By Cheryl Allen
"The retention of wildlife in the cities and suburbs goes a long way toward maintaining the essential bond between people and nature that breeds a sense of stewardship and responsibility for the land and its life far beyond city limits." Robert Michael Pyle
My cats, draped over the back of the sofa, think the yard is wildlife-friendly for their benefit. Avid bird watchers, their interest of late has been the baby bunnies nibbling at the creeping phlox and cotoneasters outside the front window.
Not all developers of backyard habitats welcome rabbits, though. Purdue Advanced Master Gardener Alan Clayton finds them too destructive.
"Rabbits are my most unwanted wildlife, and the occasional raccoon. I have tried many ways (some I now know were 'folklore remedies') to stop the rabbits from devastating our vegetable and perennial gardens. I finally have succumbed to green plastic coated chicken wire. It is not all that attractive (much better than plain chicken wire, though), but it is very, very effective. We had a split rail fence with green wire mesh installed around our vegetable garden. That worked great for adult rabbits. However, all the baby bunnies could get through the mesh; they devastated the tender new growth on the vegetables."
Since 1973, the National Wildlife Federation has sponsored the Backyard Wildlife Habitat program. This program provides encouragement and assistance to those who welcome wildlife to their yards. Alan registered their yard in 1994.
Why register? "The main advantage to registering our yard as a Backyard Wildlife Habitat," says Alan, "is that we learned so much about a habitat by reading all about it and by just making the sketch of our yard to fulfill the requirements. It has been a real learning process."
The Backyard Wildlife Habitat program outlines the four basic needs of all wildlife: food, water, cover, and places to raise young. Of these four, which has the most impact on the backyard habitat?
"Water, water, water," Alan explains. "Either in the form of bird baths (we have 3) or ponds (we have one with a waterfall). We had a lot of wildlife, mostly birds, but after we got the waterfall and the birds could hear it, they 'flocked' to our yard. And in doing so, they ate many insects, most noticeably mosquitoes and Japanese beetles."
The National Wildlife Federation also recommends that, to create a healthful backyard habitat, one should reduce chemical usage and build healthy soil. "Soon after we registered and stopped using chemicals on our lawn and gardens, the birds came in droves," Alan confirmed.
Attracting wildlife means attracting predators as well, the NFW points out. "We have many Cooper's Hawks, and the occasional Red-tailed Hawk," Alan states. "We see them every weekend, and recently we were home for a week (we many times vacation in our Wildlife Habitat) and saw them almost daily."
Unless the animal is behaving strangely, the homeowner usually has nothing to fear, according to the NFW. Still, the presence of predators can be disconcerting.
"We saw a hawk swoop in and kill a bird, smashing a poor sparrow against our garden gate. I went in to Wild Birds Unlimited and spoke with Ben Roush. He congratulated me and said that the hawk incident meant that we truly had a backyard wildlife habitat. So now, I occasionally see feathers in the lawn and just accept it as the natural pecking order of life."
For more information on creating a backyard habitat, visit the National Wildlife Federation online.