An Introduction to Backyard Wildlife Habitats

This is the first in a series of articles on building your backyard wildlife habitat.

male cardinal in snowy forsythia

Cardinal in Forsythia © 2010 B.E. Kazmarski

At dusk a male cardinal, always the last to feed, sat on a branch in the bare lilac outside the north window, bobbing slightly in the wind, sounding his loud, hard “chip! chip!”, his color slowly fading to gray as the light faded from the day and light flurries softened the landscape. I don’t know if he’s saying “good night” or “thank you” or “can’t you turn up the heat” or if he’s not saying anything to me at all, but if I’m at my desk when dusk falls on a winter evening, the cardinal is outside, looking right at me, speaking his piece.

After dark I was in the back yard when the cloud cover parted and the moon, a little past full, shone on the light dusting of snow. The stillness of a bitter cold winter night can be unnerving, the sudden, slight rustle of dry shriveled leaves still hanging on your phlox can seem like a whispered conversation right at your elbow, and the sound of my rubber clogs crunching the snow was so loud I caught myself on tiptoe trying to minimize my disturbance to the night.

It was 11 degrees with a dusting of snow. I’ve no doubt I’ll see the thermometer drop a few more degrees before I decide I’m done for the day.

painting of junco on snowy branch

Snow Bird © 2010 B.E. Kazmarski

I think of the birds and bunnies and squirrels and the others who are supposed to be hibernating but I see their prints and sometimes see them, at this time of day nestled in their preferred night cover, keeping warm with a good day’s food and water in their bellies. I’ve inventoried the winter residents of my little back yard and taken care to provide winter cover and a good varied diet and water for them to drink.

I was outside gathering the plastic dishes, now full of frozen water, to be refilled and replaced outdoors in the morning. It’s part of the years-long habit of maintaining my backyard wildlife habitat.

And enjoying the experience of a cold winter night is as much a pleasure as a warm summer morning as I share the awareness of life in this little piece of wilderness, here in Backyard Wildlife Habitat No. 35393.

This topic has so much information that I’ve decided to break this into a series of articles. This is the introduction, and I’ll also be 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

Planning Ahead

If, like me, you keep a garden of flowers or vegetables or both, you’re probably already planning out your garden for 2010. 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.

Just What Is a Backyard Wildlife Habitat?

photo of yard in spring with bench under trees

The woodland garden in spring © 2010 B.E. Kazmarski

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 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.

photo of bergamot flower with bee

Bergamot with Bee © 2010 B.E. Kazmarski

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

photo of bird bath in garden

The bird bath in the shade garden © 2010 B.E. Kazmarski

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 19 years ago. 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!

Stay tuned for the next installment. Until then, get those garden books out and picture your yard in summer!

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

All the images used in this blog are mine, many from my own backyard. For years I’ve been documenting the flora and fauna here in photography and art, just for my own purposes. 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 see something you’d like, check my Marketplace blog to see if it’s a recent offering, the Marketplace on my website, which outlines everything I sell as merchandise, or e-mail me if you don’t find it in either place. Please also respect that these images and this information are copyrighted to me and may not be used without my consent, but please ask if you are interested in using something and feel free to link to my articles.

Tomorrow we start working…

Identifying what’s growing in your yard, drawing a diagram and listing your plant species.

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

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


15 Comments on “An Introduction to Backyard Wildlife Habitats”

  1. […] An Introduction to Backyard Wildlife Habitats […]

  2. […] An Introduction to Backyard Wildlife Habitats […]

  3. […] An Introduction to Backyard Wildlife Habitats […]

  4. […] often think the cardinals are most stunning in winter when the bright flash of red burns against the white of snow, especially when cardinals group together as they do in winter. But against this brilliant spring […]

  5. […] An Introduction to Backyard Wildlife Habitats […]

  6. Thanks for your answer, Bernadette!

    I have to stay away from yews, hollies, azaleas and many other beautiful plants because of the toxicity to the dogs. Regarding evergreens, the Japanese hollies are OK, and regarding flowering shrubs, the forsythias, too. So I think I’ll try them again.

    I already have a bunch of them covering our fence against one of my neighbors. It turns all yellow during spring, and then dark green, as you must know, and it’s so beautiful! I’ll research on pet-safe fruit plants to place around the forsythias. The bird will love it! Thanks!

    • animalartist says:

      Daniela~I’ve been working on the article with plant suggestions and linking the lists of possibly dangerous or toxic plants, especially for dogs. I’ve actually come up with some interesting and beautiful species that are non-toxic and bloom profusely, looking lovely otherwise. I do love forsythia, though. Thanks for reading!

  7. animalartist says:

    Daniela~I’d like to think so, but sometimes I think he’s just telling me to refill the feeder! He’s there in summer, too, but I’m not always at my desk at dusk in the warmer months.

    I’ve been surprised how much can be fit into a small yard–and don’t forget that you can actually count your front yard and parts of your neighbors’ yards, even though you don’t have control over them. If the little ones use their yards, too, it’s all working for them. You’ll see when I post my diagram with the lists of species.

    And your outdoor residents have probably got the dog thing down and understand the dogs aren’t outside all the time; they just go elsewhere and let the dogs bark!

    Forsythia, even though it’s not native to North America, is still a great cover plant. The photo of the cardinal at the beginning of my article shows the forsythia, and in another article I have about feeding homemade suet block there’s a photo or two of lots of sparrows in the forsythia. I have several and position the feeders near them. Azaleas, climbing roses and lilacs are easy, small fruit trees are great for both cover and food, and evergreens such as arborvitae, junipers and yews provide insulation as well.

    You’re farther north than me, but I’ll bet we have many of the same species. Have fun watching them all on these cold winter days!

    ~Bernadette

  8. It’s wonderful to read your story about the thankful cardinal! I’m sure he is thankful, and I am looking for your next posts.

    I have a 100-square-foot backyard, but with three dogs in it. So the birds and squirrels and not very pleased 24/7. When the dogs are around, they flee. But it’s OK. I see dozens of birds here every day, and I have visitors during winter as well. It’s a lot of fun.

    I’ve bought 3 Audubon bird houses that I will install this year, but I have to buy some huge shrubs to create some protection around them, so the bird will feel safer at one quiet corner of my backyard I chose.

    I live in Massachusetts. Any suggestions on what plants I should get? I was thinking of big forsythia shrubs…

    Oh, btw, I love your painting of the blue bird!!


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