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Your Backyard Wildlife Habitat: Start Planning Now

Early autumn, when the summer perennials and annuals are at their peak of size and often bloom, is a good time to assess your yard.

Leaves are beginning to fall, migrating birds are settling in, my favorite wildflowers, the autumn asters, are blooming and I'm planning what I'll grow and do in my yard next year.

Enjoying the experience of an mild autumn afternoon or helping the birds through a cold winter day is a pleasure as I share the awareness of life in this little piece of wilderness, here in Backyard Wildlife Habitat No. 35393.

Planning Ahead

If, like me, you keep a garden of flowers or vegetables or both, you’re probably already planning out your garden for 2013. And if you feed birds summer or winter and have an awareness of other flora and fauna in your yard and area, you might want to work a plan for a backyard wildlife habitat into this year’s garden, or you might find that you’ve already got the important parts and you want to enhance or start expanding it.

Many people think of late winter or spring as the best time to plan a garden, in part that's because it's when we gardeners actually have some time because we aren't out there in the dirt. But it's easy to overplan and overplant when you're longing for planting season to arrive and long sweaty days trimming and mulching and such seem like a joy on a cold snowy day. Early autumn, when the summer perennials and annuals are at their peak of size and often bloom, is a good time to assess your yard to see what changes you should make and what additions you can realistically include.

Take a look at the size and shape of what grows in your yard now, and think about what you'd like to have or what may make your habitat complete, then determine if you have a spot where it would thrive. Also think of how much time you've spent developing and maintaining what you have and if there are any changes you can make to use your time more effectively, and if you have time for more stuff; I've always wanted a pond, but I know in my shady north-facing tree-surrounded yard it wouldn't thrive unless I spent a lot of time with it and realistically, I don't have that time right now.

Just What Is a Backyard Wildlife Habitat?

It’s not turning your yard into a weed patch, as I’ve heard some people worry. It’s simply providing for the needs of your native species of flora and fauna so that they can thrive and reproduce.

Basically, if you have a bird feeder and bird bath, you or your neighbors have a few mature trees of various species and some dense twiggy shrubs or evergreens and flowering plants in your yard, you are providing for the needs of many species. And you can even provide habitat if you live in an apartment; if you feed birds outside your apartment window and have hanging baskets of plants that attract hummingbirds, and your neighbor has trees with nesting opportunities for wildlife, you have created a habitat.

And not just for birds and mammals. You are also providing opportunities for growth and reproduction for plants and trees by allowing them to grow in an appropriate habitat, and, since they are pretty much stuck in one spot and depend on insects, birds and animals to reproduce and spread their seeds, you’re providing that as well by attracting the birds.

Insects use plants for food, nesting and reproduction, and birds and other species such as bats eat insects. It all works together.

You can build on this basis and provide specific native plants that flower in various seasons, not just summer, you can feed all year, provide nesting boxes, leave the plants in your garden through the winter, and so on, each action providing more and more for your native species.

The concept is really not any more complicated than that. I had mine registered through the National Wildlife Federation in 2003 after I had spent a few years doing an inventory of all that was here and adding and arranging things until I felt it was ready.

Today I see information on these habitats in garden centers and birding stores and organizations, at the zoo and through local environmental organizations. I’m glad to see it’s so readily available and easy to understand, and especially that many schools are using backyard wildlife habitats as learning tools.

You can go as far as you want with it, and if you stay with bird feeders and bird baths and the right kind of shrubs and native plants to provide cover, nesting sites and nesting materials, you are providing a great service to your local area in helping to preserve your native species.

The Eco-system

Nature finds a balance that allows all species within a given area to thrive. That area can be your back yard, or it can be an entire geographic region in which the plants and animals that depend on each other for their basic needs all tend to live together in balanced numbers.

