This is a section of a five-part series produced by FLOW to educate residents about backyard conservation.
In the past thirty years, there has been a 90% increase in urban development in Ohio. This pattern is continuing – in the next thirty years, the Olentangy Watershed is expected to gain over 200,000 people. This rapid pace at which urban areas are growing is stressing environments and wildlife. One in four birds have been lost since 1970, Colony Collapse Disorder is taking down beehives at alarming rates, and the monarch butterfly is a candidate under the Endangered Species Act. Although the situation can look bleak, backyards and urban greenspaces act as oases to support wildlife. Cities and other urban areas can still support threatened species and migratory birds. Your very own backyard, however small, can make a big difference for wildlife.
Not only does providing for wildlife bring joy and entertainment, it also strengthens local food webs and ecosystems. Wildlife needs four essential elements that you can provide in your very own landscape: water, food, shelter, and a place to raise young.
Trees, shrubbery, and other plantlife are the backbone of a successful habitat. A good first step towards a thriving backyard is to remove exotic invasive plants and replace them with native species. Natives are adapted to the local environment, so generally require less maintenance and are heartier. Non-natives often do not provide good habitat or nutrition for local animals. For more information on plants indigenous to your area, consult a local nursery or this online list. Plantlife can provide food, shelter, and a place to raise young; so choosing and maintaining your plants is crucial. Try to cultivate a continuous season by choosing a variety of plants that bloom and bear fruit at different times throughout the year. Even dead plants and trees provide immense value. Dead logs or standing dead trees called “snags” can support more than 400 species. The cavities of dead plant stems provide habitat for nesting bee species. Take a look in your own backyard to see what plantlife already exists and how it might be enhanced.
Although natural sources of food, water, and cover can be successful on their own, supplemental feeders, shelters, and baths prove to be effective at attracting and supporting wildlife. Seeds and nuts are an important food source that you can provide for songbirds. A diversity of food and feeders helps to support birdlife. Sunflower seeds and suet are particularly popular, but for more information about feed choices, visit https://feederwatch.org/. Elevated feeders, bird tables, and ground feeders all provide for different types of birds and should be placed near shrubs and trees. Birdhouses and boxes also encourage wildlife to nest in your yard. Different birds have different preferences about the size of the box and its entrance, its height, and which direction it faces. To determine what box will attract which birds, you can consult the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s online materials. Finally, choosing to install a birdbath or other water feature will also bring wildlife to your yard. When choosing a birdbath, choose shallow ones with rough textures or add rocks or pebbles to your bath.
Hummingbirds, bees, bats, and butterflies each bring their own exceptional type of beauty and all play an important role as pollinators. To protect and provide for these species, you can plant a pollinator garden specifically suited to them. Pollinator gardens do best in sunny locations to support nectar-providing plants which should be grouped in clumps. Hummingbirds specifically like red and yellow tubular plants. Milkweed is critical to supporting some butterfly species. Try to avoid planting hybrids because they have often lost their pollen, nectar, and fragrance. Also avoid using insecticides near or in your pollinator garden. For more details on planting a pollinator garden, check out the US Forest Service’s online instructions.
Supplemental feeders and shelters can help out pollinators, too. Hummingbird feeders can be filled with a solution of one part sugar to four parts water. Try to wash the feeders with soap and water every three to four days. Bees and butterflies like salt licks which can be made by mixing sea salt into puddles or mud in your yard. Solitary bees with no hives to protect (and thus no reason to sting) nest in narrow tubes. You can make bee homes or even “bee hotels” for these bees by drilling 1/8-inch to 5/16-inch holes in diameter a few inches deep in scrap lumber. For more information, check out this source. Bat boxes are another way to provide shelter for pollinators; you can learn about them here.
When we attract birds and butterflies, we also attract other types of unwanted wildlife such as mammals. To avoid conflict with animals, secure garbage cans, avoid leaving out food, and check your house for places that would allow access to rodents. Be aware that these species can carry disease and should not be handled. Consult a pest or wildlife management company for more information or assistance.
We all have backyards, whether they are acres or a few flower pots, and we can all make a difference for our wildlife. For more information on creating wildlife habitat and backyard conservation, you can consult FLOW’s website, the Ohio Division of Wildlife, or Ohio State University’s online resources. There is magic in your backyard, you just have to look for it.