Want to make your property better for wildlife?
Plant more trees and shrubs. Remember, vegetation is the key to attracting a variety of wildlife. Dead trees (snags) are especially valuable to wildlife; try to keep them on your property if they pose no safety hazard.
Consider these suggestions:
Add a birdbath, garden pond, or other source of water. A safe place to bathe and drink will act as a magnet to many animals.
Add bird houses, or better yet, try to leave snags on your property. Cavity-nesting birds have been especially impacted by urban development. A bird house of the proper dimensions can substitute for snags where these birds used to nest.
Cover any openings under the eaves or other places around your house where house sparrows and starlings may nest. These non-native birds are undesirable competitors for food and nesting cavities and many native birds have suffered because of their presence. Bird houses and feeders should be designed and managed to reduce use by sparrows and starlings.
Control cats that may be prowling around your sanctuary; they can be especially harmful to birds that feed or nest on the ground. Visit the American Bird Conservancy Website for information on their "Cats Indoors!" program for ideas on how to keep your cats indoors.
Get your neighbors interested in backyard wildlife. Several adjacent yards with good wildlife resources are even more effective. Most wildlife species need areas larger than a single lot can provide. Remember, every homeowner is a habitat manager, and the collective actions of conscientious homeowners will benefit the wildlife that shares your living space
Keep bird feeders clean and safe, if you choose to feed for your own viewing pleasure.
Want to jointly certify your property with WDFW, National Wildlife Federation, and the NW Zoo and Aquarium Alliance? This will register you not only with the WDFW Backyard Wildlife Sanctuary but also nationally via NWF’s Certified Wildlife Habitat Program. Become part of the effort to provide wildlife habitat both locally and nationally! Use the below link to obtain our joint certification program application.
Landscape Design for Wildlife
When we think of wildlife, often we think of creatures such as eagles, otters or elk, creatures we must go see in remote locations. But you don’t have to trek through the wilderness to enjoy wildlife. Whether you live in an urban, suburban or rural setting, whether you live in an apartment or a sprawling mansion, wildlife is as close as your own backyard.
Consider this fact: A typical neighborhood in Washington has more than 25 species of birds and mammals. Hawks, raccoons, and even foxes, frequent some Washington neighborhoods. Robins, squirrels and chickadees are so familiar to us, we hardly think of them as wildlife.
While each backyard is unique, every backyard is a habitat. That makes each of us a habitat manager. As good habitat managers it is our task to strengthen and maintain a healthy living community.
Good environmental stewardship begins in our own backyards.
When we plant trees, shrubs, and flowers around our homes, we are also building homes for a whole community of animals. Even if we plant only a few useful plants, we are improving the habitat for wildlife. Whether your landscape is appropriate for wildlife or you are starting from the ground up, this booklet will help you inventory and evaluate habitat on your property, and how to make your yard suit the needs of wildlife. Whether you spend a weekend, a year, or a lifetime doing it. Your backyard can become a better home for the wildlife already living there and a home for new wild neighbors.
The Backyard Habitat
Appropriate habitat should have food, water, shelter and space. Enhancing your yard for wildlife means providing one or all of these basic needs.
Food - Seeds, berries, nuts, flower nectar, insects, and other wildlife
Water - Birdbaths, dripping faucets, ponds, puddles, streams
Shelter - Trees, shrubs, brush piles, rock walls, rock piles, hollow logs, snags
Space - Corridors, territories, quiet space, open space
A variety of food sources in your yard allows a variety of wildlife to use it. Provide a good mix of plants that produce seed or fruit at different times of the year. Insects are a very important part of the diet of most songbirds, so try to avoid insecticides. After providing trees and shrubs, you may want to consider bird feeders. These are described in our publication “Winter Feeding of Wild Birds Around the Home.”
Animals will walk; fly or crawl a great distance just for a drink because some form of water is essential. Having a birdbath or other source of water in your yard will lure many kinds of wildlife.
Wildlife must have safe places where they are free from danger and bad weather and can raise their offspring. Most animals find shelter in trees or shrubs. Leaf litter and dead branches provide shelter for insects and amphibians. Dense vegetation provides buffers between wildlife habitat and busy areas such as driveways. If possible, designate a special area of your yard for wildlife.