For instance, American Goldfinches depend on milkweed, thistle and other plants with energy-rich seeds and downy fluff in flowers or seed parts for nesting material and food to the extent that they don’t nest until midsummer when these flowers are finished blooming and going to seed. They use the down to line their nests, and their young are fledging and they are about to migrate when the rich seeds are mature, and they feast on the seeds, leaving on their migration when the local seed heads are just about spent. Birds migrate by day length, not food supply, so unless there is a shortage in seeds it just works out that it’s time to go at about the time the thistle are finished.

I have managed my yard organically since I moved here in 1990. I have my share of insect pests but they never get out of control, and I think it’s because the resident birds take care of them. I may see a cluster of aphids on the top of a broccoli plant in the morning, by evening they are gone. When the blue jays find a tomato hornworm, they drop everything and have a Hornworm Festival, tossing it from one to another all day. I feel bad for the poor thing, but I’d feel worse if it laid its eggs and infested my precious tomatoes!

Getting it all together

This topic has so much information that I have it broken into a series of four articles covering:

  • how I established my yard as a habitat using my diagrams and plant lists as examples
  • how to find information on native species in your area
  • converting more of your lawn to vegetation
  • moving toward non-chemical methods of yard maintenance
  • feeding this, that and the other
  • identifying birds in your area
  • insect-eating residents: bats, spiders, toads, garter snakes and birds

Stay tuned for the next installment when frost comes at the beginning of November and we plan on cleaning up the yard to naturally eradicate fleas. Until then, get those wildflower, tree and bird books and start making lists!

Also read the next articles in this series:

What’s in Your Backyard? The First Step in Planning Your Backyard Wildlife Habitat

What Else is in Your Backyard: The Fauna That Fill It

Bringing it All Together: Enhancing and Developing Your Habitat

About the art and photos used in these articles and on this blog

All the images used in this blog are mine, and nearly all the birds, animals, flowers and insects are from my own backyard. I originally planned this yard as my own convenient subject matter for painting and photography and so for years I’ve been documenting the flora and fauna here in photography and art. All of the images are also available as prints and notecards, some of which I have printed and sell regularly, but I can custom print any image on my site.

If you are interested in purchasing a print of this image or a product including any image, check the Marketplace on my website, which outlines everything I sell as merchandise, and my Etsy shop or Fine Art America profile to see if I have it available already. If you don't find it there, visit Ordering Custom Artwork for more information on a custom greeting card, print or other item.

Also read about my art, photography, poetry and prose inspired by my backyard wildlife habitat:

Art Inspired by My Backyard Wildlife Habitat

Photography Inspired by My Backyard Wildlife Habitat

Poetry Inspired by My Backyard Wildlife Habitat

Prose Inspired by My Backyard Wildlife Habitat

All images used on this site are copyrighted to Bernadette E. Kazmarski unless otherwise noted and may not be used without my written permission. Please ask if you are interested in using one in a print or internet publication. If you are interested in purchasing a print of this image or a product including this image, check my Etsy shop or Fine Art America profile to see if I have it available already. If you don't find it there, visit Ordering Custom Artwork for more information on a custom greeting card, print or other item.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

