printer friendly page Enhancing Your Backyard for Wildlife

If you are interested in enhancing your backyard habitat for wildlife, focus on food, water, and cover.  To attract wildlife, consider Butterfly gardenadding evergreens; grasses and legumes; plants for butterflies, bees and moths; plants for hummingbirds and orioles; summer fruit, berry and cover plants; winter fruit, seed and cover plants; plants that produce nuts and acorns; nest boxes, dead trees, fallen trees and perches; brush pies and rock piles; dust and grit; water; and feeders.

Landscape to Provide Food and Cover

  • Plants provide food for insects, which are then eaten by wildlife.  Landscape with a variety of species. The more diverse the vegetation, the more diverse the insect population will be.
  • Select plants than flower and bear fruit at different times of the year, so food will be available throughout the seasons. For example, blueberries provide fruit in early summer, viburnum fruits in the fall, and American holly fruits persist into the winter.  Winter cover (e.g., evergreens), seed plants (e.g., box elder), meadows, nectar plants (e.g., cardinal flower, jewelweed), vines, brush piles, and dead or decaying trees (also called snags) all provide food or habitat.
  • Provide multiple layers, from ground level plants, to shrubs, to trees. If you have a field adjoining a forest, encourage a gradual progression of plants from the edge of the field to the forest. If you have forested land, follow management techniques designed to attract wildlife.
  • Consider planting native species. Remove non-native invasive species such as winged euonymus, Russian olive, multiflora rose, catalpa, tartarian honeysuckle and European honeysuckle. Most of these invasives spread through undigested seeds of bird and mammal droppings, and choke out other plants.
  • Minimize chemical use.  Butterflies, birds, bees and other wildlife are very vulnerable to pesticides.  If you do use chemicals, always follow the instructions on the label.

Erect Artificial Nesting Structures

  • Choose a location that birds will find appealing and secure, which is not too close to human activity. Make or buy a bird house specifically designed for the species of bird you want to attract. The size of the hole is critical to prevent the eggs and young from being destroyed by larger birds. Many plans are available online for bluebird, wood duck and other nesting boxes.
  • A single brown bat can eat 600 mosquitoes in an hour. To attract bats, consider putting up a bat house, on poles or buildings at least 15 feet high that receive six or more hours of sun per day.  

Erect Feeders

  • To attract butterflies, provide plants that produce nectar, and plants that caterpillars like to eat. Many butterfly garden plans and plant lists are available. More information about attracting butterflies can be found at the American Museum of Natural History website.
  • Artificial feeding of songbirds can be beneficial.  However, it is not wise to feed other wildlife, such as deer, raccoons, and waterfowl, as this can create unhealthy, and sometimes dangerous situations for both wildlife and for you. 
  • The species you attract will depend on the location of your lot and the type of feed you use.  Black oil sunflower Young male ruby throated hummingbird at feeder.  Photo by Bet Zimmerman.seed is the most versatile, and is popular with many songbirds. Also, it is not preferred by non-native birds such as house sparrows and starlings which compete with native songbirds for nesting cavities. Finches and pine sisken are especially attracted to black thistle feed.  Beginning in May, you can attract Baltimore (northern) orioles with orange halves on a platform feeder, or nailed to a tree. From May through September, nectar feeders can be used to attract hummingbirds.  Make your own nectar by mixing one part sugar with four parts water, and boiling the mixture for one to two minutes. Allow it to cool, then fill the feeder and store the extra in the refrigerator for future use.  Clean the feeder with a mixture of 1/2 vinegar and one half hot water, and refill it with fresh nectar every 2-3 days. Suet can draw birds like woodpeckers, chickadees, nuthatches during colder months. 
  • The five most useful types of feeders are a ground feeding table, sunflower seed tube, suet feeder, hopper feeder, and a thistle feeder.  If you have one of each, you will attract different kinds of birds.
  • Sanitation and proper maintenance of feeders is important to prevent disease.  Don't let seed sit, especially when it is wet, and discard any seed that becomes moldy.  Wet bird seed promotes the growth of bacteria that cause potentially fatal bird infections. Feeders should be scrubbed and disinfected with a mixture of one part chlorine bleach to nine parts water.
  • A source of gravel and grit in an open platform feeder helps birds grind food in their gizzard. 
  • To aid nesting birds in egg production, place crushed eggshells or oyster shells (available from a farmers feed store) in the feeder.
  • To deter squirrels, keep the feeder at least six feet away from things squirrels can leap off of, such as overhanging branches and eaves, on isolated poles at least five feet off the ground. Use a baffle on the pole (e.g.,a PVC pipe or stovepipe that's 6 inches in diameter and 18 inches long, a special squirrel-deterring dish with a 15-inch diameter, or an inverted cone with at least a 13-inch diameter.) Protect feeders suspended from a horizontal wire by threading old records, compact discs, or plastic soda bottles on the wire on each side. The Absolute II bird feeder is one that is actually almost squirrel proof.

Provide water sources

Butterflies use mud puddles, and birds prefer birdbaths or shallow ponds. Silly birdbath picture.  From www.katsmeow.com/Birds/ vacation/birdbath.jpgBirdbaths should be no more than 3" deep, with gently sloping sides, and a rough surface to provide good footing. Remember to change the water every few days to keep it fresh.  A bird bath may be placed on the ground or on a pedestal. It should be 15 feet away from shrubs or trees where cats may hide, but provide a perch nearby. Dripping water is very attractive to birds.  A heated birdbath will provide water all through the winter. Any creek, springs or wetlands on your property should be preserved.

Vernal pool.  From  http://www.epa.gov/owow/wetlands/types/vernal.htmlNatural breeding pools, called vernal pools are very important.  Vernal pools are usually located in small depressions or swales that collect spring snow melt or other runoff.  They often dry up in the summer, but support amphibians such as spring peepers, wood frog, and spotted and Jefferson salamanders, along with many invertebrates such as insects snails and tiny clams. Protect them from pollution or major alteration of vegetation immediately surrounding them.  Brush piles and fallen logs provide shelter and concealment from predators.


More Information and References:


  • Coverstone, Nancy, University of Maine Cooperative Extension, Habitats: A Fact Sheet Series on Managing Lands for Wildlife, Bulletin # 7137.
  • Picone, Peter M., Connecticut DEP, Bureau of Natural Resources, Wildlife Division, Enhancing your Backyard Habitat for Wildlife, 1995.
  • USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, and the National Association of Conservation Districts Wildlife Habitat Council, Backyard Conservation, July 1998.
Conservation Commission
Be assured that our individual actions, collectively, make a huge difference.

- Jane Goodall