Food for wildlife is easy to supply. Besides planting natural foods, you can supplement with a variety of products, especially for seed-eating birds. Although wildlife can't survive in your backyard on food alone, you can attract migrant birds and nearby resident species. The ideal backyard plan supplies as much diversity in food items as possible through plantings of shrubs, trees, flowers, and grasses. Carefully choosing these plants can provide food directly in the form of fruits, berries, nuts, seeds, and nectar. Indirectly, they provide habitat for other sources of food such as insects, spiders, grubs, and worms. Features such as small ponds and piles of rocks, brush, and leaves improve both the variety and quantity of available food.
Wildlife need water, for both drinking and bathing. You can provide water in a birdbath, recirculating waterfall, shallow dish, or dripping hose. Most desirable is a small, shallow pond with an area large enough to support plants that grow in water and around the edge. The pond will become the center of activity for a wide range of wildlife species.
Cover helps shield wildlife from harmful weather and protects them from predators. Different kinds of cover serve the sheltering needs of different wildlife species. Rock piles or piles of wood, for example, help keep chipmunks safe from hawks and cats. Brush piles protect rabbits, toads, and salamanders. Dense shrubs shelter chickadees and cardinals. Painted turtles and leopard frogs hide under submerged logs when threatened. Cavities in trees offer safe places for squirrels. The farther an animal must venture from shelter, the more vulnerable it is to predation, and that is why plants that provide both food and cover are an important consideration. Placing trees, shrubs, flowers, or grasses in clumps creates a natural community and provides diversity. Also, adding specific wildlife houses to your property may attract bats, wood ducks, and a wide variety of songbirds.
All wildlife need space and some species--in particular most nesting birds--are highly territorial. Space and territorial needs vary with each wildlife species. By understanding how much space is necessary for each species, you can learn what wildlife is attracted to your property. Bluebirds, for instance, are territorial and need about five acres per pair. In contrast, purple martins are not territorial, and need only small areas. You can create a larger area for those species that are territorial by working with neighbors.
The greater the diversity of habitat, the greater the variety and number of wildlife species attracted to the habitat. Some of the best backyard habitats are those comprised of trees bordered by tall shrubs and low shrubs, which are next to wildflowers or native grasses bordered by a small amount of lawn. Each border provides a different kind of "edge".
The wildlife habitat components that trees and shrubs create include cover for nesting and rearing young, secure winter cover, and summer, fall, and winter foods. For example, dense pines and spruces provide roosting sites and escape cover for mourning doves, chickadees, and other songbirds. Gray dogwood and American mountain-ash offer fall fruits to migrating birds. Tall oaks and hickories provide hard mast (nuts) to squirrels and blue jays in winter and cool shade on hot summer days.
Mowed lawns require time and money to maintain, and they provide little habitat for wildlife. Monocultures of weed-free grass demand water, fertilizers, herbicides, and frequent mowing, and they are easily stressed by extreme drought or wet conditions. An estimated 70 percent of pesticide use occurs on the nation's lawns, but those with diverse wildflowers, groundcovers, and native grasses provide for a healthier, environmentally friendly lawn, which does not need chemicals. For these reasons, consider reducing the mowed areas in your yard to as little as possible.
Areas with tall, unmowed, or infrequently mowed grasses can provide outstanding wildlife habitat such as nesting and brooding areas, insect-foraging sites, and green foraging areas for deer and rabbits. Brown thrashers, bluebirds, pheasants, and wild turkeys are among several types of birds that also use such unmowed areas. These can be places where you let the grass go wild or where you plant to a specific grass type to create a meadow, prairie, or wildflower viewing spot. Mixing flowers with grasses is a good choice as they will furnish a nectar source for bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds.
Ground covers offer an ideal opportunity to reduce the mowed lawn surface and to develop low-maintenance wildlife habitat. Examples include wild ginger, wintergreen, and bearberry. They pro-vide nest sites for ground-nesting songbirds, brood-rearing areas for pheasants and quail, and protective cover for rabbits and chipmunks. Such plantings can provide more formal settings for wildlife landscaping projects.
Tennessee has a wide variety of native wildflowers that offer spectacular color and are well-suited to a number of locations. What better way to create beauty and wildlife habitat, along with contributing to our state's natural heritage, than by planting native wildflowers on your property? Once established, wildflowers enhance the attractiveness of the landscape, help control erosion, furnish food and cover for wildlife, and provide maximum enjoyment with minimal care. An increasing number of property owners are converting portions of their large, high-maintenance lawns to plantings of wildflowers. After the initial cost to establish them, you will save money and time by not having to fertilize, mow, and rake your lawn. Wildflower stands are also showing up in increasing numbers on public property, such as highway rights-of-way, corporate industrial parks, and various recreational areas.
Planting trees and shrub thickets give some birds roosting shelters, food sources, and places to build their nests. Leaving leaf litter, rotting logs, and fallen branches in a woodland setting provides homes for salamanders and snakes. Standing dead or dying trees attract woodpeckers, squirrels, screech owls, and other cavity nesters. In addition to creating natural homes for wildlife, consider building nest boxes and feeding stations and placing them in your backyard to enhance viewing pleasure.
In summary, your backyard is the ideal place to create wildlife habitat. Once established, you will reduce the amount of maintenance, saving time and money. In addition, you will have attracted many kinds of wildlife to watch and enjoy.