Many people want to know how to help wildlife, whether it’s birds and butterflies–or larger folk, like the raccoon that rang our doorbell at four in the morning. One of the best ways, if you control even a small amount of property, is to manage that property in the best interests of wildlife–which, in turn, is usually the healthiest for you, as well.
But how do you start? How much will it cost in time and money? The good news is it might not cost anything at all, at first. What it might require is to not do tasks that have unfortunately become engrained in our psyche as “responsibilities” when you have a yard.
I’ll post more complex information about yard restoration in the coming months, but for now here’s a simple DO and DON’T list that will help get you started.
POSITIVE THINGS YOU CAN TO DO
—Evaluate the wildlife use of the elements in your yard. Any beneficial impact you can have is dependent on the specifics of your particular space. Don’t know what wildlife already uses the yard? Get a trail cam and find out. Not sure if that non-native bush should be replaced with something more useful? Make sure it’s not actually already good habitat for nesting birds. About to move that log pile somewhere less conspicuous? Make sure there isn’t a box turtle hibernating underneath it. In short, especially for major changes, make sure you have a good sense of what you might be removing that’s beneficial in your particular context. (That said, all the tips below are about removing poison and adding value.)
—Put out clean water in bird baths at various heights for animals, birds, and, yes, butterflies. While feeding wildlife is generally illegal, animals do need clean water as the foundation of any sanctuary. Be sure to only do what you can maintain–bird baths need to be dumped, refilled, and cleaned regularly so the water is fresh and so they don’t harbor mosquitos.
—Leave logs and branches in the yard. A pile of logs or a pile of branches is a kind of micro-habitat that particular birds and other animals will use, especially in winter. Birds like woodpeckers will appreciate the food source of the insects in the dead wood.
—Put up a bird feeder. While many birds will be able to find food in your yard if you follow the recommendations in this post, bird feeders are important in that changing weather patterns and development are making food sources less secure for birds all over the world. Research suggests that bird feeders only supplement and do not replace birds’ diets. In other words, they don’t become dependent on the feeder. For best practices on bird feeders, read this Audubon article.
—Plant native wildflowers, bushes, and trees. Even a small area devoted to new plantings can help your yard be a more robust habitat. Native plantings are the most reward for the effort and require the least maintenance, besides any recommended watering. Here in the US, a native generally refers to any plant indigenous prior to the invasion of North America by Europeans–specific to your region and terrain. An invasive plant refers to those non-native plants officially designated as Class 1 or Class 2 invasives by a government entity (for example, the State of Florida). Not every introduced plant is classified as invasive. Native plants are preferred because they can host many more species of butterfly, bee, etc., than non-natives. Invasives often crowd out or in other ways kill off native plants. You can find more information here.
THINGS TO STOP DOING
As noted, most don’ts save you time and money, while benefiting the nature in your yard.
—Don’t use herbicides. Unfortunately, none of the chemicals in these products are safe. Blanket application of herbicides will poison birds, affect butterfly caterpillars, and may contaminate water sources. Many of the products legal in the US are currently illegal in other countries. Spot application of herbicide to, for example, paint the stump of an invasive tree, is an example of a targeted use as opposed to a wider and more harmful application.
—Don’t use outdoor pesticides. Unfortunately, pest control companies have become very aggressive about selling services using chemicals that are potentially harmful to you and your pets, as well as wildlife. Any outdoor general spraying will harm your yard and any pesticide that boasts it kills hundreds of kinds of insects will definitely also harm you and your pets. Instead, consider targeted application of a substance like boric acid to a particular insect problem if it arises. This is not just cheaper but also will make your yard safe for wildlife.
—Limit use of fertilizer. Commercial, chemical fertilizer is a major source of water pollution and is often both overused and unnecessary. It weakens the soil over time, requiring even more fertilizer use. The best way to not use fertilizer is to research the soil in your yard and plant native plants that do well in that kind of soil.
—Stop bagging dead leaves. Even if you can’t keep dead leaves across your entire yard, retaining them by raking them into certain areas helps preserve a more complex ecosystem. That layer of dead leaves is important for fireflies and other insects as well as the birds that feed on what lives in the dead leaves (and cheaper than bird seed).
—Reconsider frequency and duration of most mowing and weedwacking. Even with upgrades to electric-powered equipment, mowing and weedwacking inflict a certain amount of violence on your yard. The sound alone can discourage birds and other wildlife, while the use of a mower or weedwacker to cut up fallen leaves destroys habitat for fireflies, kills caterpillars, and in general disrupts the equilibrium of the yard. Gas-powered equipment also pollutes your yard and poisons butterflies and bees. The best way to stop mowing is to start “decommissioning” the parts of the yard that are grass–which is the least useful part of your yard for wildlife anyway–and put in more useful habitat.
It’s certainly true that HOAs and other neighborhood situations can limit what you can do, but there are also often creative ways around those limitations. For example, choosing native wildflowers that don’t grow too high and planting them in flower beds that have the regular and tidy look HOAs prefer. (One bonus tip, too: Turn off your outdoor lights or have them motion-activated, to avoid killing pollinating moths, fireflies, and driving flying squirrels away.)
If attempting a small project, you probably don’t need to let your neighbors know. For larger projects, getting your neighbors’ buy-in certainly helps. And knowing whether they use herbicide or pesticide–and if so, whether they’re willing to reduce or stop this use–is important since it could impact the life in your yard.
Whatever you do, large or small, will help some organism’s life become just a little easier. That’s the beauty of restoration or as some call it “rewilding”–nature will find a way, given half a chance.