How to Create a Backyard Wildlife Habitat

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.