Is your backyard habitat large enough for wildlife? Most birds and mammals need more that the average backyard allows, but that doesn’t mean they won’t visit or nest in your yard. An animal may need less space if other requirements are abundant.
In addition to providing basic wildlife needs, your backyard habitat should have other attributes. Consider the following when designing your yard:Diversity, Layering, Edges, and Native Plants.
These will help your design become a more livable and lasting place for wildlife.
Having a mix of different types of plants provides diversity. To attract many species of wildlife, provide a variety of evergreen and deciduous trees, and different seed bearing, fruit bearing, and nectar producing shrubs and flowers. (See Fig. 1).
Naturally-occurring plants grow in many layers. They include tall trees, short shrubs and ground cover, rather than all the same height. Each level provides a home for varying wildlife species.
Layering can be accomplished by having the tallest trees at the edge of your property. In front of these should come the smaller deciduous trees, then tall shrubs, lower shrubs, and finally the ground cover. Plants and ground covers tolerant of shade should be planted underneath the tall plants. (Fig.2)
Edges refer to the area where two habitat types meet. When trees and shrubs meet a grassy area or stream, for example, they create an edge. Edges are important because they support a variety of wildlife.
Most backyards can use edges to benefit wildlife. Those in your yard should mimic natural edges. This means there should be layers of vegetation with curved and irregular borders, much like the one would find along a natural stream. (See Fig. 3.)
The best habitat for native wildlife is one with native plants, plants that have evolved and occur naturally in your area. Native plants are more closely matched to local soils, climate and wildlife. They will be better, in the long run, at providing the right kinds of food, shelter and diversity needed by wildlife. Native plants typically need less maintenance than non-natives.
While some native plants are readily available, others may be difficult to find. Check with nurseries listed in the yellow pages. When it is not possible to use native plants, choose plants adapted to local site conditions.
How to Design a Landscape for Wildlife
Landscaping your yard for wildlife involves a bit more than adding plants with berries. It means considering other aspects of the environment such as water, soil, climate and sun.
Don’t be discouraged if you have never designed your own landscape, and don’t worry if you don’t have a degree in wildlife science. Landscaping can be fun, especially with a bit of planning.
Every good landscape starts with a plan that will help you establish priorities and guide the development of your yard over the years.
Many of us “plan” by trial and error. In our living rooms, we move couches and chairs about in an effort to find the right look. It isn’t easy, though, to move trees around to find the best landscape arrangement. That makes planning all the more important. Sketch out alternative landscape arrangements before beginning any work. It will help prevent costly mistakes and wasted time. Planning also helps you identify ecological relationships in your yard that you may not have noticed.
The Four Basic Steps of Landscape Design
Creating a landscape for wildlife involves four basic steps:
1. Outline needs
2. Inventory existing conditions
3. Evaluate conditions
4. Design a plan
1. Outline Needs
Your needs: Think about how you like to use your backyard. Do you like to eat or visit with family and friends in a shaded area? Do you like to read in a quiet, secluded area? Do your children like to play in a sandbox?
Your backyard can accommodate these and other activities while providing for the needs of wildlife. Wildlife enhancement doesn’t mean giving up the activities you enjoy, but rather being sensitive to the needs of wildlife.
You might separate your high-use areas, for example, from those for wildlife. In defining your needs, make a list of the kinds of activities, features, space, and qualities you want in your yard. Garden design books are good sources of ideas and are available at your local library.
Wildlife needs: Wildlife will only visit your backyard if it has the proper combination of the four habitat needs
Meeting all the requirements for varying wildlife species may seem overwhelming, but don’t despair. Vegetation is the key to attracting most species of wildlife. Providing an abundance of trees and shrubs meets the survival requirements for most small wildlife in residential areas of Washington.
2. Inventory Existing Conditions
The second step in designing a landscape for wildlife is to inventory and map the existing conditions in your yard.
