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Sustainability and Conservation

My Wonderful, Wild Backyard and Ways to Improve Your Yard’s Wildlife Habitat

With the first signs of spring appearing, many of us are looking forward to spending more time enjoying our outdoor living spaces. Spring also means the beginning of yardwork season and time to start new projects in the yard or garden. Maybe you are looking to add more native plants, reduce your water usage, or just change things up to create a more enjoyable outdoor living space. No matter what your goal is or where you live, it is important to remember that we are not the only ones using our backyards. We share the outdoors with all kinds of animals and insects! Whether you are actively trying to attract more wildlife to your backyard, or just aiming to be a little more environmentally conscious, there are some steps that you can take to be more kind to the wildlife that visits and lives in your backyard! For me, I noticed a big difference in the wildlife I saw in my yard a few years ago when I moved to a rental house with a yard that was a bit more wildlife friendly. This spring, as I move into a new house again, I’m excited to use some of the things I learned to make my new yard a bit better for the animals and insects that live there!

A xeriscaped backyard with rocks, shrubs, and yard waste is partially covered by snow.
My xeriscape backyard in early spring

A few years ago, I moved into a rental house near the edge of town with a yard that contained a variety of native bushes, trees, and flowers rather than being entirely grass. This type of yard is called a xeriscape, a style of landscaping designed to use little to no irrigation. Usually, xeriscapes involve a mixture of native or low water use plants, and non-living features such as rocks, gravel, pavers, and woodchips. While I knew xeriscaping was becoming more popular in my area for water saving purposes, I quickly learned about some other awesome benefits of having a xeriscape yard. 

The first summer, I quickly became acquainted with the yard’s resident garter snake. I would often see this small snake on sunny afternoons, slithering through our vegetable garden, hiding amongst the rocks and shrubs, or prowling around the mint and raspberry bushes hunting grasshoppers. My scaly co inhabitant was not the only critter in my backyard. I also saw rabbits, squirrels, frogs, birds, and a variety of insects and invertebrates. From time to time, I would see hawks swoop over my house, returning from hunting at nearby farm fields to nest in the massive elm trees scattered throughout my neighborhood. Occasionally, I would see a hawk carrying a snake, and I would wait with anticipation until the next time I saw my garter snake pal. 

Small black and yellow snake
My backyard garter snake pal

Prior to moving into my xeriscaped rental, I lived in several other houses, usually along busy roads, with bluegrass and dirt yards that had little variety. I imagine how these monotonous expanses must look to an animal. I would think they must feel very exposed out on a grass lawn – with no places to hide, build dens, or forage. Certainly, I had never seen a snake prowling through the short, uniform grass in my old backyard. 

Comparatively, it seemed like there was a whole ecosystem in my new backyard. Through the seasons, I witnessed the small-scale ecosystem interactions happening in my own backyard, such as predation when my garter snake hunted insects (or when the local hawks hunted snakes!).  I watched mutualism occur between my flower bushes and the visiting pollinators like hummingbirds and bees, who drank the sweet nectar in exchange for transporting the plants’ genetic material to other flowers. I observed competition too, mainly between the grasshoppers, the rabbits, and myself as we all competed for the limited amount of dwarf kale in my vegetable garden!

A northern goshawk – one of the many raptors you might see living near human-dominated areas

In addition to the joy of watching the day-to-day activity of my mini backyard ecosystem, I realized there might be other benefits to the presence of some of the animals that were attracted to my yard. After several months living in my house, I realized I almost never saw insects like ants and boxelder bugs inside of my house. It was also the only place I’ve lived where I’ve never seen a mouse inside or outside the house! I give credit to my snake friend – hunting its meals of insects and rodents while unknowingly defending the perimeter of my house from unwanted guests!

My lack of house pests was not the only perk of my mini-backyard ecosystem. The yard’s assortment of native flowering shrubs and plant species attracted a variety of hummingbirds, butterflies, bumblebees, and honeybees. In return, my summer vegetable garden reaped the benefits of these pollinators’ presence in my yard. I was grateful for an excellent harvest of squash, cucumbers, peppers, and tomatoes, thanks to the services these creatures provided.

As exciting as it is to witness the behaviors of my backyard wildlife, I sometimes feel a little guilty, knowing that many of these animals would have fared better decades ago, before my neighborhood was built and the land there was semi-arid shrublands. I think about how larger species like coyotes and pronghorn, which require larger swatches of land than snakes or honeybees, are pushed out of areas with humans. As we build roads and buildings, their natural habitat becomes fragmented, or divided into smaller, unusable units. My little backyard ecosystem is far from being like the natural habitat that occurred here long ago. Ultimately, any yard is going to be less desirable than an animal’s natural habitat. That said, there are things we can do to make our yards a little better for local wildlife:

1. Consider alternatives to chemicals

Using chemicals on the garden and lawn can help keep garden pests at bay and decrease the amount of time spent pulling weeds. But chemicals also have harmful impacts on backyard wildlife. Amphibians like frogs and salamanders are particularly sensitive to a variety of pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides, which may be contributing to their shrinking population sizes. Chemicals can also harm helpful garden insects like pollinators. If chemicals must be used, try to pick options that target specific pests and are not toxic to bees. Better yet, try chemical-free alternatives, like pulling weeds early and often before they get a chance to grow and spread. Or try using mesh netting to keep the grasshoppers out of the garden. These are just two examples – there are lots of ways to protect your garden from weeds and herbivores other than chemicals, although some methods may be more effective than others. Do some research, get creative, and find out what works best for your garden. For example, my great grandma insisted on painting pebbles with red nail polish and placing them around the bottom of her strawberry plants, as an unappetizing decoy for the birds and insects trying to eat the tasty berries!

