Backyard Habitats

Our native wildlife is being crowded out as malls, office parks and housing developments replace forests that provided food, water and shelter for thousands of years. This is a problem that you can actually do something about.

Feeding the Birds: A Year-Round Pleasure
Different birds feed in different ways. The more kinds of foods and feeders you provide, the greater the diversity of birds you’ll see.

  • Install your feeders near natural cover or place brush piles nearby so birds can quickly hide from predators.
  • For the health of your habitat’s residents, keep feeders clean and use only fresh, dry seed. Clean up hulls and droppings from the ground beneath your feeders.
  • During the winter months, when other food is scarce, your feeders can be a real help to local residents as well as to the winter migrants from the north.
  • Year-round feeding will not hurt the birds, and in the spring and summer you will enjoy seeing fledgling birds following their parents to the feeders.
  • Hanging feeders are good for small, perching and clinging birds such as the American Goldfinch (Carduelis tristis).
  • Offer food on trays for ground-feeding birds such as the Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis).
  • Suet and peanut butter feeders especially attract woodpeckers and other insect-eating birds such as the Red-headed Woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus).

Nest Sites: Creating Safe Havens for Wildlife Families
Many birds and mammals will raise their young in your backyard if you give them the right conditions to care for them in safety.

  • Many birds prefer to use natural tree cavities or old woodpecker holes for nest sites. Providing nest boxes for cavity nesters can reduce competition and ensure greater populations of some favorite bird species, such as bluebirds, woodpeckers, owls and wrens, as well as mammals such as flying squirrels.
  • Match the size of your box and its entrance hole to the requirements of the bird or mammal you hope will nest in it. Be sure to find out where to hang it and how high off the ground it must be to attract the species it is intended for.
  • Snakes, starlings, raccoons and house cats can all be a danger to nestlings.
  • Use birdhouse plans that are designed to baffle these common predators.
  • Trees and shrubs with dense branches or thorny limbs provide nest sites for birds who prefer open cup nests. Thickly woven vines are also favored.
  • The Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) prefers nest boxes located in open fields.
  • The Eastern Screech Owl (Otus asio) nests in wooded areas.

Hummingbirds and Butterflies: The Nectar Drinkers
It’s easy to attract these lively and colorful visitors to your garden if you provide the plants they need.

  • Native wildflowers are often favored because of their plentiful nectar. They also bloom longer and have fewer pests than many cultivated plants.
  • Butterflies are attracted to fragrant flowers like phlox. Juicy, over-ripe fruit is also an attraction.
  • To attract the most hummers, combine brightly colored flowers and hummingbird feeders. (Hummingbirds are attracted to bright flowers with trumpet shapes.) Select a feeder that is easy to clean.
  • In the summer, only the Ruby-throated Hummingbird is seen in Alabama.
  • Leave a feeder up during the winter. You might be visited by a wintering hummingbird from the West.
  • Do not use poisons in your garden. Remember that hummingbirds eat tiny insects and that butterflies and caterpillars are insects. Wildlife habitats must be pesticide free!
  • The monarch butterfly lays its eggs only on milkweed plants. Each type of butterfly uses very specific host plants that feed its offspring.

Chimney Swift Nest Tower: A New Home for a Unique Bird
A creative new program is helping to preserve these valuable insect eating birds.

  • The Chimney Swift is one of North America’s fastest birds. These small, dark grey birds play a beneficial role in our summer skies by eating nearly their own weight in flying insect pests such as mosquitoes and biting flies every day.
  • Chimney Swifts used to use large hollow trees for night-time roosts and for raising their young. As European settlers cut down our ancient forests, Chimney Swifts learned to use chimneys instead. Today, Chimney Swifts rely solely on man-made structures, but now many houses are built without chimneys, or with metal flues that the birds cannot use. New homes are urgently needed for this valuable and declining species.
  • The Chimney Swift Nest Site Research Project, headed by Paul and Georgean Kyle of Austin, Texas, is researching new types of structures that homeowners can build or install to provide new homes for Chimney Swifts. Nest Towers are used by Swifts as a nesting and roosting site.
  • If you would like more information on Chimney Swifts or plans for building one of these special “nest boxes” in your backyard, visit the Texas Parks and Wildlife web site.
  • Chimney Swifts spend most of their waking hours in tireless flight. In the fall, they migrate from as far north as Nova Scotia to the Amazon Basin of Peru, a trip of up to 6,000 miles.
  • With its long wings and tiny legs, the Chimney Swift cannot take off from the ground, since it hits the surface with its wings. Instead it must cling to a vertical surface and drop from its perch to take flight.

