Chances are you’ve looked outside a window and seen backyard wildlife roaming your property at one time or another.
Maybe it was a robin, blue jay or even a barred owl. Perhaps it was a white-tailed deer. Or it might have been a salamander, turkey or cotton tail.
Probably it was exciting to see.
But why was that critter in your backyard? And could you do anything to draw it there more often?
There are actually quite a few things you can do to attract backyard wildlife, be it mammals, birds or even butterflies. Most are simple, many inexpensive.
And quite a few are things you can accomplish if your personal “back 40” is just the average suburban lot.
So says Josh VanBrakle of Hershey, author of “Attracting Wildlife to Your Backyard: 101 Ways to Make Your Property Home for Creatures Great and Small.” It’s the second book for the man with a master’s degree in forest resource management.
In this one, he suggests treating your property more like habitat and less like a yard to start.
“Because the traditional, straight-up suburban lawn, that neat, trim, close-cropped grass, is pretty much useless for wildlife, “VanBrakle said. “There’s really no food there. The grass tends to be non-native, so lots of wildlife can’t eat it. And there’s no cover for wildlife to hide.”
It’s better, he said, to mow less, setting aside areas for planting with taller, native grasses and wildflowers.
If local ordinances prohibit that, you can benefit wildlife by just extending your garden, again using native plants. In that way, you can “feather” the edges of your property.
“You’re still helping wildlife. But nobody’s banging on your door, saying, ‘Hey, why are you neglecting your property?’ VanBrakle said.”
And what, exactly, qualifies as native plants? That’s not always clear.
“Even many experts will disagree on which plants are native to which regions,” VanBrakle said.
But in his book, he recommends some options. For instance, he recommends using Audubon.org/native-plants. You enter zip code into the database and get a list of plants native to your region, as well as information on which species of birds are attracted to which plants. There’s information on local nurseries, among other things, too.
There are more such resources than there once were.
“As interest in this idea of backyard wildlife has really grown, particularly in the past 10 years or so, we’ve seen more and more nurseries pop up that specialize in native species,” VanBrakle said.
Many are developing “showier” varieties of natives – so that they maybe flower more often or with bigger flowers – so that those who want to do right by wildlife, but still make their property look nice, can do so.
Planting for backyard wildlife doesn’t mean having to rip out existing gardens and start over, though.
VanBrakle recommends replacing non-native plants with natives as the former die off. That can still provide almost immediate benefits, he said, with wildlife sometimes showing up in greater numbers and variety within one growing season.
“Having one native plant is better than having none. Having two is better than one,” VanBrakle said. “You can do it gradually.”
Of course, if you have a larger property, there are more options when it comes to making it wildlife friendly. VanBrakle covers a lot of that in his book, too.
To begin – and this can work with smaller properties as well – he suggested visiting yardmap.org. It’s a website developed by the Nature Conservancy and Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
Visitors to the site can map out their property, identifying what they have in the way of habitat and plan for what they want to do and where they want to go with it.
Beyond that, think about water.
In a lot of states, particularly in the East, access to water is not an issue for wildlife. But quality water with quality cover can be.
Doing something as simple as not mowing to the water’s edge, or better yet planting a few trees along the stream bank, can make a big difference, VanBrakle said.
“A lot of wildlife is really adapted to forest cover over streams. They tend to like the water a little cooler. They like the shade over the water. And a lot of them are reliant on, say, leaves falling into the stream as a food source,” VanBrakle added.
He also talks in his book about how to manipulate woodlands, covers feeding and things like nest box building, and even discusses how to get funding for larger-scale wildlife habitat work.
VanBrakle closes the book with an eye toward the future, though. The final two chapters focus not so much on wildlife as passing along a love for wildlife.
Specifically, he outlines game and activities for kids outdoors.
That’s critically important, he said.
“A big part of this, from a protecting wildlife standpoint, is how do we get the next generation interested in wildlife and interested in nature? How do we get kids to become more stream addicted and less screen addicted?” he asked.
That responsibility, he believes, falls to parents and grandparents. He offers them advice on how to do everything from backyard nature scavenger hunts to doing an owl prowl.
“The thing I really try to show is, wildlife isn’t just something you see on TV. It isn’t something that lives far away in remote wilderness. It lives right here with us, in our towns and cities and in our backyards. And the actions we each take on our little piece can add up to a big things for our local wildlife,” VanBrakle said.
“Our actions can make a difference.”
Nest boxes and backyard wildlife
Another technique Josh VanBrakle covers for attracting backyard wildlife is building next boxes, bat boxes and other structures.
He lists some resources in his book for getting plans and even kits.
There’s another option, too.
The Pennsylvania Game Commission is selling bluebird boxes and box kits from its Howard Nursery. It produces about 4,000 houses and 10,000 kits each winter.
They’re available for sale at the Nursery, located in Howard, at the agency’s headquarters in Harrisburg or at any of its regional offices. The nursery ships boxes, too. Call (814) 355-4434 to arrange that.
Boxes and/or kits are $11.66 for one, $10.60 when buying two or more. Special pricing is available for scout and conservation groups.
Other “wildlife homes” – for everything from bats and wood ducks to mallards and flying squirrels – are available, too.
Each comes with instructions on how and where to mount them.
Now is the best time of year to place homes out for wildlife, biologists say, so if you’re thinking of getting involved, act sooner rather than later.
Bob Frye is the Everybody Adventures editor. Reach him at (412) 216-0193 or firstname.lastname@example.org. See other stories, blogs, videos and more at everybodyadventures.com.