Urban Wildlife Program
Landscaping for Wildlife
This page last updated: 3/30/99
Louisiana Department of Wildlife & Fisheries
Urban Wildlife Program Series: Landscaping for Wildlife
REMINDER: Download Figure 1 and Figure 2 separately.
There are numerous reasons why people wish to attract wildlife to their yards, but it all boils down to the fact that people enjoy seeing wildlife. Watching wildlife is one of the fastest growing outdoor activities in this country. More and more people are buying bird feeders, binoculars, and identification guides than ever before. Peoples attitudes have been changing. With environmental issues being a major concern these days, people are becoming more aware of nature and natural things. Interacting with wildlife seems to be an activity that brings us a pleasure that few other things can.
RESTORING HABITAT IN URBAN AREAS
Since man has been clearing land to build cities, towns, and farms, a great deal of natural wildlife habitat has been altered or destroyed. Because of this, many of the native species of wildlife that once thrived in certain areas have had to find other places to live and raise their young. Not all species have been affected in a negative way. Some species have benefitted from the habitat modifications that have taken place in developed areas. Because some species of wildlife are highly adaptable, they thrive in urban and suburban areas. Some species are not so adaptable to man's habitat modifications, and have suffered severe declines in their numbers, some to the point of extinction. There are many species of wildlife, especially birds, that can thrive in urban and suburban areas, but need a little help. Many residential areas have a great deal of potential for restoring or enhancing wildlife habitat. This is where the homeowner, or landowner can help.
Most people agree that they enjoy seeing birds and other wildlife in their yards and around their homes. Many people go out of their way to attract birds to their yards with the use of feeders and birdbaths. These are very effective ways to entice birds to come into close viewing range, and at the same time give the birds something they need; food and water. If you want to see more birds around your home and neighborhood, you can make your yard even more attractive to birds, and other forms of wildlife.
One of the greatest contributions a homeowner can make to enhance wildlife habitat is to plant some native trees and shrubs. Native plants are those that grow naturally in your area. Planting native trees and shrubs will help restore some of the habitat that was destroyed when the area was developed. By restoring some of the natural habitat, you will attract some of the native species of wildlife that have had to look elsewhere for their food, water, and shelter. This is especially true for birds. Birds, like all other creatures, need food, water, and shelter to survive, as well as a place to raise young. Most birds depend on plants either directly or indirectly for food. Birds that eat seeds, berries, and fruits, need plants that produce these foods. Plants provide habitat for insects and other invertebrates that insectivorous birds feed on. The trees and shrubs provide shelter for the birds for resting, escaping into when alarmed, protection from severe weather, and in many cases, nesting sites. Although many of the exotic, ornamental shrubs that are frequently used for landscaping will provide some benefit to native species of wildlife, they are not highly recommended. Many of the ornamentals do not produce food for wildlife, nor do they serve as host for the invertebrates that many birds feed on. This is why native plants are recommended.
BENEFITS OF NATIVE PLANTS
In addition to the wildlife benefits, native plants are adapted to the local climate, soil, and water conditions. This means that they require very little maintenance and watering. Native plant species are preferred over exotic, or non-native species for other reasons as well. Animals and plants that evolved together have come to be dependent on each other. If you were to use only exotic species of plants, the amount of wildlife benefit your yard would provide would be reduced greatly. Granted, a single tree of an exotic species will provide more benefit than no tree at all, but a single, native tree would be preferred.
Exotic species introduced into an area often have no natural enemies in the new area. Many exotic species that have been introduced into an area have become a serious problem for other native plant species. The Chinese tallow tree is a good example of this. This species is very adaptable to various growing conditions and will out-compete other native species. Because it has no natural enemies in this area, there is nothing to stop it from spreading out into areas of natural habitat. When this happens, the natural, native species cannot compete and are replaced with the exotic species and the natural habitat is lost. Not all exotic species are detrimental to native habitats, and some can be beneficial in a backyard setting both for their wildlife value and their aesthetic value. In any case, native plants are preferred. Each native species is part of a much larger plant and animal community, and plays a vital role in that community.
Another benefit that comes with adding some plants to your yard is that by reducing the size of your lawn you will need to use less water, lawn chemicals, and time maintaining it. For those of you that are not particularly fond of mowing the grass, this is another benefit. According to the National Wildlife Federation, yards landscaped with wildlife in mind tend to increase property values, and make those homes more sellable. These homes and yards also have a positive impact on the neighborhood.
