Building a Backyard Habitat

Question: How do I build a backyard habitat?

Congratulations on wanting to build a backyard habitat! You can transform just about any space into a habitat, whether it is a small backyard corner or a large plot of land. Thinking about the details now will give you a jump start on a habitat project for next year!

What Is a habitat? A habitat is an area that provides food, water, shelter, and space to meet the needs of wildlife. In designing your habitat, you can limit your focus to a few types of wildlife, such as birds and butterflies, or you can design it to cover any type of insect or animal that may venture inside.

Food – Every species has its own nutritional requirements. These needs can change from one season to another and from one life cycle stage to another. Your goal should be to provide a diversity of food, such as fruits, berries, grains, seeds, acorns, grasses, flowering plants, etc., ideally across all four seasons. This can supply an uninterrupted food supply for wildlife all year.

Water – All forms of life require water. If there is no natural source, you can add birdbaths, artificial ponds, or create a mini-wetland or swale by diverting water runoff. For year round access, consider heating the birdbath during the winter.

Cover – Wildlife seeks shelter from the weather, protection from predators, and places to sleep. This can include trees, shrubs, grasses, and bushes, as well as rock or brush piles, tree cavities, and birdhouses. Wildlife need cover all year round, particularly during the winter if they do not migrate or hibernate. Delay cutting back dead vegetation until early spring as their remnants make good shelter for wildlife and a place for insects to overwinter.

Space – Finally some wildlife is territorial and may not be willing to share space with other members of its species. Other species are not territorial and will share the sources of food, water, and cover. Birds can be more territorial during mating and brooding seasons and less so in the winter.

Start with a Plan
First, what are you hoping to accomplish with your backyard habitat? Is this for birding, photography, an interest in biology, a desire to improve the environment? Would you like to attract a wide array of wildlife, or are you more focused on birds and/or other pollinators? How much space do you have to dedicate to your backyard habitat? What features already exist? What is adjacent to your space? Wildlife do not see the same artificial boundaries that we do and will wander where it suits them. What is your budget? Do you intend to implement this all at once or over a period of time? Create a list of your goals and put them in priority order to help you make the necessary decisions.

After answering these questions, create a sketch of your backyard habitat plan. Include any permanent structures, such as walls, fences, sheds, etc. Note soil and light conditions (i.e., wet, dry, shady, sunny, etc.). Consider getting a soil test from the Virginia Cooperative Extension (VCE) office to determine if you have any nutrient deficiencies for the types of plants you wish to grow. For more information, see VCE publication “Soil Sampling for the Home Gardener.” While the VCE office is closed due to COVID-19, you can still obtain soil text boxes and forms. Call 434-872-4580 for details.

Construct Your Very Own Habitat
Once you know your goals and have a sketch, it is time to create your habitat. Think about your habitat across multiple dimensions.
Vertical Structure – Imagine your habitat in many layers:
● Mulch layer – critical for the decomposition process and supports many insects. Retain the leaf litter, consider creating a compost pile.
● Herbaceous layer – includes non-woody plants such as vines, ground cover, and flowers. In nature, this layer is a diverse composition of plants at varying heights.
● Shrub layer – the sub-canopy layer composed of flowering shrubs growing in a wide variety of sizes.
● Tree layer – consist of both small trees (20-35 feet at maturity) and large trees (30-60 feet tall).

Consider minimizing the use of lawn in the design of your habitat. Turf grass provides the least diverse environment for the support of wildlife, requires the highest amount of maintenance effort (e.g. mowing), resources (e.g. water), and cost (e.g., fertilizer and herbicides). Furthermore, the runoff of fertilizers and other chemicals on lawns increases the quantity of nitrogen and phosphorus in the Chesapeake Bay and other waterways. Instead, utilize the lawn for specific purposes, such as making a pathway through your garden or a play area.

Plant Types – the greater the variety of your plants, the greater the diversity of wildlife and insects that will come to your habitat. Most importantly, mounting scientific evidence shows a strong positive correlation between the use of natives plants and the variety and quantity of insect populations. An increase in the use of native plants will result in an increase in the variety and quantity of insect populations living in your habitat. Furthermore, 96% of songbirds feed insects to their young. You can read more about this subject in the book Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants by Dr. Doug Tallamy (University of Delaware, 2009).

What do we mean by a native plant? A native plant occurred historically or currently occurs naturally in a particular region or ecosystem without having been introduced by humans. Native plants thrive in local soil and weather conditions, better resist local diseases and insects, and provide the foods that animals in the habitat eat. A couple of good sources to learn more about native plants, as well as invasive species, are the Virginia Native Plant Society and Creating Inviting Habitats by Mary Free (Extension Master Gardener, Northern Virginia, 2013).

Seasonality and Plant Maturity – As you design your habitat, think about the plants you are choosing, both across the four seasons and during the plant’s lifetime, to get the most variety of plants that bloom and/or produce berries and seeds at different times of the year. Also, check to see how big your plant will be at maturity. Otherwise, within a few years that tree or bush may no longer fit its intended space.

Finally, remember that you are managing only your habitat. You cannot manage the wildlife which will wander into your space. If you plan to attract one species, you may also attract its predator. Keep areas around your house or shed tidy; keep brush or wood piles away from your house or garden.

References

“Backyard Wildlife Habitats,” Eaton, Greg and Barbara Wright, Virginia Cooperative Extension, Publication 426-070.

“Creating Attractive Wildlife Habitats,” Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor, University of Vermont Extension.

“Garden Certification Walk-through Checklist,” National Wildlife Federation’s Garden for Wildlife.