How you can create a haven for wildlife

KEEPING WATCH on HABITAT
Plants that are native to North Carolina, such as this coral honeysuckle, boost the chances that a backyard habitat will draw native wildlife, such as this hummingbird. Photo: Tom Earnhardt

“Holes in leaves are a good thing. It means there’s a healthy insect population that will feed the birds.” — Ernie McLaney, founder of CROWN, local chapter of N.C. Wildlife Federation

Birds and animals need food, water, cover and a spot to raise young. When you consider those elements, think of the whole life cycle: Caterpillars and insects feeding frogs and birds; berries attracting birds and mammals, which in turn may attract predators such as owls and hawks.

To keep your more-natural yard from becoming an eyesore, consider structural elements to tie it together, such as paths, and shrub borders. “You can still have open places for play or other activities, but once you start on this journey, you will probably want to get rid of more and more lawn,” says Jo Harashima, who created a wildlife-friendly yard.

Recognize that pesticides are indiscriminate, often killing insects that are beneficial to the landscape and animals. Encouraging birds, reptiles and amphibians will help keep insect populations in check. And it’s important to embrace imperfection as a sign that nature is working as it should. “Holes in leaves are a good thing,” says Ernie McLaney, who leads CROWN, a Charlotte-area chapter of the N.C. Wildlife Federation. “It means there’s a healthy insect population that will feed the birds.”

FOOD. Native plants feed native species. Consider a few favorites:

  • Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis), which enjoys wet places and whose meteor-like flowers are beloved by swallowtails.
  • Winterberry (Ilex verticillata),  whose scarlet berries will make your yard a pit stop for birds that range from wood thrushes to cedar waxwings to bluebirds. Get both male and female plants to ensure pollination.
  • Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana), which draws migrating songbirds to feast on its bright purple berries.
  • Spicebush (Lindera benzoin), host plant for the spicebush swallowtail, an understory shrub with chartreuse flowers in spring and bright red, allspice-scented berries in fall.
  • For more ideas, check out the N.C. Native Plant Society’s pages.

WATER. “Water is even more important than food,” says Ernie McLaney, who leads CROWN, a chapter of the N.C. Wildlife Federation. To keep bird baths and on-the-ground water saucers from becoming mosquito nurseries, McLaney studied the insect’s life cycle and realized it takes five to seven days for mosquito eggs to hatch. So he scrubs out his water dishes every three days. “If you do that and break the cycle, you won’t have so many mosquitoes,” he says.

COVER. A pile of brush in an unused corner can provide shelter for snakes (which can hold down a rodent population, as well) and small mammals. A hollow log turned on its side becomes a shelter for a chipmunk to have a snack. Shrubs with low branches offer safety for rabbits. A broken clay flower pot can be flipped upside down to harbor lizards or toads.

PLACES TO RAISE YOUNG. You can mount a nesting box for birds, plant host plants for butterfly caterpillars or install a frog pond. All are places that help wildlife raise their young. So do mature trees, wetlands and dead trees.

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A bluebird found a perch on a snow-covered branch. Photo: Ernie McLaney