DEVELOP A LANDSCAPE PLAN
So, where do you start? A good place to start is by making a sketch of your yard which shows all of the trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants that you have now. Be sure to include in the map the different types of habitat in the yard. Record those areas that receive sunshine and those areas that are shaded during the day. Also, indicate those areas that are wet most of the time and those that are dry. If your yard is mostly sunny and dry, you would want to use plants that are adapted to that situation. The important thing to remember is to match the plants to the sites they are adapted to. Make several copies of the sketch and draw a few different sets plans of where you might add some more plants. Keep in mind that the plants you add will not be full grown, and to allow room for new plants to reach their mature size.
Try several different layouts on paper and try to visualize what the yard will look like. If you have a personal computer, you may want to invest in some landscaping software. There are several landscaping software programs on the market that are less than $50.00. Figure 1 and Figure 2 were originally generated with a computer. This is a great way to design your landscape before you ever plant the first tree. It allows you to see various arrangements and try different things.
Layering and Edge Effects
When making the plans, try to create a layering effect, with taller trees toward the back or sides of the yard and the smaller shrubs in front of them. This will create an "edge" effect that occurs when two different habitat types meet. A good example of an edge is where forested areas meet cleared land such as a pasture or field. These edges can be highly productive wildlife areas because of the diversity they provide. If you can re-create this effect in your yard, you will be able to attract a wide variety of birds and other species of wildlife. This edge effect can be done on a small scale to fit even very small yards. Your yard may already have many trees and is shaded most or all of the day.
It may be difficult to create an edge effect, but there are other methods of planting to enhance the habitat. If you have the large trees but no mid-story or under-story trees and ground cover vegetation, you can choose those types of plants to add to your yard. There are numerous species of trees and plants that are adapted to grow in the shade and are very valuable wildlife plants. Using these species to create layers in the vegetation will add to the diversity of the habitat.
The key word is diversity. The more diverse a habitat you can create, the more species and numbers of wildlife you can attract and enjoy. Not only is vegetative diversity important, vertical diversity is very important. This refers to the different levels of habitat created with plants of different heights. Some birds are ground dwellers, some prefer low shrubs, others prefer mid-story vegetation, and still others prefer the tree tops. By including these different layers in your plans, you will maximize diversity and therefore maximize the wildlife you can accommodate.
There are more ways to maximize diversity. Adding a small pond will create an aquatic habitat that will support an entire ecosystem of aquatic plants and animals. A backyard pond does not have to be large to be productive. About fifty square feet will accommodate a variety of wildlife and plants.
Another habitat component you might consider is a type of meadow. This is nothing more than a grassy area that is allowed to grow naturally without mowing. This allows native grasses and plants to grow and provides another different habitat component in the yard. These meadows are mowed once a year or every two years. Not all yards are suited for this. Smaller yards may not have the space to allow this, and it may not be so attractive to neighbors. Larger yards in suburban and rural areas may be better adapted to support meadow habitats.
There are still more habitat components you can add to your yard. These include wildflower beds planted with species that bloom at different times of the year. Not only do these add color to the yard, but they also add pollen and nectar for butterflies, hummingbirds and other insects. Rock piles and brush piles add even more diversity to the habitat. Insects, amphibians, reptiles and small mammals will find homes in these places, and will provide food and shelter for other wildlife.
You may think your yard is too small for all of these different habitat components. Yards as small as one quarter acre can support all of these. It only takes some planning and a little effort. Of course, the larger your yard is, the more you can do with it, but don't be discouraged. Start small, with one project at a time and you will be surprised at what you can do.
SELECTING THE RIGHT PLANT SPECIES
When selecting plants, be aware of the size of the plant at maturity. You would not want to plant an oak tree under a power line where it would end up being cut and trimmed and never allowed to reach full size. Check with the nursery where you get the plants to find out about how big the plants will get. It is important not to crowd shrubs when planting. Leave enough space between them to allow them to reach their full size.
Try to select those plants that produce some type of seed or fruit that will provide food for birds. Ideally, you would like to have as many different species as possible, and have species that fruit at different times of the year. This will ensure that there is a supply of food throughout the year. It is a good idea to include plants that provide different kinds of food. Try to utilize plants that produce hard mast (acorns, nuts, and seeds), soft mast (berries and fruits) and nectar for hummingbirds and butterflies. Many vines are good nectar and mast producers and when grown on a fence or trellis can add to the aesthetic value of the yard as well as the wildlife value.
