Creating Wildlife Habitat

In case you are still wondering about the value of biodoversity, natural habitat and native plants take a look at the statistics offered by Douglas Tallamy: "we've taken 95% of nature [in the Mid-Atlantic Region] and made it unnatural" with buildings, roads, lawns and exotics. It is time to redesign suburbia and acknowledge the critical role our properties play in the future.  

Two pieces of great news:

  1. Even a modest native plant cover on suburban properties significantly increases the number and species of breeding birds and the raw materials for this redesign.
  2. Native plants are beautiful, resilient, easy to maintain, and they save time and money.  

Start by taking the healthy Yard Pledge to

  • Conserve and protect water
  • Plant native plant species
  • Remove invasive plants
  • Reduce or eliminate commercial fertilizers and pesticides
  • Preserve public and private natural areas

What IS A HEALTHy Wildlife HABITAT?

An inviting habitat for wildlife has healthy soil, clean water and offers structure, food, shelter and protection for a diverse number of native animal species. 

Food: In a natural Northern Virginia habitat food comes from healthy soil and the plants that evolved right here in our own region. These native plants help to preserve local pollinators, insects, birds and other wildlife which co-evolved with them.  They not only provide seeds, berries, nuts, and nectar but host a rich community of insects and insect larvae.  Insects are fascinating in their own right but they are also critical to the animals who feed on them. The more diversity in your selection of plants, the more biodiversity in the wildlife they support.  

Water: Clean, fresh water is important to birds, bats and other wildlife.  Putting out a saucer, bird bath, a battery-powered dripper or an all-out pond will give them what they need.  Clean and refill standing water features regularly to eliminate mosquito larvae and the risk of disease. The reward of watching the visitors is well worth the effort.  Retaining rain water with rain barrels and rain gardens to limit storm water run-off benefits your property and reduces stream degradation in your watershed.

Click for a garden structure diagram

Click for a garden structure diagram

Shelter: Whether it's protection from the elements, safe places to hide from predators, or secure locations to hide nests, providing shelter is one of the best ways to make your property bird-friendly. Nature offers structure in different layers or stories: trees provide the canopy layer or over-story. The mid-story layers are created by small trees and shrubs. And the under-story is provided by the ground cover of grasses and broad-leaved herbaceous plants.  Year-round cover is provided by evergreen trees and shrubs, leaf litter, and brush piles.  Adding nesting boxes and winter roosting boxes can help to make up for the loss of old cavity-laden trees in our more urban neighborhoods. 

Protection: Reducing or eliminating the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers will allow helpful insects and soil-dwellers thrive.  Instead of spraying to keep caterpillars from munching on your native plants you can rejoice that someone is eating them.  They are either about to be food for other wildlife or transform themselves into something beautiful and helpful.   Rather than spraying for mosquitoes and catching beneficial insects in the cross-hairs reduce their breeding capacity by eliminating standing water or treating with mosquito dunks or pellets.  Keeping your cat indoors will protect your wildlife. While hunting may be in a cat's nature they are not native to the United States and wildlife. Studies show domestic cats kill 2.4 billion birds a year in the United States, not to mention small mammals and reptiles valuable to your natural habitat.

Natural Gardening

Gardening and Landscaping for Nature will help you plan your native landscape projects.  You can also download the full 80 page The Nature of Change: Preserving the Natural Heritage of a Dynamic Region from by Audubon At Home in Northern Virginia.

Download USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service booklet Backyard Conservation with pointers. ideas and pictures to inspire you to action.  

Learn healthy gardening basics for Natural Pest Control

Don't have a large space? Convert a small space in your yard or even containers.  Gardening With Native Plants in Containers.

WHAT TO PLANT?

Check out our Native Plants for Wildlife page for some expert recommendations on what to plant to create or enhance your habitat and attract wildlife.  

Gardening for Pollinators offers guidance on placement and plant choices to attract butterflies, native bees and hummingbirds.

For the Birds, Hummingbirds and Butterflies: Creating Inviting Habitats; Virginia Cooperative Extension. This 16 page booklet is chock full of information on habitat features and practices that make good natural habitat.

Visit this page for how to Plant Your Yard to Attract Songbirds.

Check out the Hummingbird At Home program.

This brief slide show illustrates some of the better known our local plant to wildlife pairings.

More Habitat RESOURCES

Nesting Boxes provide nesting cavities for many species when natural cavities in old trees are lacking. Check out the Cornell Lab or Ornithology's All About Nest Boxes website and the Virginia Bluebird Society site.

Make it a family project - Resources to engage your children in your habitat restoration project

Controlling Invasive Species

Non-native species, including lawns, threaten to out-compete native species in your yard but worse, they can overcome native species in natural areas.  And while some provide edible fruits for birds their presence and invasive behavior seriously threatens biodiversity and native habitat.

Get to know the invasive plants that may find their way into your yard on their own like Asian honeysuckle, Japanese stilt grass or garlic mustard or they may have been planted intentionally like Bradford pear trees and English ivy. Garden centers continue to sell invasive species, and will until the demand disappears. Avoid introducing non-native invasive species, replace them with native plants, and spread the word about the beautiful native alternatives.

Learn to recognize and control invasive species with these two resources.