CORPUS CHRISTI — Wildlife found in the backyards of urban homes can be an asset as well as an environmental teaching tool for youngsters.
The sights, sounds, and activities of animals such as hummingbirds, chickadees, cardinals, mockingbirds, frogs, fish, butterflies, snakes, and lizards, add an element of delight and stimulation to urban life, said Will E. Cohen, assistant professor and wildlife specialist with the Texas Agricultural Extension Service.
Desirable wildlife in a yard, park, or along a drainage ditch can enhance surroundings, he said. Property with natural vegetation and associated wildlife often commands higher sale prices than houses without this attribute.
“Wildlife are also a very valuable educational tool to teach children about our natural environment,” Cohen said. “How many times have you seen a baby trying to touch or catch a bird in your local park? Humans are naturally attracted to and influenced by wildlife.”
Backyard habitats can be used to teach natural history and biology on various wildlife and plant species, he said. They are an ideal tool for demonstrating ecological principles to youth and adults. These areas can also serve as a reservoir for repopulation where species have declined due to habitat loss, over-harvesting, and disease.
Wildlife will frequent yards if they can find adequate food, cover and water, he said. To have a diversity of wildlife, people should plan and manage for the wildlife species they want to attract.
Objectives should specify what a person wants to achieve by landscaping the backyard for wildlife, Cohen said. For example, objectives might be to beautify your yard; increase the value of your property; attract purple martins, Carolina chickadees, cardinals, rabbits, butterflies, etc.; control certain species so they are not a problem; provide habitat for declining populations of birds; or provide temporary habitat for neo- tropical migrants.
“A key to attracting the animals you desire in your backyard is understanding their food, cover, water, and living space requirements,” Cohen said. “For example, American Robins primarily eat earthworms and require grassy areas to find their prey.
A lawn that is well-maintained without pesticides is a key component in attracting and keeping these and other ground-foraging birds. Brown Thrashers require dense shrubs and lots of them. Dense shrubs and hedge rows adjacent to cleared areas, such as lawns, are ideal.”
Once wildlife enthusiasts know the types of species they want to attract in their yards and the requirements, an inventory must be done to see if any of the necessary elements are already present, he said. Many existing yard plants may provide habitat and food for certain species. Elements that are missing must then be provided by planting trees, shrubs, grasses, or flowers; building a pond, or providing a bird bath, nest boxes, feeders, etc.
Also, a list of plants that provide food, cover, and water for wildlife species must be made, he said. Live oaks, for example, are an excellent food source for birds and mammals, and provide good cover. Hackberry is an important winter food for many birds and it is the larval food for certain types of butterflies. Yaupon produces berries that are eaten by mockingbirds, thrushes, catbirds, and thrashers. Yaupon also provides good cover and nesting sites for many birds species. Mimosa produces fragrant pink flowers in the summer that attract hummingbirds.
The last step in developing a wildlife habitat is to develop a landscape drawing, Cohen said. The drawing should show the house and other buildings on the property and the location, size, and placement of specific plant species, water structures, nesting boxes, and feeders. A good landscape has a diversity of plant types such as grasses, weeds, shrubs and trees, and a diversity of plant species such as hackberry, live oak, mimosa, and St. Augustine grass. Add both evergreen and deciduous shrubs and trees. Equally balance grass-weedy areas, shrubs and trees. These combinations will vary, however, depending on the needs of the selected wildlife species and aesthetic desires.
“By landscaping with the right kinds of plants,” Cohen says, “you will attract the wildlife species you desire.”
Additional information on landscaping your yard for wildlife is available from the Texas Agricultural Extension Service, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and National Wildlife Federation.