Yard Restoration for Wildlife: 10 Do’s and Don’ts

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.

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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.

12 comments on “Yard Restoration for Wildlife: 10 Do’s and Don’ts

  1. Dedra McCallister says:

    Thank you.

  2. Alex Bone says:

    We’re friends on Facebook and I saw you post this. Useful and a good bit of knowledge to share thanks.

  3. Linda Otten says:

    These are reassuring tips! My rental neighbor next door is willingly and thankfully helping us preserve our tree root structure that was damaged by he developers. So, we ate putting up a tropical island plant sanctuary on both sides of the fence. However, the rest of my yard is a combination of traditional, container garden, and native species plants. This weekend I get to use my Christmas gift certificate at local native plant nursery/sanctuary. So, thankful. Nice cold full moon tonight. L. 12.29.20.

  4. Kenlyn Moore says:

    Thank you for the education. There are little things here that make a big difference. Happy New Year, 2021.

  5. The biggest thing we have done is to let the grass grow back as wild areas. Milk weed native flowers dandelions Plant natives and let them grow. Also got certified as wildlife sanctuary to keep the city from complaining about our “weeds “. Had to protest to City Hall on occasion. Their inspectors don’t know what they are looking at. We keep the property edge tidy to pacify the neighbors in their super manicured lots.

  6. Eric A Rechel says:

    As to raking leaves: Don’t rake these leaves that fall in the fall because over the next few months, the mineral nutrients that are held in these leave, will be leached back into the soil as the the fall and winter rains and snow break down these leaves. Thus you get some natural fertilizing.

  7. Great information. Thank you!

  8. Robin Hawkins says:

    I’m unable to mow the lawn due to physical limitations and I very much disagree with lawn culture anyway, so I may as well bring back some native plants. But then, I’ll have to contend with my mortal enemy . . . Garlic Mustard >:(

    It’s Everywhere and I hate it with every cell in my body.

  9. TK says:

    One thing to add to this list is to stop feeding hummingbirds red dye feed. It is extremely toxic!

  10. Bonnie hughed says:

    Excellent information. Good rules to follow no matter where you live. I live in Scottsdale AZ & am sending to friends, who like me are creating environments that are safe, across the country.

  11. Denise Louie says:

    Great advice for supporting native bees, butterflies and birds. Their populations are crashing. We all need to help scale up the effort to support biodiversity.

    No other state has more biodiversity than California, which is one of 36 internationally recognized biodiversity hotspots, where human activities have brought many species to the brink of extinction. Audubon’s 7-yr study of North American birds found hundreds of bird species at risk of extinction in the foreseeable future.

    2021 marks the beginning of the United Nations Decade on Habitat Restoration. This is a message of hope that by planting local native plants on public and private property, we can enhance and expand habitat for wildlife. Our human quality of life depends on their ecosystem services.

  12. Martha says:

    We have kept a totally organic lawn for over 20 years. No fertilizer or herbicide, no insecticides. We also use organic topsoil and mulch. Organic lawn care is not as easy as it may seem but we still do it, despite weeds. It doesn’t look like a chem lawn. (We took an organic lawn care class at the local city botanical garden.) However, we live in a house on a city lot which is only 45 feet by 100 feet including the house. It is the law to rake your leaves and we have nowhere to keep a pile of leaves on our tiny plot. We use an electric mower and my husband mows the dry leaves, leaving as many as is possible on the grass. We cannot leave piles of leaves because over time the wet leaves kill the grass that we do have. We cannot compost due to space and time limitations. It doesn’t seem to work well, the composting. We might try this again but it’s not as fast as one may think. We just do our best.

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