The information obtained during the inventory must be put on a base map of your property. Making a base map isn’t difficult, and it will help you create an effective habitat. The purpose of the inventory base map is to help you know what you already have in your yard and what you need to add to make it better for wildlife. See Fig. 4 for an example of a base map.
This base map will be used in the last two steps: evaluating your yard and designing a habitat site plan. You will be adding different ideas and possibilities to your base map so either use tracing paper over the map or make several photocopies of it.
3. Evaluate Plans
Now that you have made an inventory of your backyard, you can evaluate its present and potential effectiveness as a habitat.
An easy tool for evaluating your yard is the “bubble diagram.” Bubble diagrams are preliminary sketches drawn on tracing paper or photocopies of the base map. Sketch only broad areas of interest and potential. Avoid details that will probably change later anyway. Draw circles around areas as if they were “blobs” of space, ignoring details of shapes. Use heavy arrows to show views and heavy lines to show walls of vegetation or structures. An example of a bubble diagram is shown in Fig. 5.
4. Design a Plan
While having the right habitat features is very important, the way in which you put it all together could add to the success of your habitat. Wildlife may not use the area you set aside for them if, for example, the area is crisscrossed by busy paths. Little wildlife will venture into your quiet viewing area if it is surrounded by a basketball court and driveway.
How to Inventory and Map
Step 1: Determine the dimensions of your property. Then decide on a scale for your map - how big you want the map to be and how much detail you want to show. For example, a map drawn at a scale where 1 inch on paper equals 4 feet on the property will be larger and show more of the small features than a map drawn at a scale of 1” =16’. For personal use, a sketch with estimated measurements is generally fine.
Your base map will be easier to make and read if you use a ruler or or other straight edge, colored pencils, grid paper, and templates for drawing circles, squares, and other shapes.
Step 2: On the base map, indicate dimensions and show the location of your house and other buildings, including outside doors and windows, decks, patios, sidewalks, driveways, utilities, and other structures listed on the checklist. See Checklist Show underground pipes, sprinklers, utilities, etc.
Step 3: Show locations and approximate spread of existing trees, shrubs, lawn, and other vegetation features.Note any plants that affect energy conservation and comfort in your home (summer shade, winter sun, shelter from wind, etc.)
Step 4: Mark the locations of special wildlife features on your base map. These include tree cavities, nesting areas, popular perches, drinking and feeding area, and travel corridors.
Step 5: Outline areas of full sun and full shade. Record drainage patterns (where rainwater falls and collects), wet areas, ponds and streams, slopes, and wind patterns.
Step 6: Show neighboring trees, buildings, roads, and other things on adjacent property that affects your yard.
Step 7: Examine your soil and note areas where soils may be different. Is it rocky, sandy, clay, or organic? If you want, you can test the soils in each of these areas for soil composition, acidity, and nutrients. Test kits can be purchased at garden supply stores, or you can obtain a soils test kit from your local WSU Cooperative Extension Office. The Extension Office will provide instructions and the address of a soils laboratory where your soil can be scientifically tested for a modest fee.
Things to Consider When Evaluating Your Yard
Structures, hard surfaces and people areas
Consider your space requirements for access, entertainment, outdoor play, and security. Screen and buffer busy driveways and play areas. Where might tree roots interfere with septic or sewer systems? Screen bare fences with dense shrubs.
Does your present landscape provide much food, cover, and safe travel corridors for wildlife? How many of your plants are native to the Washington? Are there unused lawn areas that could be replanted with native trees and shrubs? What areas have low diversity and need a better mix of plants? Where can edges be increased by modifying planting borders? Are there solitary trees that could have shrubs and groundcover put under them? Where would a screen of plantings improve outdoor privacy? Could a portion of a vegetable garden be “given” to wildlife? Where are the most important wildlife trees? Where could you plant specialty gardens for hummingbirds and butterflies?
Where does wildlife concentrate now? How could these areas be preserved? Are there dead trees or limbs that can be safely preserved for perching or nesting? If a tree has to be removed, could you leave a 6-foot to 10-foot stump for a nest cavity? Where would be a good spot for a feeder, birdhouse, or birdbath? Do you have a corner where you could build a brush or rock pile for wildlife?
