Ways to make habitat more friendly for wildlife
In addition to the essential steps of adding native plants and removing invasive plants, which are covered in the other sections of the Bird Friendly Habitat webpages, here are some other very important ways to make your property more friendly to birds, pollinators, other beneficial insects, and wildlife in general.
Note: The list is not ordered by importance.
Northern cardinal on redbud – By Carol Tuskey
- Having variety of nectar producing plants blooming and host plants available throughout growing season to support pollinators.
Hummingbirds, butterflies, moths, native bees, and other pollinating insects are threatened by loss of habitat and use of pesticides. You can help them by adding native plants that bloom at different times of the year to give them the nectar and pollen they need as food throughout the growing season. Also use a mix of nectar and host plants. Butterflies and moths lay eggs on or near host plants so the emerging caterpillars can eat the leaves. And don’t forget the trees. Species like the native oaks host a tremendous number of caterpillars. (see the blog article, “Trees Are for the Birds” for more detail). You are growing food for the caterpillars, and the host plants will regrow the foliage that is lost. See the blog articles, “Your Yard Is Your Pollinator Garden,” “To Every Plant There is a Season,” and “Creating a Pollinator Friendly Yard” for more information. The NC Botanical Garden has a helpful brochure on “Creating Your Pollinator Garden.”
- Creating pollinator and beneficial insect nesting habitats.
Most of the information in this section comes from Doug Tallamy’s recent book, Nature’s Best Hope. Several nesting habitats must be provided to support the next generation of pollinators and other beneficial insects, and it is a common failure in creating wildlife habitats to neglect this part. It is very important to not have grass under the trees and instead allow the leaves to fall and be as undisturbed as possible out to the edge of the drip line or, even better, over an entire grove of trees. (See more detail about leaves in item #4). The caterpillars of many moths and butterflies fall off the host trees and plants and pupate in the leaf litter or in native ground-cover underneath. Roughly 70% of native bees nest in the ground. Ground nesters prefer a small patch of bare, loose soil (not compacted clay), with a slight southerly slope. Even 2 square feet can be enough to help them. Nurse logs are pupation sites for some caterpillars and for wood nesting bees. Some wood nesting bees also use the soft wood of snags. (See more detail in item # 5 about nurse logs and snags). Try to avoid cutting down your native plants in the fall and wait as far into late winter or early spring as you can. Or if you are simulating a Piedmont Prairie, don’t cut them down at all since this would be nature’s way of renewal and building soil as the old growth decays. The caterpillars of butterflies like monarchs will drop off herbaceous host plants (milkweeds in this case) at the end of their feeding and crawl away to other plants or structures nearby to form their chrysalises. Thus, the plants you leave are providing nesting habitat for insects and, of course, provide seeds and berries for birds. Some native bees are pithy-stem nesters and will use old plant stems from the previous year to nest in. They may have several broods in stems left in the garden. Nesting stems are those that are ~ 1/8″ to 5/16″ in diameter and do not “squish” when you squeeze them, for example goldenrod and ironweed. These stems are hollow except for a loose fibrous material that the bees easily remove. Some of these bees have several generations a year thus needing nesting habitat throughout the summer. For others their offspring in the stems remain in the stem, usually as pupae, until they emerge the next year. During spring clean-up, it is important to leave about a 12″-24″ of nesting stems when you cut these plants down to provide summer habitat. The greenery of the taller plants will outgrow and hide the stems. Another idea is to create sheafs of cut down pithy stems and stand them on end somewhere inconspicuous in the yard so overwintering bees may still survive. Tallamy does not favor the use of large “bee hotels” since they concentrate the bees in one place making it easier for predators to find them and for disease to spread. If you want to have these, then make your own much smaller ones with just a few cells each and scatter them in several different places on your property so the bees are not concentrated in one place. See the blog article, “Plant for Specialist Bees,” for more detail on creating habitat for native bees.
- Leaving snags and nurse logs.
A snag is part of a dead or dying tree left standing, and a nurse log is a fallen tree or limb left lying on the ground. A snag can provide nesting habitat for birds, beneficial insects, and, as mentioned, some bees. Woodpeckers also use them to find insects. A nurse log can provide nesting habitat for pollinators, a place for new plants to germinate, and a place to find insects for birds. CAUTION: Only leave snags where they won’t present safety hazards when they eventually fall.
- Using leaves as mulch and fertilizer.
