Backyard habitats

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Backyard habitats with native plants are beneficial to wildlife. Image: Natalie Cypher

By Rayna Skiver

When you think of a habitat, you might imagine a forest, river or desert.

That doesn’t have to be the case.

A habitat can be as simple as a place that provides food, water and shelter for wildlife, said Natalie Cypher, naturalist and educator for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources Outdoor Adventure Center.

Building a habitat in your backyard can require as much or as little space as you want, Cypher said. It depends on what type of wildlife you want to attract.

Research is the first step.

“If you’re looking to provide a habitat for monarch butterflies, you have to use milkweed,” Cypher said. “Monarch butterflies only lay their eggs on milkweed plants and it’s the only food that their caterpillars will eat.”

A big yard isn’t necessary. That’s especially true if you want to attract pollinators like bees, butterflies or hummingbirds.

You can still provide a habitat for pollinators if you have a balcony or a porch, Cypher said.

“You could feed them with flowers.”

Backyard habitats benefit both wildlife and the people making them. For wildlife, they provide food and a safe place to nest. People benefit because of the positive feelings associated with added greenery and the presence of wildlife.

In a suburban neighborhood, a lot of land doesn’t provide habitat, Cypher said.

One million acres of wildlife habitat are lost every year due to suburban development, according to the National Wildlife Federation.

“Providing a small patch of habitat can be high impact,” Cypher said.

The National Wildlife Federation reports benefits like higher percentages of native plants, indicator species, tree coverage, water conservation and wildlife presence.

Native plants use less water and sequester carbon, according to the National Wildlife Federation.

Home gardeners benefit from native pollinators such as bees and butterflies because they can increase fruit and vegetable production and help with pest control, Cypher said.

Some advantages of these habitats are even more simple than that.

You can go outside and watch the bees and see the migratory birds that are stopping at the shrubs you planted, Cypher said.

“It’s kind of calming and therapeutic.”

Those therapeutic feelings might not be easy to come by.

Depending on the scale of your habitat, it could take some work, Cypher said. You also need time for maintenance tasks like weeding.

“Starting small is always good.”

Ordinances in cities and homeowners’ associations could be another challenge.

Certain rules about the use of plants in landscaping might hinder your backyard habitat, Cypher said.

“However, I think that as more people get interested in this, they’re starting to spread the word of the benefits of it.”

There could be some confusion about what native plants are and how they behave, so education among neighbors might be helpful, Cypher said. Signs marked ‘Certified Wildlife Habitat’ are good tools.

“And then that way your neighbors would know. ‘Oh, that’s what they’re doing. They’re providing wildlife habitat.’”

Cypher’s Certified Wildlife Habitat sign from the National Wildlife Federation. Image: Natalie Cypher

Michelle Serreyn faced similar challenges when building her own habitat.

“My neighbors didn’t quite understand what I was doing,” said Serreyn, an educational programmer for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources Outdoor Adventure Center.

One neighbor worried that her yard was weedy, so she kept the perimeter as clean as possible.

“Most of the neighbors didn’t really care,” she said.

Her advice for those looking to build a backyard habitat is that the wildlife’s needs are the first priority.

“Don’t plan for something that’s not going to be in your yard,” Serreyn said. “Scarlet tanagers are beautiful, but most people are not going to get scarlet tanagers in their yard.”

People should focus on the wildlife that they’re typically going to see and do their best to provide what they need, she said.

Planning is another important part of building a habitat.

“Make sure you look at city ordinances because they’re different for each community,” Serreyn said.

People should confer with their community, she said.

Talking to others who have backyard habitats, attending webinars or garden club meetings and going on local wildflower walks are helpful when planning your own habitat, Serreyn said.

“See what these things look like in their natural setting because that’s what the animals are looking for,” Serreyn said.

“They’re not just looking for a big clump of milkweed necessarily. They’re looking for something that looks like what’s programmed in their head to be a relatively natural setting.”

The size of your yard doesn’t matter, just work with the space you have, she said.

Her friend in Detroit has a postage-stamp-sized yard and it’s filled with native plants, Serreyn said.

“She gets all kinds of fun birds in this just teeny little lot.”

To get your habitat certified by the National Wildlife Federation, it must provide food, water, cover, places to raise young and follow sustainable practices.

Sustainable practices include using mulch, removing non-native plants and avoiding chemical fertilizers.

You can apply for certification of a backyard habitat by the National Wildlife Federation at nwf.org/CERTIFY.

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