Where are the sun and shade areas? Do you need shade from the hot summer sun, and do you need to preserve valuable winter solar radiation? Where do cool summer breezes come from and where might you want buffers from cold winter winds? Would a low, wet area be a good place for wetland plants? Does an existing stream or pond have adequate shrub cover?
Will a neighboring building shade out your planned vegetable garden? Will a busy road pose a danger to any animals you want to attract? Will your new pond kill the roots of a valuable neighboring tree? Will your neighbors cooperate in your landscaping efforts or do they plan to clear vegetation? Will your habitat cause any problems for a neighbor?
Are there “problem” soils (e.g. poor nutrients, water-logged)? Could you use those problem conditions to create special habitats with plants? Where do you need to improve the soil? (Consult with a nursery or landscape specialist, county extension agent, the US Soil Conservation Service, or other plant and soil experts.
Where are the desirable and undesirable views from different parts of the yard, deck, or windows? How can these be saved or changed with plantings? What are your outdoor spaces like: open/enclosed, small/large, varied/uniform, formal/natural, smooth/rough, colorful/plain, comfortable/uncomfortable? What feelings do you want? How could different plantings enhance these feelings?
How much yard work do you want to do? Where are good areas for outdoor play, entertainment, and relaxation? What are the best pathways for moving around in the yard? Where do you want outdoor privacy? Is there a bare, noisy area that would be better for a driveway, swimming pool, or entertainment area than for wildlife plantings?
Begin designing a site plan by drawing out your ideas on bubble diagrams using photocopies or tracing paper laid over your base map. Don’t worry at first about how workable your ideas are; get them down on paper and fine-tune later. Decide where spaces and features will go and experiment with reshaping, reducing, enlarging, relocation, or adding features to fit your needs and goals. Draw bubbles around areas where you want activities, such as children’s play, entertainment, or wildlife observation. Use circles, x’s or other symbols for features such as a birdbath or bench. Draw arrows where you want views and dotted lines for potential pathways.
Note the types of plants you want to put in, such as conifers, low deciduous shrubs, or tall evergreen hedges. It may be helpful to write in some of your ideas and objectives, such as building a deck around this tree, keep view of pond from living room, or relocate barbecue to patio. (See Fig. 6.)
Your final plan will be most successful if you develop several of these bubble diagrams. For example, you may have a “Plan A” that gives over more space to wildlife, and “Plan B” that gives more space to human activities. Or you may develop three different plans that range from highest to lowest cost or most change to least change. The more experimenting you do on paper, the more likely you will avoid future problems when implementing your final plan. There is no one best answer, everyone’s habitat will be different, and you may come up with more than one good plan for you own.
Maximize undisturbed areas
As much as possible, provide large areas without buildings, pavings, or paths. Provide some “undisturbed” sanctuaries and safe travel corridors for sensitive wildlife.
Concentrate and contain human activity areas
Disturbance to wildlife can be lessened if areas with busy human activity are close together and kept as small as possible. Avoid placing busy areas in good existing wildlife habitat.
Preserve existing trees
Old well-established trees or ones that form clumps are especially valuable. Avoid putting new features or structures where they will damage existing tree. Remember that a tree’s roots grow far out from its trunk, and construction too close to the roosts may affect the tree.
Provide opportunities for viewing wildlife
Locate and shape human activity areas, such as patios and decks, so that wildlife can be viewed from inside the house.
Respect the wisdom and logic of nature
Nature is the best model for a healthy and valuable wildlife habitat. In nature, things are the way they are and where they are because of complex ecological relationships. Nature understands this perfectly, while we have only incomplete knowledge. For some ideas of how nature provides for wildlife, look at the arrangements of plants along a stream or pond, around a meadow, or in a forest. The amount and arrangement of plants in a good backyard habitat should be similar to these natural areas. Let the natural world be your best teacher.
Habitat Landscape Plan
After you have drawn your ideas, compare these preliminary plans to see which best fits your needs and those of wildlife. You can combine the best features of each to make your ideal plan. Once you’ve decided what you want, you now need to turn your bubble diagram into a landscape plan. Now is the time to add the details of plant species and materials (such as types of paving or fencing), and locations and dimensions of these features.