Leaves, when they fall from your trees and other plants, are nature’s way of fertilizing and mulching the vegetation in your yard. Mature habitats can be self-sustaining if leaves are left where they fall. Many insect larvae such as fireflies rely on leaf litter for their habitat and food and, in turn, feed the birds. If you don’t have enough mature trees to provide the leaves, you may be able to obtain a load of leaves for free during city leaf collection. Doug Tallamy writes that if you have too many leaves, the solution is to create more plant beds. See the blog articles on “Littering with Leaves” and “Leave the Leaves” for more information.
- Preventing bird window collisions.
According to the American Bird Conservancy, “Millions of birds die every year flying into windows because they can’t tell reflections from trees, plants and sky. Most of those windows are on houses.” They have recommendations to make windows more visible on their website. You also can get information on preventing window strikes and how to deal with stunned birds from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s article, “Why Birds Hit Windows.” Some tips include keeping bird feeders either within 3 feet of windows (too close to be fatal) or more than 20 feet away. Also use fiberglass screens on windows where possible. See the blog article, “Preventing that Dreaded Thump,” for some more ideas.
- Having a wildlife water feature: Birds and other wildlife need a ready source of fresh water to survive, so small ponds, bird baths, water drips, etc. improve your habitat. These water sources need to be kept clean and fresh, especially bird baths. Also locate bird baths out of reach of predators such as cats.
- Keeping cats indoors at all times or in outdoor enclosure: Outdoor cats kill millions of birds each year and are a special threat to fledglings and ground-nesting birds. Fledglings (birds who have just left the nest) spend some time on the ground unable to fly and are very vulnerable to cat predation. See the blog article on “Living with Cats and Birds.”
- Putting up eastern bluebird and brown-headed nuthatch nest boxes.
These are species of special concern due to loss of nesting habitat. The Brown-headed Nuthatch bird lives only in the Southeastern U.S. They need an entrance hole that is 1 1/8” in diameter to keep larger birds from evicting them and taking over the nest box. Make sure your nest boxes are functional. Some nest boxes are more decorative than functional and can be dangerous to birds rather than helpful. For examples of well-constructed nest boxes, look at the boxes NHAS sells for bluebirds and nuthatches.
- Having outdoor security lighting on motion sensors or turning them off when not needed – not leaving on all night.
Bright lights at night attract adult moths and other night-flying insects. They spend all their energy flying around the lights instead of seeking out nectar for food and mating. The lights make them easy targets for bats and other nighttime predators and for birds at dawn. These adult insects provide essential ecosystem functions of pollinating plants, and the moth’s caterpillars provide essential food for baby birds.
- Reducing lawn area with non-native turfgrass to minimum needed.
Lawns with the typical nonnative grasses such as fescue can require fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides, and frequent mowing, all of which are detrimental to wildlife and the environment. Grass lawns also produce few insects for birds. Creating natural areas with native plants and leaf mulch is a much better and lower maintenance alternative.
- Using only organic fertilizer.
Healthy garden soil with leaf mulch needs little or no fertilizing. But if you have to use fertilizers, use organic ones. In contrast to non-organics, they release nutrients slowly preventing runoff of chemicals that damage streams and lakes, and they build the soil and nourish micro-organisms that are vital to soil health.
- Reducing or eliminating use of insecticides and herbicides and eliminating rodenticides.
Insecticides are indiscriminate in that they kill both their intended target along with beneficial organisms and insects, and they are dangerous to humans and wildlife. Especially avoid insecticide spraying for mosquitoes since in is often ineffective and harms pollinators and other beneficial flying insects. See the blog article, “The Invasion of the Asian Tigers” for more information on better ways to deal with mosquitoes. Also avoid buying plants on which the neonicotinoid insecticide has been used. It is a systemic insecticide taken up by the whole plant that harms bees and other pollinators. See the blog article, “Neonics, Bee-Killing Insecticides that also Harm Birds” for more information. Also see our recommended garden centers on our website for those that do not use neonics. Limited use of herbicides may be necessary to eliminate the harder to control invasive shrubs using a cut and paint method, but persistent and widespread use is not recommended since it can be harmful to humans and wildlife and collect in runoff to streams. Despite claims by manufacturers, there is no completely safe herbicide. Do not use rodenticides. Rodenticides kill rodents by causing them to bleed to death internally, but that death can be slow and painful. Birds of prey such as hawks and owls will catch poisoned rodents while they are still moving around and then can suffer the same fate of slowly bleeding to death.
- Using electric-powered mowers, blowers, and string trimmers instead of gas.
Gas powered lawn mowers, leaf blowers, and string trimmers cause air pollution and noise pollution. Using electric-powered lawn equipment, either battery or corded, is better for the environment. As you reduce lawn area and use leaves as mulch, the need for this equipment will be reduced and, in some cases, eliminated.