Suburban Habitat Renewal

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Suburban Habitat Restoration: One Backyard at a Time
by Sarah S. Mosko, Ph.D.

Yards certified through the National Wildlife Federation can post this sign.

Yards certified through the National Wildlife Federation can post this sign.

Whether you fret over dwindling rainforests or attribute disappearance of neighborhood cats to displaced coyotes, most of us recognize loss of wildlife habitats as a growing environmental concern.

As an alternative to hand-wringing, the National Wildlife Federation offers ordinary citizens the means to take action by establishing a Certified Wildlife Habitat in their own backyard. It’s not only enjoyable but very easy. I know because I did it in a matter of weeks despite starting out a gardening illiterate unable to name one in ten plants in my own yard.

Here’s how the program works. A yard has to qualify in all five areas outlined below, but each offers a wide range of options and only one to three is required per category. Then there’s a two-page checklist to fill out – works on the honor system – and a $15 processing fee. That’s it.

Food Sources
Providing a diversity of food sources is a fundamental requirement, whether via plants bearing fruits, pollen, berries or seeds or even manmade feeders. Red-orange and creamy white trumpet flowers of lush honeysuckle vines and pale purple, clustered flowers of Abelia speciosa shrubs already provided seasonal nectar for hummingbirds, so it seemed a good start to hang a hummingbird feeder to span months when the nectar supply grows scarce.

As a lover of butterflies, learning that my Tea tree provides nourishment for butterflies as well as bees was a welcome surprise.

That birds and ground squirrels enjoy the fruits of my treasured white peach and Japanese persimmon trees was glaringly obvious, but I was pleased to discover that other resident trees or shrubs are abundant producers of tiny fruits or berries also favored by birds – cotoneaster, American pepper, and Indian hawthorn to name a few.

As four birdseed feeders already dotted the yard, I installed, at ground level, easy-to-open hinged & peanut-filled boxes to both support the local squirrel community and entertain my family. A word of caution to the squeamish: The food chain can rear its head in unanticipated ways – red-tailed hawks come around now in search of morning doves or other avians for whom my yard has become a routine foraging stop.

Water Sources
Water sources for drinking and bathing is the category I low-balled because several of the options – like a lake, stream or spring – just aren’t in the cards in my seriously suburban neighborhood. An existing birdbath was enough to qualify, but it seemed prudent to add a second, placed more strategically to avoid predators..

A ‘butterfly puddling area’ is another easy option and can be done without spending a dime. Male butterflies apparently congregate on wet gravel surfaces to sip mineral-laden water. Scientists think it enhances their sex appeal. A pie pan filled with gravel and water, buried to ground level, and voila – a butterfly puddle!.

Places for Cover
As my taste in landscaping runs in the less manicured direction, places where critters can find shelter from weather and predators abounded from the get-go. Monstrous perennial shrubs of pittosporum and Indian hawthorn lining walkways and flourishing xylosma trees all provide excellent off-ground cover for birds year round. A shady grove of Boston ferns, in turn, provides ground level refuge for lizards and hordes of insects. Even a long-neglected woodpile has earned new status as a safe haven for ground-dwellers.

For larger properties, grander scale options are available, like a meadow, pond or cave. However, a humble rock pile, already home to lizards, and a simple butterfly house were the only wildlife cover add-ons I made.

Places to Raise Young
Venues for wildlife to mate and raise young range from commonplace dense shrubs and tall or dead trees to more exotic wetlands, ponds and caves. Living in an older neighborhood where multi-story trees are the norm, my assortment of mature California sycamore, Aleppo pine, American pepper, crepemyrtle, and carrotwood trees, together with copious, lower-level evergreen shrubbery, more than sufficed.

However, an irresistible opportunity presented here to dust off a long-forgotten wooden birdhouse (aka nesting box) my daughter made at camp and nestle it among the patio rafters to await any comers.

Sustainable Gardening Practices
This category covers several practices to conserve soil and water, minimize applied chemicals and encourage native plant species. Having abandoned chemical pesticides and fertilizers years ago in favor of composting and mulching was alone more than enough to qualify my yard. Moreover, a largely neglected compost pile is serving well to recycle leaves and small cuttings on site.

My yard is now Wildlife Habitat #107457, but the certificate is anything but an endpoint for me. How I perceive landscapes is forever changed. Where I once saw just eye-pleasing colors and textures, I now try to imagine from the perspective of a bird, squirrel, butterfly, lizard or honeybee. I want my yard to be more about ‘them’ than it is about me.

I will admit to some pride that I can name most of my plants now. But the flip side is disconcerting awareness that most are non-native species, some even considered invasive or water-thirsty and ill-suited to this dry climate where annual rainfall is short of 15 inches.

Although I’ve no mindset yet to replace such intruders, I’ve pledged that any future acquisitions will be native and drought resistant. For starters, one barren garden spot is already designated for broadcasting native wildflower seeds this fall in hopes of establishing a feeding & breeding ground for local butterflies, come summertime.

Certify by mail or online at www.nwf.org/certify. Showing off your accomplishment with a small yard sign from the National Wildlife Foundation is optional.

4 Responses to Suburban Habitat Renewal

  1. MoskoIdaho Family says:

    Thank you for this information. We went to the website and found out our yard can be certified. We can hardly wait to post our sign! Thanks, again.

  2. Andy says:

    Thank you so much for your interest in protecting environmental habitats and for providing information. Our yard meets all the requirements you specify, but why would I want to pay $15.00 to insult the beautiful habitat around me by placing a large (presumably plastic) sign on the mailbox. Am I missing something here? Please explain why I would want to do this?

    Best Regards,
    Andy (The Ruler of Everything and Nothing At All).

  3. The ability to put thoughts into words is something you seem to have down pat. I found this article interesting and informative from start to finish. I have this bookmarked.

  4. Hey There. I found your blog using msn. This is a really well written article. I will make sure to bookmark it and come back to read more of your useful info. Thanks for the post. I will definitely return.

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