NE12Ukid October 12, 2012 at 11:39 AM
. Bernadette E. Kazmarski 1:33 am on Friday, October 12, 2012 NE12Ukid, you didn't read it correctly. Let me spell it out for you: 39 successful hunts altogether, only five of them were birds. Is that more clear? Thank you, I read your words exactly as written, so I appreciate the further clarification. The deer are happily grazing outside my window. :-) Heard another bird vs cat battle last night. :-(
NE12Ukid October 12, 2012 at 11:41 AM
click through to the links to the actual study and to other data, much of which was compiled by the American Bird Conservancy showing that the effects of predation by cats are miniscule compared to things like tall buildings and wind turbines. >>> No wind turbines nor tall buildings in my neighborhood.
JS October 12, 2012 at 11:44 AM
I'd put cats in the category of what humans are doing to affect the songbird population. We introduced this invasive species and we continue to add to the problem by not taking proper care of our house pets. Of course things like wind turbines kill more birds than cats do, but this article started out as being about our backyard habitat and my observation is that when cats where introduced into my backyard habitat, the number of birds at my feeders declined and I saw with my own eyes several kills by cats. One of the joys of keeping a backyard that's inviting to wildlife is to be able to actually watch the wildlife. I no longer see chipmunks hilariously chasing away pigeons to get at some seed that spilled out of the feeder. Why? My observation is that my neighbor's cats killed all of the chipmunks. I also was fascinated at the time a few winters ago when a hawk swooped down and took a pigeon out of midair and came down in the middle of my backyard with it, rested a few minutes than carried it away. The snow in my yard was bloody until the next melt. Hawks are part of the native ecosystem - cats are not. House cats are just another man made blight on our backyard habitats.
Sandra October 12, 2012 at 12:45 PM
My backyard was my sanctuary unti the girl moved in next door with her mean and beastly dog. They sometimes have 3 or more dogs over there and they are never on a leash. The one viscious dog went after me once while I was in my yard, and went after several other neighbors too. Since she moved in I've been constantly finding dog crap in my yard. One day I caught her and her dog red handed going into my yard. I politely asked her to not let her dog go into my yard and she started insulting my daughter and me. The dog crap continued and we recorded them going into our yard and also other yards without cleaning it up. I eventually called the Baldwin police and they did nothing.
PR Proud October 12, 2012 at 01:33 PM
One of the reasons that I purchased my home in an established neighborhood 20 years ago was because of the ever-present wildlife. It was commonplace to watch the squirrels, chipmunks, rabbits, and birds scurry about in a seasonal display of life's antics and survival. Today, we have none of this. As our wildlife population has diminished, the feral cat population has continued to grow. These cats have proven to be outside "neighborhood pets" to some, although most appear very distant to human contact. They are exceptional hunters, spending the virtual entirety of their days either hunting small prey, or avoiding human interaction. They are only "pets" to those offering them food, or shelter, when conditions warrant this for their survival. They reproduce undeterred, although many of their young often seem to disappear. I cannot have feed stations or birdbaths for the birds, as these wily hunters would lie in wait. It seems that animal control in my area choose not to get involved, as they do not know how to discern the feral from the free roaming cats. These animals are destroying our local ecosystem and the problem is getting worse. Any suggestions (beyond killing these invaders myself)?
Joyce Heinrich October 12, 2012 at 01:33 PM
I am one of those cat owners. They are spayed but I have a hard time keeping them in the house. I do try to keep them in at night because that is when they seem to do the most hunting. :( I have a garden with a pond & thoroughly enjoy it. The fish swim right up to the cats & dogs when they drink from the pond-which amazes me. I cut back my coneflowers but put bunches inside of tomato stakes and leave them in the garden for thr finches. That way I clean up and feed the birds.
Bernadette E. Kazmarski October 12, 2012 at 03:46 PM
Sandra, my neighbor used to let her two big dogs, who were actually very nice dogs, out the front door to use my front yard as a bathroom every morning, and she let them roam all the time. I had to replace the screen door in the back because they jumped on it so often trying to get to my cats it just couldn't hold up. We have a leash law, but all the police did was write letters. It lasted the entire time they lived here.
Bernadette E. Kazmarski October 12, 2012 at 03:59 PM
