For many people the idea of wild creatures in their garden means rabbits and deer eating plants to the ground while birds and squirrels pilfer the fruit trees. While this can definitely be true, if you create a balanced ecosystem in your yard, the plant eaters will be moderated by the predators.
Get Clean and Green
Before you can think about attracting beneficial wildlife, clean up your act. If you wouldn’t drink it or eat it - Don’t Put It On Your Yard. “But there are aphids on my roses,” you say. Spray and the aphids become resistant, their numbers wax and wane. You continue to spray and take on the mindset of a Four-Star General mired in a losing battle. STOP!
No one wants to eat an insect packed full of insecticide. If the aphids get really bad spray them off with the hose. Aphids are not transportation wizards. Knocked off their home plant, many won’t survive. I noticed a group of aphids starting to flourish on my roses the other day, but so did the bushtits. These small birds, the size of a hummingbird, are voracious insect eaters. They scour my roses every few days and voilá, no aphids. I do nothing but watch. Did this happen all a once, NO. So get started today. Stop with the insecticides and herbicides, no one wants to live in or eat at a toxic waste dump.
When Reestablishing An Ecosystem Start Small
Think of your yard as an island, an oasis. As on all islands, the foundation of an ecosystem is the plants. Go Native with your plantings, like this beautiful Fremontia or flannel bush. You will save water, avoid frost damage and begin to attract the smallest wild voyagers, insects and spiders.
If your first response is “No way, insects mean infestation,” let’s talk. White flies infesting your favorite hibiscus? Japanese fruit beetles on your apricot tree? I have two things to say: nonnative insect on a nonnative plant. Native plants have evolved to defend themselves from native insects. Infestations typically occur on plants that have no natural defenses and with insects that are out of control because they have no predators.
If your response is “Uck I don’t want insects, I want to attract birds and real animals,” Let me give you a moment to rethink. A yard without insects and spiders is a Dead Zone.
Arthropods, the class of animals that includes insects, spiders, millipedes, crustaceans, etc., make up 85% of known living animal species. Their biomass is greater than ALL other animal species combined. That’s right, all the whales, elephants, fish and people in world do not weigh as much as the ants, flies, bees, beetles, spiders and krill. You can not have an ecosystem without them.
Open for Business
Think of your island of habitat as a resort with a reputation to maintain. You need three basics: clean water, safe food and safe living quarters. Water can be as simple as a low dish on the ground rinsed and refilled every other day. Moving water is more visible, but not necessary.
For shelter, provide rock mounds or logs for reptiles. Trees are a must for birds, but shrubs are important too. Many native birds, prefer to nest at a mid-height 5’ - 20’ off the ground. If trees aren’t possible a perch that offers height and a good view will help birds feel safe. (Trees provide roosts for birds of prey also.)
Native plants and insects will provide food. Adding a bird feeder or bird house bumps you up from a four to a “five-star” habitat, but they aren’t necessary. A bird feeder, however, will quickly bring seed-eating birds. Bird activity attracts insect-eating birds. They know the seed-eaters will watch for predators. Besides, it’s like choosing between a restaurant that is busy and one that is empty. Which one would you tend to try first? Fruiting or nectar-producing plants will also add to the variety of your visitors.
Safety is a priority. If you want lizards, amphibians or birds you can’t have an urban tiger, a domestic cat, prowling the grounds. Most dogs have less of a need to hunt and can get along with non-mammalian wildlife. Our dog actually watches the hummingbirds at the feeder.
Like any resort, word of mouth, can make or break you. Stagnant water, poisoned insects or a cat lying in wait by the bird bath can turn visitors away. And they will tell their friends. Here again, when you have a bad experience at a restaurant, you think twice before returning.
This is where a backyard habitat becomes more complicated. Humans have reduced native mammalian predators because of our own fear. These larger predators are frequently our predators. Wolves, bear, mountain lions, heck even bobcats and coyotes scare us. I’ve had a coyote looking in my French doors and one night while I was home alone, I could sense something was watching the house. It was a coyote out front.
A coyote is generally not a threat to humans, but it can be disconcerting to have something fairly large hunting in your backyard. However, without these predators rabbit and deer populations can get out of control. We are just in that foothill zone where we occasionally have a rabbit and it is typically preyed upon by someone’s dog or one of the hawks or owls.
Bats however are mammals you can attract to your garden without worry. As insect predators few birds can match them. To attract bats, open water, like a pond or pool, is a plus. Nocturnal insects often fly over water. A bat box or large trees can provide shelter.
Nonnative brown rats and mice can be a problem. They depend on human castoffs, but rats will also prey on the eggs and young of reptiles and birds.
Raccoons, skunks and introduced opossums can also be a challenge. As occasional visitors, raccoons and skunks are valuable snail and grub predators, but you don’t want to feed them. They will be healthier and live longer as wild creatures. To ensure that you aren’t feeding them or attracting coyotes, feed your pets in the house. Pet food bowls can be very attractive to wildlife.
Saving the World
When you create habitat in your backyard I believe you are helping to save the Earth one small piece at a time. Global warming, species extinction and toxic pollution seem insolvable problems, but look out at your yard, the solution starts RIGHT HERE, RIGHT NOW. Restore the native habitat in your yard and help save the world.
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