How Can We Accommodate Wildlife in Our Backyards?

Jul 8, 2019

In this week’s Wildlife Matters, the Masked Biologist tackles one of WXPR’s Curious North questions.

Emily DiGiorgio from Ironwood, MI, asks: How can we help accommodate wildlife in our backyards without disturbing our home aesthetic?

To answer Emily's question, here's the Masked Biologist.

I took a look at some of the curious north questions that have been submitted from listeners, and thought I would take a couple weeks to answer some of them. This question is from Emily DiGiorgio, who asks “How can we help accommodate wildlife in our backyards without disturbing our home aesthetic?”

Well, first I would have to know a little something about your home, its location and aesthetic, because everyone has different ideas and circumstances. For example, I live right in Rhinelander on a very busy street. I have not been able to get birds to visit birdfeeders, but I know others a few blocks away get all kinds of birds. Then again, some people think birdfeeders are great, while others might find them messy and ugly.

That being said, I think I understand the question enough to give you all sorts of information. First of all, let’s say that you do not want to break any laws—for example, putting out feed for deer or bear is illegal. Besides, feeders for any animal can be ugly, high maintenance, and risk spreading disease like chronic wasting disease or epizootic hemorrhagic disease.

The simplest answer to making your backyard wildlife friendly while still keeping it healthy and beautiful is the use of live plants. For starters, there are many native flowers that are excellent in your yard but also benefit pollinators like bees and butterflies. You could plant blueberries, or milkweed which is the only plant that a monarch caterpillar can use to move through its life cycle and become a butterfly. You can also plant some larger annual flower species that attract hummingbirds to your yard. The next size up, bushes and shrubs. There are some wildlife-friendly shrubs you can plant that flower in the spring and then provide fruit that wildlife loves. In our yard, we have blackberries and raspberries planted in shady corners that used to produce only moss. The birds love to raid the berries, as does my Labrador retriever. 

There are lots of other wildlife friendly shrubs, like red-osier or silky dogwoods, American Hazelnut, American Highbush Cranberry, Ninebark, and vibernum or nannyberry. Slightly larger species include Crabapple, Hawthorn, Juneberry and Wild Plum. Most of these produce beautiful fragrant flowers in spring, great for pollinators and hummingbirds, and then produce edible fruit or nuts that benefit wildlife throughout the late summer, fall, winter and into the following spring. Finally, if you are considering planting larger trees, think about those that produce mast, or fruits and nuts, that will attract wildlife, like chestnut trees, oaks, cherry trees. Also, planting spruce trees, cedar or white pine trees will attract wildlife that use the cones for food and take advantage of the thermal cover they provide in the winter.

You can make your existing gardens wildlife friendly by putting in toad houses, made from hollow logs or exterior grade clay pots. One thing we did is add a ground level water supply, one that takes advantage of our periodic rainfalls to keep moist soil plants alive and keep some water that many different wildlife species. Some animals like porcupines will even come in to eat some of the mud to get the minerals it provides! If you put out a rain garden or water source of some kind, you will want to put in an agitator like a fountain head or aerator to keep mosquitoes from laying eggs, and you will want to make sure you put a stick in there or something to keep small animals from drowning in it. I have a friend who was heartbroken to find a bird had flown into her watering can to get a drink, only to drown when it could not get back out.

For more information you can check out the DNR’s “woody cover for wildlife” on their webpage, or the native plant finder on the national wildlife federation’s webpage. You can even make a small donation to NWF and get a certified wildlife habitat sign recognizing your efforts to make your backyard benefit wildlife!

Striving to make new things familiar and familiar things new, this is the Masked Biologist coming to you from the heart of Wisconsin’s great Northwoods.

Do you have a question for the Masked Biologist? Submit it below to our Curious North series and it could be featured in an upcoming commentary.

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