PR Proud, it's really not nice to talk about killing any animal, though I understand your frustration. There have always been outdoor cats, but we've all noticed with the housing situation in the last several years cats have been abandoned and tend to collect near apartment buildings and institutions, and there is no law against roaming cats, even feral cats. In my neighborhood many older homes were converted to rental units and the turnover is high with lots of cats left behind. At any given time there are a half dozen cats out there but often there are more. I find out who if anyone they belong to and spay/neuter and rehome or return if possible, but I never manage to convince others to keep their cats inside. There are colonies who I and others trap en masse and spay/neuter, removing the adoptable ones and returning the few others, but ironically in some areas we've been told by businesses or property owners not to do that or be arrested for trespassing, and cat populations have grown enormously in those places. If we had more opportunity to do this we'd be able to manage and also educate neighbors.
Bernadette E. Kazmarski October 12, 2012 at 04:20 PM
Joyce, I can help you with some tips for keeping even the most outdoor-oriented cat inside. All my rescues came from the outside and I've bad some pretty wily ones, but managed to keep them all in. I take a few of them out in the yard with me for a short time and that seems to suffice. You're so lucky to have a pond--I've always wanted one but there are so many trees in just the wrong places, even my bird baths are constantly filled with leaves. That's a neat idea with the coneflower stems!
Mike October 12, 2012 at 04:23 PM
"have a hard time keeping them in the house" How? Are they smarter than you? Do they have thumbs? You're letting them out, be honest. You're the boss of your house and you can control what your cats do. If you cannot control your pets then maybe you shouldn't be a pet owner.
Bernadette E. Kazmarski October 12, 2012 at 04:38 PM
Mike, apparently you've never seen a cat open a door and run outside, or pull a screen out of a window, or hide and run past your feet as you go out the door or come back in. I've watched cats do all these things. Yes, I swear they have thumbs, and they are very fast, faster than humans can follow. I am not kidding. Especially rescued cats who have been living on their own outdoors, they've learned to be very skilled at getting out of places they don't want to be in. Sure, some people get tired of the yowling and let them out, but on their own they don't need much help.
Parent of 2012 Grad October 12, 2012 at 05:02 PM
Wow, you must have some habitat, Bernadette! To see coops and bluejays snag that many songbirds is unbelievable. Interestingly, "that the most frequent things cats hunted were lizards and mice, and also butterflies, moths and earthworms" which, of course, are an integral part of the food chain for raptors and songbirds. Honestly, it would be interesting if a $100 fine were levied on cat owners each time their truant pet was returned to them. Bottom line - If I wanted a cat, I would have bought one.
Bernadette E. Kazmarski October 12, 2012 at 05:19 PM
Quite true, I find it horrifying to watch a blue jay beheading nestlings, and this year the crows joined them. And the Cooper's Hawk is always a new juvenile and catches a cardinal, sparrow or even a mourning dove every day. If you have a varied habitat, it's happening there too. The interesting point of what they were hunting was that they were not hunting or catching any species that was endangered or even in decline, but the most populous species around not posing any threat to starving out the raptors--and they were not catching thousands of song birds. There is no enforceable legislation about keeping cats outdoors. I keep mine in, I wish more people would, but the more constructive action is to work with people instead of trying to round up cats. But I find trying to convince people of something much more difficult.
Bernadette E. Kazmarski October 12, 2012 at 05:25 PM
I would also add that talking to people who are actually out in the field and observing wildlife, they are not finding cats to be a problem. There are ten cats outside in my area at this time, most of them belonging to neighbors. In all the years I've been here, I've not seen any reduction in any wildlife, and I'm not a casual observer, I've been out there literally counting the species I see. Most of it seems to be neighborhood issues, and if we're unhappy with that, that's where we need to focus. Anybody have anything to say about the other things happening in your yard besides your neighbor's cats?
JS October 12, 2012 at 05:53 PM
