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Landscaping for Wildlife

By Dr. Jim Pease, Emeritus
Extension Wildlife Specialist (ISU - Retired)

Attracting wildlife to the backyard is easy by providing what they need. All wild animals need habitat to survive. Habitat is made up of four factors: 1) space, 2) food, 3) shelter, and 4) water. Each factor is essential for a good habitat and varies somewhat by the species of wildlife and the season. To ensure the greatest variety of wildlife species, provide a yard with the largest variety of food, shelter, and cover by providing different types of plants, feeders, and houses.

Natural sources of food can be things such as nectar-bearing flowers, seeds, fruits, berries, and insects. Planting a variety of herbaceous plants, shrubs, and trees provides a variety of species and a variety of structure. This ensures a wide variety of insects and other food sources. To wildlife, as with people, there are two kinds of food sources: preferred and persistent. Preferred food sources are the ones animals like the best and eat very quickly. These include shrubs like chokecherry, raspberries, and serviceberries for birds. Shrubs like hazelnut, wild plum and willow are preferred by small mammals. On the other hand, persistent foods are not as well-liked and not eaten right away. Included in this group are trees like elm and honey locust and shrubs like dogwoods, highbush cranberries, and other viburnums. These shrubs have berries that persist on the plants well into the fall or early winter. Pick a combination of preferred and persistent food sources so that food will be available over a longer periods of time.

For pulling wildlife in close for observation, you may want to provide supplemental feeding, especially in the winter months. Many homeowners find that feeding seeds in summer, while nice, also increases their chipmunk, ground squirrel, and tree squirrel populations and problems. Different types of feeders at different levels and locations, stocked with different types of foods (sugar water and insect larvae in the summer, for example) attract the widest variety of species. Check Bird feeding: tips for beginners and veterans, (G3176) available at your county Extension office for more details.

All animals need shelter for cover, roosting, and raising you. Some species need more specialized cover than others. Plant trees and bushes for nesting birds, and add evergreen trees for protection against winter storms and winds. Standing dead and downed logs are important for over 50 species of Iowa wildlife. If they are not available on your property, you can provide constructed housing for many species. Check the designs available in Shelves, houses, and feeders for birds and mammals, (NCR 338) available at your county Extension office.

A source of water is essential for birds year round. Other animals are often attracted to it as well. Options range from a simple plastic bird bath to a rubber-lined backyard pond, complete with a recirculating pump to provide moving water. During the winter, a bird bath with a heater will keep the water from freezing and attract some birds that will not normally visit your feeders..

Plan the landscape plantings on paper first. Start with a map of the yard drawn to scale. Mark all plants currently in the yard as well as the buildings, fences, and other structures. Then draw in the wildlife plantings, gardens, and water sources planned. Plan the plants so that they vary in height in a "stair step" pattern. Plan for a variety of plant species, and try to stick with plants that are native in the area to avoid problems with survival and invasiveness.

For more information on what to plant and how to landscape your yard for wildlife see Managing Iowa Habitats: Attracting birds to your yard, (Pm-1351d) at your county Extension office.