The most involved task will be selecting plants for different parts of your yard (see Choosing Plants). For example, if you want a tall evergreen hedge for privacy: which plants have dense foliage, grow about 10 feet tall, can tolerate your specific environmental conditions, and are good for wildlife? Or, for summer shade and winter sun: what plants are deciduous, grow to 30 feet or more, and offer good food for wildlife?
Other details will need to be added. For example, if you want a pond you need to determine if it will be excavated, whether lined with a flexible liner or clay or both, how it will be cleaned, and if you want recirculating water.
When all the details have been worked out, you can draw up a final landscape plan. Accuracy is important, because it will be the “blueprint” that will guide your habitat construction and development over time. (See Fig. 7).
Choosing Plants for Your Final Landscape Plan
- Choose plants that will provide seeds, berries, nectar (flowers), and good cover. Avoid sterile varieties (those that do not produce fruits of seeds).
- Pay attention to sun, water, and soil needs of each plant species and place them in your yard where they will best flourish. Most plants are fairly tolerant but prefer certain conditions. Be sure to check with nurseries and garden books.
- Consider height at maturity and other features such as fall color, showy flowers, aroma, or unique leaf shape. Combine for aesthetic variety.
- Keep in mind how plants aid in energy conservation and comfort by letting in winter sun, protecting from prevailing winter winds, and shading the summer heat. Evergreens give winter protection for you and wildlife but will block the sun. Many deciduous trees have good food for wildlife and allow in winter warmth; they do not protect from winter winds.
- Note any special problems some plants might have, such as weak wood, messy fruit, over patios, or invasive roots.
- You will probably find more than one plant that fits the needs of a certain spot. Cost, availability, and personal preferences for unique features may influence your final selection.
Additional Ideas and Information
Getting your hands dirty
Now that you’ve done your homework, it’s time to put your ideas into action. Before you begin, get some final evaluations from friends to help spot oversights or potential problems in your plan. A nursery staff person can also offer good review.
At this point, the techniques required to plant a yard for wildlife are the same as planting and maintaining a yard for any other purpose. Refer to garden books and nurseries for information on soil preparation, planting techniques, watering, fertilizing, pest and disease control, pruning, etc. One of the best guides is Sunset’s New Western Garden Book.
Finally, don’t forget to relax and enjoy your developing landscape. It will take time to mature and a year or two may go by before it is discovered by wildlife. A more conscious awareness of the plants and animals in your yard will add a new dimension of colors, sights, and sounds to your outdoor experiences. Learning about the living things in your yard and experimenting with new ways to furnish habitat resources will provide benefits to you and to the animals that share your living space.
A word about pesticides
Avoid pesticides as much as possible. Most of the birds in your neighborhood, especially young birds still in the nest, need insects for survival. Only a few insects are really “bad”, but chemical pesticides kill good insects as well as bad ones.
Learn about integrated pest management. A good source of information is your county extension office see Native Plants
Other useful ideas to help wildlife:
- Put up birdhouses in March for chickadees, wrens, swallows, and woodpeckers.
- Provide separate bird feeders for sunflower seeds, thistle seeds, and suet so birds can choose their favorite.
- Plant specialty gardens such as flowering patches for hummingbirds and butterflies
- Plant extra for wildlife in your vegetable garden and let it go to seed in the fall for your bird-feeding program.
- Leave shrubs unpruned as much as possible.
- Mulch with lawn clippings and leaf litter, and pile shrub and tree clippings under your trees.
- Make a dust bath for birds (a shallow hollow in the ground with dry dirt).
- “Replant” a log in a secluded spot for salamanders and for wrens, sparrows, robins, and towhees to perch on and look for bugs.
- Keep a diary of your wildlife observations.
Join the Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Backyard Sanctuary Program and officially designate your yard as a special place for wildlife. For information go online to WDFW Backyard Sanctuary Program, or write to:
The following features should be considered when designing your backyard habitat. Mark the location of existing items on your base map.