Not a whole lot going on since the cats moved in, sorry Bernadette. Leaves are turning, my windows are closed so I don't smell the cat urine as much anymore. Waiting for the unfortunate ground feeding Junco's to come back so that that particular carnage can begin. Sorry, you touched a nerve with a lot of people. I realize in some larger habitat's that the cats aren't as big a problem, but in a smaller, denser neighborhood, they certainly are. As I said before, I have 2 cats, both were rescues and both I spent time with to make sure they know I'm the boss and they go out only when I let them out and can supervise them. If we can force parents to be legally responsible for their children when they're let out into the world, I would think we should be able to ask the same responsibility of pet owners. Pets are much easier.
Bernadette E. Kazmarski October 12, 2012 at 06:18 PM
JS, I'm glad we've all had the chance to discuss it. I have one commenter on The Creative Cat who writes about how he got his modified AK-47s and pulverized the feral cats on his land, this is mild compared to him. I actually block his comments, he goes on and on with violence and I allowed his comments a few times but he threatened readers, that was enough for me. We are very dense here too, Cubbage Hill in Carnegie is a completely developed neighborhood well over 100 years old. There are a few of us here who work with the outdoor cats and keep them under control, but there was a huge colony, over 100 cats, at the top of the hill years ago from people who dumped kittens in the woods all the time. I really think we ought to keep cats inside, and not just for the wildlife, for their own health. I have people tell me all the time that "cats are supposed to go outside" and I ask them what rulebook they found that in. There are two issues, but it doesn't mean we couldn't work toward it. First, laws are difficult to enforce because it's usually done by police and they have more than enough to do without chasing down cats--and dogs since most communities also have a leash law. Second, there are people who don't spay and neuter because they're lazy or don't believe in it, but there are also people who really can't afford it. I've cleaned up several households of stray cats by providing low-cost spay/neuter information: http://thecreativecat.net/downloads/#.UHhed1FrrIs
Parent of 2012 Grad October 12, 2012 at 06:18 PM
Interesting, Bernadette. I don't find it horrifying watching raptors beheading/plucking their prey. I do, however, find it horrifying to watch someone's cat "play" with a songbird, typically fledgling, or other small mammal only to just leave them laying dead in the yard. I guess the Red-Shouldered Hawk is out of luck. BTW, count me as a person out in the field who will always find an outdoor cat to be a problem. BTW, we just returned from the Cape May Hawk Watch and intend to go to Allegheny Front for migration.
Susan October 12, 2012 at 06:40 PM
My brother had this problem with a neighbor, who was a state cop he watched the guy bring his dog over to poop in his yard. He had just gotten out of the shower at the time. He got dressed and went over and knocked on the door, no answer. He put the poop in a bag and put it on their front porch. The dog never pooped in their yard again.
Maria Daddino October 12, 2012 at 07:25 PM
Hi Bernadette! I so enjoyed your blog. I have a NWF certified backyard wildlife habitat on the East End of Long Island. Thought you might be interested to see my "wild-friends" :) I don't have all of the 2012 pictures up yet but I know you'll get the idea. Here's the link to my Flickr collections - it's the last two that you want. http://www.flickr.com/photos/mariasducktales/collections/
Bernadette E. Kazmarski October 12, 2012 at 07:37 PM
Maria, this is gorgeous! Thanks for writing all the way from Long Island. How big is this, I'd love to have more space. You're an artist too, I see!
Sarah Jo October 12, 2012 at 08:18 PM
I live in Baldwin Twp. I had bird feeders out all around my house. We DID have many songbirds come, even hummingbirds would visit our feeders. There is a family on the street behind us (Haverhill) who have at least 10 cats that are out just about 24/7. They have killed birds and actually left them on my property, sidewalk, etc. It is disgusting. Yes, I am one of those people sick of these cats that should be inside. And, please do not tell me, they are killing the songbirds. They are. About 3 months ago one of the cats (the one with no tail that is brown and black) scooped up a baby bird that had fallen out of its nest and ran off with it in its mouth while it was moaning. I still cannot get that vision out of my head. I want these damn cats kept inside where they belong. I am disgusted when I find their crap in my yard. I, too, cannot keep my windows open because of the strong urine stench. And I do know who these cats belong to. If they cannot or do not want to take care of them, why do they keep bringing home more? Call me all the hater names you want ... I do not care.
Mike October 12, 2012 at 08:19 PM
I've had 3 indoor cats for years. Only one has ever run out.
Maria Daddino October 12, 2012 at 09:07 PM
