildlife? Sometimes it takes a while to attract animals -- word might be slow to get out that your yard's open for business -- or you might have missed an important step. Some wrong turns include the use of inorganic mulch that doesn't attract bugs (the breakfast of many a bird) and birdbaths located in exposed areas. Birds like to make clandestine arrivals and quick getaways, so if they might steer clear if there aren't any handy places to hide. Butterflies could also hesitate to drop in if there aren't lots of sunny patches and nectar-rich flowers. It may look like clutter to you, but a pile of sticks or a heap of yard waste could be the perfect home for a mammal on the move. Even little tweaks in your gardening could fix your lack of fauna.

On the next page are lots of useful links for information on everything from frogs in danger to farms in skyscrapers -- perfect for someone looking to step up and start doing their part for the environment.

­Related HowStuffWorks Articles

­­More Great Links


  • "A Beginner's Guide to Butterfly Gardening." Bronx Green-Up, the New York Botanical Garden. (12/16/2008)
  • "Backyard Conservation Tip Sheet." Natural Resources Conservation Service of the United States Department of Agriculture. (12/16/2008)
  • Backyard Wildlife Habitat Web site. (12/16/2008)
  • "Greenscaping: The Easy Way to a Greener, Healthier Yard." U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 6/2006. (12/16/2008)
  • "Habitat Fact Sheets Series." The University of Maine Cooperative Extension. (12/16/2008) AMvwweOmmITpoHo%2fFq9PF26OsPz66AHjroZr7pl7CE3%2bv6r2pQ%3d%3d
  • The National Wildlife Federation Web site. (12/16/2008)