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Landscaping for Wildlife

Landscaping to attract wildlife brings nature close by welcoming it into our backyards. Planting certain trees, shrubs, and flowers can create an inviting atmosphere for songbirds, butterflies, and other wildlife. Another advantage of landscaping for wildlife is creating habitat for animals that have been displaced by community growth and development where space is limited.

10 Tips for Creating a Wildlife-Friendly Landscape

Tip #1 - Limit the Amount of Lawn

Grass offers very little food or cover for wildlife. By reducing the amount of mowed lawn around your house, especially in areas of low traffic, you will be creating shelter and food for many animal species. To help speed up the replacement of lawn, you can remove the grass and plant seeds of native wildflowers that are adapted to the conditions in that part of your yard (sunny, shady, wet, dry, etc).

Replace some lawn grass with ground cover plants, which are more valuable to wildlife. Lawn grasses require a lot of maintenance - mowing, fertilizing, and watering - all of which have high energy costs. Ground covers also provide food and cover for small animals.

Add islands of vegetation. These can be planted with native ground cover, wildflowers, or other vegetation and if possible, locate the islands so they are near each other. A group of islands reduces the amount of open space animals have to cross.

Photo: Mark HostetlerPlant a butterfly garden. For butterfly habitat, add plants for both the adult butterflies and their larvae (catepillars); they often feed on different species of plants. Keep in mind that the food plants for larva will be munched on and may look tattered at times. Another way to help butterflies is to create a small, bare area of moist sand in your yard. The butterflies sip water from the damp sand to obtain the needed salts and minerals (a behavior called puddling).

Tip #2 - Increase Vertical Layering

Increasing plant structure between the ground and the tree canopy is called "vertical layering." Planting a variety of vegetation in different sizes and heights provides more cover and feeding opportunities for wildlife species. Clumps (or islands) of native vegetation with plants of different heights are best.

Tip #3 - Provide Snags and Brush Piles

As trees become diseased or die, consider leaving them standing as "snags" for wildlife that use them for feeding and nesting, such as woodpeckers.

A brush pile or two, especially if near other vegetation, will provide excellent cover and feeding opportunities for small mammals, birds, and butterflies. It will also serve as cover in open areas.

*Madera code calls for the removal or replacement of dead trees. Although Madera's small lot neighborhoods cannot accomodate snags and brush piles, they may be found in the conservation areas for wildlife.

Tip #4 - Provide Water

Water is an essential part of productive wildlife habitats and wildlife will benefit from any water source you provide, such as a birdbath or small pond. Ponds also attract a variety of amphibian and reptile species and enhance breeding.

Tip #5 - Plant Native Vegetation

Use NATIVE plant species in your yard whenever possible. Landscaping with plants that are native to Florida provides better food and cover for native wildlife than do non-natives, and require less care and resources to maintain. Native plants are better adapted to local soil conditions, generally do not require fertilizing, and are more resistant to natural pests and diseases.

Information on where you can purchase native Florida plants can be found at the Association of Florida Native Nurseries.

Tip #6 - Provide Bird/Bat Houses and Bird Feeders

Bird Feeders: Adding birdfeeders of different designs or with different seeds may increase the diversity of birds you can attract to your yard. Be sure to clean all feeders thoroughly, at least weekly during warm weather. Old or wet seeds can rot and make birds sick.

Locating the feeders near cover (bushes, trees) is helpful for songbirds if they have to escape a predator. However, keep the feeders at least 15 feet away from vegetation so that squirrels cannot jump onto the feeder.

Bird and Bat Houses: Adding birdhouses (nest boxes) and bat houses in your yard will provide nesting and roosting shelter for widlife. Several factors will determine which animals will use these sites including:

  • Photo: Mark HostetlerThe size of the bird/bat house (overall size as well as depth)
  • The size of the entry hole
  • The height at which the bird/bat house is mounted
  • The amount of surrounding vegetation
  • The habitat adjacent to your yard, in your neighborhood
Tip #7 - Remove Non-native Invasive Plants

Non-native invasive plants aggressively take over natural habitats and can replace all the native vegetation. What we do in our individual yards can affect areas far beyond our yards. Once established, these non-native plants destroy wildlife habitat, resulting in areas with fewer plant species and fewer feeding and cover opporunities for wildlife.

Before buying plants for your landscape, consult the list of non-native plants for invasive status at the Assessment of Florida Non-native Plants (see Conclusions page) and the Florida Exotic Pest Plant Council (see Plant Lists).

Tip #8 - Manage Pets

Both cats and dogs can drastically impact wildlife. Cats are extremely good hunters and it is estimated they kill millions of birds and small mammals each year and can be especially problematic if you are attracting wildlife to your yard.

Making sure that your cats stay indoors will also keep them safe from strays, disease, and traffic. This idea is widely supported by veterinary, conservation, animal welfare, and scientific communities alike. For more information, visit the American Bird Conservancy's Keep Cats Indoors! campaign.

Tip #9 - Reduce Pesticide Use

Anything you can do to reduce pesticide use in your yard will benefit wildlife. Most pesticides do not target one species or pest, but anything that comes into contact with it. By blanket spraying your lawn, you are also killing beneficial species. Almost all wildlife species are connected to insects in some way. Even if they do not eat insects directly, their prey do.

For more information about the alternatives to pesticides, visit Beyond Pesticides.

Tip #10 - Expand the Scale of Habitat

The required habitat for many species is much larger than what you could provide within your yard. Consider speaking with your neighbors about creating larger wildlife habitat patches. The combination of several different yards will draw more species to the neighborhood. Discuss with your neighbors about designing wild areas at the property lines or on adjacent corners of your properties.

Certify your backyard!

The Florida Backyard Landscapes for Wildlife program through the Department of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation's Extension office helps you plan a new landscape (or helps to improve an existing one) and make it more appealing for birds and wildlife.

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Copyright © 2004 UF/IFAS Extension and Mark Hostetler
Content written by Elizabeth Swiman and Mark Hostetler
University of Florida, Gainesville, FL 32611