Water is an essential element of any wildlife habitat. Your habitat should have a variety of water sources for maximum wildlife attraction.

  • Birds and small mammals prefer very shallow, slow-moving water. Deeper water provides homes for a host of creatures including tadpoles, frogs and small fish.
  • Many birds, including hummingbirds, are attracted to dripping water. Use a mister or dripper to provide the tiny drops that small birds enjoy for bathing and drinking.
  • Not all creatures can make use of elevated birdbaths. Provide at least one water source at ground level.
  • Place water sources near natural cover to protect wildlife from predators.
  • In freezing weather, keep an ice-free source of water available for wintering wildlife.

Landscaping for Wildlife
Each element in your personal landscape can be designed to benefit wildlife. Here are some of the basics for your garden:

  • Canopy trees provide nuts, seeds and fruits, as well as cavities and limbs for nesting and shelter from the weather and from predators.
  • Understory trees and shrubs provide dense cover for nest sites and for young birds just learning to fly.
  • Evergreen shrubs give shelter for wintering birds.
  • “Edge habitat,” where several different niches are side-by-side, is highly prized by many wild creatures.
  • An open, sunny meadow or a food patch planted with self-seeding native grasses attracts many types of birds.
  • Dead trees are magnets for woodpeckers, nuthatches and other insect eaters.
  • Brush piles and rock piles placed where cover is scarce attract ground-feeding birds, mammals and reptiles.

Using Plants for Food and Shelter
Plants form the backbone of any wildlife habitat. They not only provide a rich variety of foods for wildlife, but they also offer shelter from storms and predators and a safe, secure haven for raising young in nest or den.

  • Grow trees, shrubs and flowers that produce nuts, berries, fruits, seed, and nectar. They will also attract many kinds of insects that are also a source of food for wildlife.
  • Plant plenty of evergreen shrubs to provide good shelter during fall and winter, when most plants are bare.
  • Reduce the size of your lawn and get rid of toxic chemicals, which may be hazardous to wildlife.
  • Use plants that are native to your area. These plants will naturally grow well, and will help to establish healthy, natural ecosystems.
  • Avoid the use of invasive, non-native plants such as Japanese honeysuckle, privet or mimosa. While these may attract birds, they overwhelm native plants, and weaken the natural ecosystems that ultimately support wildlife.
  • Flowering dogwood (Cornus Florida) attracts 36 species of birds that can eat the tree’s fruit, including the Yellow-shafted flicker (Colaptes auratus).
  • Trumpet Honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens) attracts hummingbirds to the nectar and songbirds to the fruit.
  • Blackberries and other brambles (Rubus) attract at least 49 species of birds that eat the fruit, including the Summer Tanager (Piranga rubra).

Troubleshooting: Finding Solutions for Wildlife Problems
To make your wildlife habitat safe for you and your wild neighbors, you will need to become part naturalist, part landscaper, and part wildlife manager.

Here are some tips:

  • Large glass windows kill millions of songbirds every year. We eliminated this danger here at the Alabama Wildlife Center by installing fiberglass screen about 4 inches away from the glass. The fine mesh protects the birds without obstructing the beautiful views from within.
  • Keep house cats indoors. Free-ranging cats kill approximately 4 million songbirds a day in the United States. Young birds just learning to fly are especially vulnerable to cats.
  • Mammals such as opossums and raccoons can turn into a real nuisance if allowed to become used to eating pet food, garbage or other foods associated with humans. For their safety, keep all such attractions securely out of reach.
  • For your own safety, never touch a wild mammal with your bare hands.