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Land Management

Planting for wildlife

As spring came on, I was thinking of spring planting and how to create wildlife habitat through landscaping, just in case your property is not completely overrun with wildlife yet. Well, now it is pushing summer but it is not too late to improve wildlife habitat within your human habitat.

The first step would be to take an inventory of the plants you currently have in your yard and map out their location, along with terrain features such as hills, low spots, boulders, etc. Now you can begin to develop a landscaping plan, taking into account the natural terrain features and existing plants, so that the plan is one of adding in the right components to create the multi-story structure and diversity of native plants which will create good wildlife habitat. When creating wildlife habitat, the combination of habitat elements (food, water, cover and places to raise young) you provide should take into consideration the needs of the wildlife you wish to attract.

Carefully selected plantings can provide food, cover and/or places to raise young.

Landscaping for wildlife habitat should include plants ranging in size and density from small evergreen shrubs to tall, full-grown trees so that birds and other wildlife can choose which cover they need for feeding, hiding, courting and nesting activities. Dense plantings of shrubbery provide safe areas for many species of wildlife to mate, build nests and raise their families.

For the best results, use native plants. Plants native to the soils and climate of this area provide the best overall food sources for the wildlife of this area. In addition, native plants generally require less fertilizer, water and effort to control pests. Native plants can support 10 to 50 times more species of native wildlife (mostly insects, the basic wildlife food) than do exotics (plants that are not native to your area). Too often, exotics such as tansy and knapweed, brought to our area for their horticultural or wildlife value, grow and spread rapidly, taking over farm and woodland and decimating native plants and animals.

To offer food for wildlife there are three basic approaches: provide plants that produce food, set up a supplemental feeding station, and attract insects (or small prey) that are the food source. It is best to provide plants in a variety of sizes, shapes, densities, arrangements, and maturity levels to suit the preferences of a variety of critters. Try to select plants from each of the five broad categories: conifers, grasses and legumes, summer fruiting plants, autumn fruiting plants, and nut plants. Douglas Fir cones are seed sources of preference for squirrels, while chipmunks prefer sunflower seeds. When people think of supplemental food for birds they often think strictly of seeds, but many species want additional nutrient sources like fruit, nectar, or insects.

Attracting insects or smaller food sources will be the most difficult of your three options. The best way to accomplish this is by planting trees and shrubs native to your area. Second in effectiveness is to resist the urge to kill bugs on sight. If those aphids won’t kill your plant, why don’t you leave them for the ladybugs to eat? Spraying pesticides will damage beneficial insects as readily as those we deem harmful. Snakes have a bad reputation, but are often times better friends than foes. They will take care of slugs and pesky rodents.

Consider the location of the food source. Some animals feed from the ground; others prefer an elevated site. Make sure the food is close enough to cover that the animals feel safe while eating but not too near for a predator (like your house cat) to lie in wait for its next meal. Keep seed dry and off the ground so that it doesn’t rot. Be diligent about changing the nectar in hummingbird feeders so that it doesn’t spoil and ferment. Don’t use red food color or honey. Honey was formerly recommended but it can cause fungal growths in their throats. Remember nocturnal feeders such as deer mice, bats, owls, and toads and try to provide for them whenever possible. Small brush piles are excellent habitat for rodents and small birds which are in turn food for hawks, owls, etc. Finally, separate feeders so that territorial animals can comfortably eat.

Water: At your site, water may or may not be easy to provide. Animals need water for bathing, drinking, washing food, and completing their life cycle. Think about the wildlife you hope to draw and their specific needs. Water can be provided in several ways. Large sites may already have a stream or pond or have the room to accommodate one. With these you will be able to attract fish, ducks, and geese. In smaller yards, use hardscapes like bird baths, fountains, or other water features. Don’t underestimate the potential of mud puddles for frogs and toads, wet sand for butterflies, and misters for hummingbirds. Avoid stagnant water, which is a magnet for mosquito larvae (West Nile Virus habitat = BAD) and bacteria. Keep water fresh and available year round. Put wood logs into a birdbath to help keep the water from freezing in the winter and during warmer months they will provide a landing pad for bees and other insects. Again, place water on the ground and in elevated positions so different animals gain access. Inexpensive options include reusing the lid of a trashcan or a saucer from a garden pot or use that old satellite dish to create a small pond.

Shelter/Cover: The purpose of shelter is to protect animals from the weather and predators. Ideal hiding spots include densely branched shrubs, evergreens, snags (dead and dying trees) hollow logs, brush piles, meadow grasses, and rock (in piles, outcroppings, or walls). The key with live vegetation is variety. Much like with natural food sources, it is important to have a combination of trees, shrubs, vines, perennials, and grasses with different attributes: deciduous versus evergreen, tall versus short, dense versus thin, and so forth. Retaining walls and dry streambeds, which are both functional and attractive, are often overlooked as excellent near-by hiding places for chipmunks, lizards and other reptiles, and insects that rest on the rocks soaking in the sunshine. Combine these ideas to create safe passages so animals don’t feel exposed and in danger when crossing your yard.

Place to Raise Young: Early on it was mentioned that many aspects of cover/shelter overlap with a place to raise young. Birds will often build nests in the same shrubs they flee to for safety. Snags are ideal sites for squirrels to build dens and take cover from the weather. Water not only serves as protection for fish and frogs, but is also the place for laying eggs. Waterfowl will use cattails and reeds next to a pond for both protection and nesting, but prefer islands inside bodies of water for the added distance from predators. You can leave a strip of grass un-mowed or seed using native grasses and wildflowers and let it go natural. Some species such as butterflies may need very specific types of plants, called host plant, on which to raise their young? A Monarch won’t lay eggs unless she knows she’s resting on a milkweed. Nest boxes have some very specific characteristics which they are built with to invite certain species of birds. Features such as overall size, hole shape and size, outside perching, interior space, and construction material will determine which species find it most suitable for raising young. Other factors to consider are where the box is hung and how it is oriented to the sun. Make sure animals also have access to building material. That seems like an odd requirement, but it will be less challenging to build a nest if small twigs, pine needles, and mud are readily available.

Some of the more common and better native plant choices for shrubs are rabbitbrush; red currant; serviceberry; Cascara brick thorn; blue elderberry and Manzanita. For trees, look to the Pacific Dogwood, madrone, mountain ash, hawthorn, vine maple, big leaf maple, and red alder. Good choices for evergreens include the Western red cedar, the Western white pine, Douglas fir, Western hemlock and White fir. Flower and perennials include Indian paintbrush, blazing star, butterfly weed, wild columbine, scarlet gilia, penstemon, fireweed and trumpet vine. You can visit my website for a more extensive list.

The distinctive Indian Paintbrush (castilleja) shown above is a good native landscaping choice and is a favored food of butterflies.

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Author info

Michael White Michael White is a Realtor with Coldwell Banker - Sterling Society and a consultant for Northwest Group In-Land. He has a BS in Forest Resources & Ecosystem Management and specializes in land, ranches and homes with acreage.

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