KNOW YOUR SOIL
The soil in your yard is an important component of the habitat. For the plants to thrive, they need the right soil conditions. It is a good idea to have the soil in your yard tested to find out what condition it is in. In many cases, the soil in the yards of residential areas has been severely disturbed during the development of the area and the building of the house. In other cases, the elevation of the yard has been raised by bringing in fill material. In either case, the soil is no longer in a natural state and may need to be treated with a soil conditioner. It is important to adjust the pH (level of acidity or alkalinity) of the soil to meet the requirements of the plants you intend to use. Under certain conditions, plants that invade the disturbed soil after development will naturally condition the soil to the appropriate pH level for other plants that will invade later.
To find out what condition the soil is in, you can have it tested. The cooperative extension service office in your area can test the soil and make recommendations on how to treat it to best meet the requirements the plants you wish to use. To have this service performed, contact the local office to find out their procedures. It will normally require you to provide a sample of soil to the office, and the soil analysis can be done for a nominal fee.
If you are an experienced gardener, and are familiar with soils, you can test the soil yourself, and treat as required. You can get a simple soil test kit from local nurseries for $10.00 - $15.00. The nursery can also make recommendations on how to best treat the soil.
Not all yards will need to be treated. The soil in many older yards will have stabilized over the years, and in many new yards that were not severely disturbed, the soil will remain in good condition. It may be a good idea to test the soil anyway. You may be able to improve a marginal soil and therefore grow better plants for wildlife benefit.
This may sound quite complicated but it really is not. In order to maximize productivity in your wildlife habitat, quality soil is needed. By using native plant species that are adapted to your specific area, they should all thrive in the proper soil conditions you provide. Acid soil can be treated by incorporating lime to raise the pH. Some soils that are too high in clay content may need to have some organic matter tilled into it. Organic matter will not only add nutrients to the soil, but will also increase the porosity allowing more oxygen to the plant roots.
OBTAINING NATIVE PLANTS AND TREES
It is not recommended that you go out into the woods and dig up plants to put in your yard. Many of these plants do not survive transplanting very well, and in doing so, you may be removing a very valuable habitat component in that area. An exception to this is when an area is going to be cleared for development or another reason, and the vegetation destroyed. If it is going to be cleared anyway, and you have the landowners permission, this type of collection is acceptable. A reputable nursery is recommended for your supply of native plants. Not only are the plants healthy, but in most cases, the people at the nursery can give you advice regarding planting and caring for the different species.
PLANNING FOR YOUR BACKYARD OR PATIO SPACE
A list of some common native plants valuable to wildlife is included in Table 1. A sample designs of a yard before landscaping and the yard after landscaping are included, as well as some suggestions for plantings. If you are starting from scratch, or already have some wildlife habitat in your yard, there is so much you can do to improve it and it is simply a matter of planting the right things in the right place. You do not need a large yard to attract wildlife with plants. An apartment balcony with the right plants in a few hanging baskets can attract hummingbirds and provide birds like the Carolina wren with a place to nest. If you include a birdbath and some feeders in your backyard plans, you will increase the wildlife value of your yard that much more.
With a little effort in planning and planting, you can enjoy wildlife in your backyard for years to come. In fact, the habitat will only get better as the plants and trees mature. Do not expect everything to happen overnight. Remember, immature plants are still valuable to wildlife habitat even if they are not yet producing fruit. The more diverse habitat you can create, the more wildlife you will attract.
Remember that this short paper in no way covers all there is to know about landscaping your yard. Indeed, there have been volumes of text printed on this matter. It is a good idea to check out bookstores and your local libraries for more information. A good field guide to trees and shrubs is a valuable source of information. There are numerous field guides available and they are relatively inexpensive. A good field guide to the birds is also recommended. In addition to field guides, there are a number of good books on gardening and landscaping. Some of these are specifically written for attracting birds to your yard.
The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries has a new book available titled Louisiana Backyard Wildlife Management. This book covers this topic in much more detail and is available through the Louisiana Conservationist office. For details, call the Conservationist office at (225)765-2918. The local nurseries are also a good source of information.
NATIVE TREES, SHRUBS, AND VINES VALUABLE TO WILDLIFE
|southern red oak
MEDIUM AND SMALL TREES
This document is part of
The Urban Wildlife Program Publication Series
Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries
2000 Quail Drive
Baton Rouge, LA 70808
Contact: Jimmy Ernst