Simple guidelines to create essential habitats

As housing and commercial developments spread into wildlands, they encroach upon the habitats that would supply―in their natural state―all the food, water, and shelter that birds and other creatures need to live. By incorporating these resources into your garden, you can help many critters survive as their true habitats disappear.

Food. To keep wildlife in the garden, you need to offer a year-round food supply. “Diversity is the key to enticing the greatest variety of wildlife,” says Judy Adler, environmental educator and owner of a backyard wildlife habitat in Walnut Creek, California.

To provide food, use native plants (which many creatures have adapted to in the wild), or blend natives with non-natives. Create a living smorgasbord that includes plants with berries, foliage, fruit, nectar, nuts, pollen, sap, and seeds, so critters can dine on what they like. Insects also provide food for birds, toads, and other creatures. (For all wildlife to thrive, it’s critical that you avoid using toxic chemicals in the garden.)

“Use plants that bloom at different times of the year,” says Adler. “For instance, hummingbirds are attracted to coral bells and columbine in spring, scarlet monkey flower and salvia in summer, and California fuchsia in late summer and fall.” If your garden lacks food during certain months, put up bird feeders.

“My bird feeders go up in winter and come down in spring when the insects appear,” says Lisa Albert, owner of a certified habitat in Tualatin, Oregon. “I try not to rely on feeders because there are lots of cats in the neighborhood.” Instead, Albert’s garden offers wild visitors evergreen huckleberry, flowering red currant, Oregon grape, salal, and other food plants.

Water. It’s essential for wildlife survival, so a backyard habitat must include a year-round source.

Ponds are handsome garden features, and they attract many kinds of wildlife (control mosquitoes with Bacillus thuringiensis israelensis, manufactured for pond use in granules or doughnut-shaped disks). The sound of water from a waterfall or fountain enhances the attraction.

Water can also be supplied on a smaller scale―in birdbaths, buckets, or water bowls. One easy way to keep them filled is to run a drip irrigation line to each source. Hose them out every other day (particularly during the warm season), then periodically scrub them with a brush. In cold-winter climates, add a heater to your birdbath to keep it from freezing.

Shelter. Birds and other wild critters need leafy or twiggy covering to protect them from predators and the elements. Dense shrubbery can provide shelter, as can brush piles, thickets of rugosa roses, or tall evergreen trees such as coast live oak, deodar cedar, or redwood. Additional cover can be made from hollow logs, stacked rocks, and woodpiles, which form perfect hiding places for lizards, quail, rabbits, and other small animals.

Nesting places. The same dense shrubbery, tall trees, and grasses that shelter passing wildlife also provide nesting places for a variety of creatures. Supplement them by hanging up bat houses, birdhouses, and orchard mason bee homes (blocks of wood drilled with holes).

Keep in mind that cats and wildlife don’t mix. Bells worn around cats’ necks to warn wildlife don’t always work. It’s best to keep cats indoors. If that’s not possible, feed your cat indoors at prime bird-feeding times (early morning and early evening), and place feeders and nesting boxes where cats can’t reach them.

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