Thank you Bernadette! My garden is an acre but I have left large natural conservation buffers all around it for my wildlife. And, yes, like you, I am am artist and an author ... it sort of goes with our love of nature, doesn't it? My garden is planted with mostly native plants and I use no chemicals. I designed my pond to be wildlife friendly with big slabs of stone at the edge so that the deer feel secure taking a drink. I made sure that I had big ledges on the waterfall so the birds can bathe. My garden is also a monarch waystation certified by Monarch Watch. And I work with local wildlife organizations. They bring their educational wildlife to my garden and discuss creating habitat and then I take our visitors on a tour. It's been fun for me and everyone seems to enjoy it. Here's a link to my Facebook page - Along the Garden Paths of a NWF Certified Wildlife Habitat - I think you'll like the first two albums ... you don't have to look at all the pictures ... LOL ... just the ones with the beautiful animals. It was a privilege for me to have them in my garden. https://www.facebook.com/home.php#!/pages/Maria-Daddino-Along-the-garden-paths-of-a-NWF-Certified-Wildlife-Habitat/145158812164337?sk=photos_albums
NE12Ukid October 12, 2012 at 09:48 PM
Well said, JS, and very accurate in my experience as well.
PR Proud October 12, 2012 at 10:19 PM
Bernadette, The late spring/ early summer was always a very distressing time for my kids and my wife (when windows are first opened at night). They listened with dismay as the young rabbits were being killed by the cats. When the screaming finally stopped over the space of a couple of weeks, they knew that all of the rabbits were gone. I cannot tell you how disheartening that it is with these predatory cats killing anything within their claimed "hunting grounds" . There is no observable wildlife (rabbits, squirrels, field mice, chipmunks, songbirds, robins) able to survive this constant and unabated onslaught of these disgusting animals. There are at least 10 feral cats living in a 1 square mile area near my home. There do not appear to be many legal solutions, short of having coyotes reintroduced to the neighborhood (being facetious). Like the pythons reeking havoc in Florida, or the wild hogs destroying the Texas landscape, humans created this problem, and it seems, that only humans can correct the cat problems. Unfortunately, the only solution appears to be to kill these invasive cats. The question is, however, who will care enough to do this, and when? In my mind, the sooner the better, as an ecosystem is being destroyed.
Sandra October 15, 2012 at 12:36 PM
Our cat is an indoor cat, but we occasionally let her outside to eat grass and to get fresh air and sunshine. When we do, we put her on a leash for her own safety. She knows she has to wear the leash in order to go outside and lets us put it on. My daughter sometimes walks her like a dog with the leash. A couple of times she has run out of the house without the leash when we open the door. Luckily she doesn't get too far. She loves watching birds through the front door that use our birdfeeder. We caught her several times chirping like a bird when she sees them. We have chipmunks, squirrels, rabbits and deer outside. One good thing, last year we had a couple of mice inside and she helped us catch them.
NE12Ukid October 15, 2012 at 12:59 PM
I would also add that talking to people who are actually out in the field and observing wildlife, they are not finding cats to be a problem. >>>> Maybe ferals, strays, and "outdoor" cats are no problem out "in the field", but in OUR NEIGHBORHOODS, they are!~ Killing birds is just a part of the destruction they cause. And all because of people who have no sense in their heads.
Parent of 2012 Grad October 15, 2012 at 03:07 PM
Mike and Sandra -- your responsible efforts/actions are commendable and should be emulated by all pet owners. The juncos and white-throated sparrows have yet to return this year in my neighborhood, but I'll take the warmer temps that we enjoyed this past weekend!
Sandra October 16, 2012 at 12:56 PM
We also have a couple of big dogs that play in my neighborhood without a leash who are friendly with owners who are nice and don't let them go in people's yards. They play in their own yards and an open field. I have no problem with them because they are friendly and their owners are responsible. I have a problem with laziness and irresponsibility when someone tries to get by without cleaning up it's mess. Also if your dog is mean, by all means keep it on a leash.
Sandra October 16, 2012 at 01:01 PM
Thank you Parent of 2012 Grad. My sister's cat was hit by a car and killed years ago. I also ran over a cat in my brother's neighborhood and killed it. It broke my heart. I was driving down the road and saw a white flash in the corner of my eye and then felt a bump. I stopped and realized it was a cat. I went door to door to track the owner and had to break the bad news. It was horrible. I wouldn't want that to happen to my cat.

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