Create the Ultimate Backyard Wildlife Habitat

Love attracting birds? Don’t stop there. Garden for wildlife to create the ultimate backyard habitat for bugs, butterflies, and more.

If you love attracting birds, there’s a good chance you’re already planting, growing and gardening with them in mind. But a backyard habitat can benefit so many other species, with a little time and effort. So what’s the best way to maximize your backyard space for local wildlife? And how do you get more bang for your buck? We have the answers!

It can take years for your yard to reach its full potential, so don’t let our list overwhelm you. But that doesn’t mean you can’t make a difference now. For starters, pick three things on this list to implement this year—or more, if you’re feeling ambitious. The birds, bugs, butterflies and other wildlife in your area will thank you.

Garden for Wildlife

wildlife habitat
Include native plants like liatris in your wildlife habitat to draw in a variety of species.Jodi Grove

Start a new garden space just for wildlife. If you don’t already have a designated bird or butterfly garden, now is the time to create one. You’ll find entire books and websites dedicated to the subject, so look around, consult some resources and start working on a space today.

Expand your canvas with containers if you need to garden for wildlife in a small space. Don’t have the space to start a whole new garden? No problem! Containers are a solution with style. Hanging baskets add flair and offer a good source of nectar. You’ll be amazed at some of the new containers on the market, especially the self-watering ones.

Get rid of invasive plants. Start by clicking here to visit the USDA’s website for a list of Introduced, Invasive, and Noxious Plants. You can search by state to see some of the invasive plants in your area. Once you know what they are, work to get them out as soon as possible.

Plant more natives. While you’re ridding your yard of invasive plants, replace them with natives, which almost always suit the needs of local wildlife. Planting natives suited to your growing conditions will feed and shelter birds, butterflies and other creatures.

Lose some grass. Most American backyards sport more grass than anything else, which has very little value for wildlife. It might sound overwhelming to think about shrinking your lawn by half, so don’t! Take it in stages instead. Put in a garden bed here and there. Before you know it, you’ll have a slew of new wildlife-attracting plants and a lot less grass to mow.

Discover a new kind of grass. Try designating an area for ornamental grass. Beauties such as prairie dropseed and Karl Foerster feather reed grass will feed birds and offer four-season appeal. Group them together, and you’ll start to have a whole new appreciation for grasses when you garden for wildlife.

Never underestimate the value of a good tree. If you plan it right, a good tree can offer multiple benefits to wildlife, including nectar in spring, nesting space in summer, and berries in fall and winter. Go ahead and invest in a new tree for your backyard. You won’t be sorry.

Make Your Backyard Habitat Inviting

wildlife habitat
A good wildlife habitat includes more bird feeders, native plants, water features, and nest sites. Sharon Sauriol

Put out a buffet. In addition to offering plants for wildlife, it’s also good to put out different kinds of food. Of course, the birds and wildlife in your area will do just fine without it, but if you want an up-close view, this is the way to get it. Start by putting out black-oil sunflower seed and a sugar-water feeder. Then add items such as suet, thistle seed, safflower and peanuts as you like.

Check your birdhouses. Many commercial birdhouses are more decorative than useful, so be sure to do your homework. For instance, if you want to attract bluebirds, make sure your backyard habitat is suitable, and then choose a bluebird house with the right dimensions and hang it in the right area. Do a little research to learn about dimensions for different species before you buy.

Don’t forget about the butterflies. Nectar-rich plants bring in butterflies, so you have lots of options there. But don’t forget host plants for their eggs and caterpillars, such as milkweed for monarchs. Look for butterfly gardening resources in your area.

Offer some water. Along with food and shelter, water is one of the three necessities of every wildlife habitat. A larger water feature is remarkable, but at the least, consider adding a birdbath. Birds will flock to it, especially in the heat of summer.

Reduce pesticide use. When you have caterpillars, bugs, butterflies and young birds exploring your backyard in summer, the last thing you want is for them to be harmed by pesticides. Make an effort to reduce pesticide use for the health of wildlife.

Keep cats inside. Yes, it’s a hard one for you cat lovers, but even our birding expert George Harrison, a cat owner himself, agrees with this one. Cats are a leading cause of songbird deaths, so they just don’t belong in a backyard habitat.

Planning Your Wildlife Habitat

wildlife habitatAshley (hjenssen6)
To create a better backyard habitat, you need less of these: turf lawn, free-roaming cats, invasive plants, and impervious hardscaping. Ashley (hjenssen6)

Devise a plan. A brand-new program from Cornell Lab of Ornithology makes it easier than ever to set specific goals for your backyard habitat. YardMap is a one-of-a-kind website from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, offering a whole new interactive way to combine birding and gardening for wildlife. Check it out yourself by clicking here. Here are some of the site’s top -features:

  • Plug in your ZIP code and instantly get -local -resources like planting guides, native plant suggestions and contacts for area experts.
  • Learn about the 20-plus habitats found in most -backyards, and get tips for maximizing each one.
  • Help scientists get some much-needed data on how climate and landscape affect birds.
  • Find others who are trying to make their yards more bird-friendly through YardMap’s social network.
  • Discover exactly which plants to add to your yard, based on the birds you ant to attract.
  • Peek into the yards of top birders and see what they plant to attract birds.

Putting Your Wildlife Habitat Plan Into Action

wildlife habitat
Avoid pesticides and herbicides in your wildlife habitat to welcome beneficial insects. Connie Etter

Set goals. Don’t overdo it. Maybe your goal is to add three new native plants this year. Or maybe you have a more ambitious plan to start a whole new butterfly garden. Whatever it is, no matter how big or small, it’s important to set goals for your backyard habitat each season and then follow through.

Get the whole family involved. Creating your backyard habitat will be a lot more fun if you can involve everyone in your family. Have a discussion early on about why you’re doing this and what it means. Then note things to watch for and assign individual jobs.

Share your success with the neighbors. Rethinking your backyard is an excellent first step, but involving others is when it really starts to make a difference. Let them know why you’re reducing your lawn or putting up more feeders. If you can get a whole neighborhood involved, you’ll see results much faster!

Take the pledge. Audubon At Home is a program of the Audubon Society, whose Healthy Yard Pledge supports the establishment of better wildlife habitats. Click here to learn more. It’s a handy checklist to keep you on track.

Certify your backyard. The National Wildlife Federation has one of the best-known programs with its Certified Wildlife Habitat, which lets you pledge to provide food, water and shelter in your yard. If you haven’t yet certified your backyard (you probably already meet the requirements), now is the time. Click here to get started.

Turn your yard into an experiment. Citizen science projects such as eBird, Great Backyard Bird Count, NestWatch and more are looking for birders and gardeners like you to provide valuable data for researchers. Sign up to help benefit science for generations to come.

Stacy Tornio
Stacy Tornio is a freelance writer and author with more than 15 gardening and outdoorsy books. She tries to get as much sunshine as possible and is currently on a quest to see all the national parks in North America.