The leopard frog, like many amphibians in impacted by pesticides and herbicides.

2. Reduce your pet’s impact

We all love our cats and dogs, but they are not a natural part of the ecosystem. Many pets will instinctually hunt or harass wildlife. Leaving a dog or cat outdoors unsupervised is like introducing an unnatural predator into an ecosystem – which can increase stress in wild animals and change their natural behavior. You can help by always supervising your pets when they are outside to make sure they do not bother wildlife. Cats especially may cause problems for wildlife. Outdoor domesticated cats are estimated to kill as many as 4 billion birds each year (Loss, et al., 2013)! Consider keeping your cat indoors to protect songbirds. If you must have an outdoor cat, add a jingle bell to its collar to increase the chance that birds will be able to hear your kitty sneaking up on them.

A ruby-throated hummingbird is one of many birds species impacted by outdoor cats

3. Create variety

Regardless of where you live, the natural environment in your area is likely not a monotonous expanse of grass, pebbles, or wood chips. Animals and insects are used to more complex environments that include places to hide. Adding a variety of trees, shrubs, groundcover plants, and rock features to your yard can provide critters with places to hide and build their nests. A more complex habitat allows for a greater diversity of species: simply put, a variety animals need a variety places in their environment to live, hide, and forage. 

The swallowtail is a butterfly that overwinters as a chrysalis

4. Leave your yard waste

Raking leaves keeps lawns looking tidy. But leaves may actually provide important winter habitat for spiders and some insects. Spiders are a predator of many pest insects and can help decrease the number of insect invaders to your home. Additionally, yard waste like plant stalks and leaves may contain hibernating caterpillars or the cocoons and chrysalises of certain overwintering moth and butterfly species. Cocoons and chrysalises are the non-moving, intermediate life stages of moths and butterflies, respectively. In the spring, overwintering moth and butterfly species will emerge in their adult form, at which time they may pollinate plants in your garden! By removing yard waste, you may be unknowingly removing some of your pollinators! Raking leaves and cleaning up yard waste is a pain, so I know I am glad to hear there is a great excuse to put it off until after the spring!

5. Choose pollinator-friendly, native plants

Attracting pollinators to your yard is as easy as planting their favorite flowers! It is fun to watch butterflies and bees in your yard, and they can help pollinate your vegetable garden. It is important to select the right plants: choose native species that provide the necessary nutrients for the pollinators native to your local area. Visit a local plant nursery or research online to find out what native plant species can attract pollinators in your area!

A honeybee is one pollinator you might see in your yard!

This spring, I’m moving into a new house again. I’m looking forward to xeriscaping a few areas of my yard by adding native, pollinator-friendly plants – both to make my household more sustainable and to attract backyard wildlife. Maintaining xeriscape, especially a xeriscape with many plants and shrubs, can be hard work. I’m planning on writing another piece sometime soon weighing the pros and cons of xeriscape, as well as keeping everyone updated on my various sustainability projects in my yard and garden this summer.

If you enjoyed reading about my backyard wildlife experiences and learning about some of the ways you can make your backyard better wildlife habitat, please leave a comment below and subscribe to Wild Earth Lab for more posts like this one! You can also follow Wild Earth Lab using the links below, to get sneak previews of new learning resources in the works!

Finally, I created a free Backyard Wildlife Bingo game and a poster summarizing the tips in this post, linked below or available on the learning resources page!  Check off the boxes in Backyard Wildlife Bingo while you and your family spend more time outside this spring!


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References and Further Reading

  1. Kawahara, A. Y., Reeves, L. E., Barber, J. R., & Black, S. H. (2021). Opinion: Eight simple actions that individuals can take to save insects from global declines. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 118(2). Available: https://www.pnas.org/content/118/2/e2002547117.short
  2. Loss, S. R., Will, T., & Marra, P. P. (2013). The impact of free-ranging domestic cats on wildlife of the United States. Nature communications, 4(1), 1-8. Available: https://www.nature.com/articles/ncomms2380?fbclid=IwAR1f4AXrbSQLCw-PbK4FuY5Y4SmBsz6Li5FzggXP50rHyzRUz-vBTdGy1ww
  3. National Wildlife Foundation. (n.d.). Plant and Create Pollinator Habitat Gardens. Available: https://www.nwf.org/garden-for-wildlife/about/national-initiatives/plant-for-pollinators
  4. U.S. Forest Service. (n.d.). Pollinator Syndromes. Available: https://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/pollinators/What_is_Pollination/syndromes.shtml
  5. U.S. Geological Survey. (n.d.) Pesticides Found in Amphibians from Remote Areas in California. Available: https://toxics.usgs.gov/highlights/frogs_pesticides.html

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