Homeowner’s Guide to Wildlife Conservation in Your Backyard
Wildlife conservation is the act of protecting undomesticated animals and encouraging the propagation of species. While we usually think of large-scale efforts when we talk about wildlife conservation, it is absolutely possible for individuals to contribute to wildlife conservation. In fact, some people choose to turn their backyard into a wildlife sanctuary on varying scales.
It is important that if you choose to make your backyard a wildlife sanctuary, you are mindful of what species you are trying to protect and attract. When making this choice, you should consider the following factors:
- What species are native to your area? It is important to conserve native species rather than invasive species, as invasive species can negatively impact ecosystems, preying on native species or consuming limited resources that native creatures rely on.
- How do various species impact local ecosystems? It is important to understand how any species you choose to conserve impacts your local ecosystem, either in general or at current population levels.
- Are local species dangerous in any way? Some species can be dangerous to you, your neighbors, or your pets. This includes predators such as bears, foxes, snakes, alligators, and birds of prey, but may also include animals such as moose or bees. In such cases, it may be prudent to either choose to avoid such species for backyard conservation efforts, or to take additional precautions.
- How much space do you have? Some conservation efforts may require more space than others, largely depending on the needs of the species you choose to conserve, and to what extent you intend to contribute to their conservation.
- What resources do you have at your disposal? Backyard conservation efforts can require resources such as space, funding, time, and natural features on the property.
- How might your efforts impact the local ecosystem? You should always consider how your conservation efforts may affect the local ecosystem, whether that’s through the propagation of a specific species, creating a high, local concentration of a specific species, or introducing various items (food, chemicals, waste, etc.) into the environment.
- How might backyard conservation activities affect your personal life? Before you begin, it’s important to ensure you understand and expect how factors such as the proximity of certain species, the time you will need to dedicate to conservation, and changes to your personal space, will affect you personally.
- What wildlife do you personally appreciate? Once you have considered the more important issues such as resources, safety, and environmental impact, it may be helpful to think about what wildlife you have a personal interest in.
Adjustments to your landscaping and gardening efforts are integral to backyard conservation, not only to cater to the needs of the wildlife but also to preserve your yard itself. The following are just a few measures that can be helpful in both of these regards:
- Plant native trees that provide shelter and sustenance to your chosen wildlife, e.g. red cedars for birds, moths, and butterflies.
- Incorporate layers into your gardening in order to provide shelter and shade for wildlife.
- Create a hedge or another significant border between your yard and outside disturbances.
- Add birdhouses and bird baths that suit native birds.
- Use native plant life, as local wildlife has already adapted to it.
- Avoid using pesticides and chemicals that are toxic to wildlife.
- Add ponds and meadows, which are hot spots for a variety of wildlife, including birds, butterflies, bees, and frogs.
- Offer space as much as possible, e.g. spread out birdhouses. Consider that some wildlife may feel threatened or become territorial if they are in an area that is too close to other animals, including their own species.
- Prevent harmful runoff. Remember that toxins or parasites (such as those found in pesticides or pet waste) can pollute the resources that you are offering to wildlife, as rain and other natural factors spread the materials over time.
It is important to keep in mind, however, that the landscaping challenges and needs of your backyard will largely depend on area and climate. For example, the flora and fauna found naturally around homes in subtropical Charleston and Wilmington will be very different from the flora and fauna found around homes in temperate Myrtle Beach. Therefore, the care they need will differ greatly as well in order to properly support the ecosystem, and you will need to do some independent research to understand the unique considerations for your area and climate.
It is vital that backyard conservationists are careful with what options for food and water they provide for the wildlife, if at all. In this regard, all backyard conservationists should make the following consideration:
- Do not feed table scraps to wildlife, as it is not an ideal diet for them, and you may attract unwanted pests.
- If you do want to actively provide food, do research on what specific food items are appropriate for the wildlife that you are seeking to attract. You will also want to offer the food through appropriate means, such as a suitable bird feeder.
- Limit food supply to manageable levels. You may become overwhelmed or overburden your backyard wildlife sanctuary if you attract more wildlife than you or your yard are prepared to handle.
- Ensure that native, available plant life is suited to the needs of your preferred wildlife.
- Incorporate water features like ponds and fountains.
- Create a rain garden or incorporate natural features with concave surfaces, in order to naturally collect rainwater.
- Be wary of anything that could create toxic runoff, such as pesticides or pet waste.
Helpful shelter for wildlife will depend on the species. However, you should consider whether you should or want to offer temporary or permanent shelters for wildlife at all. Offering a safe space for the wildlife to visit is still valuable, even if it’s not an ongoing or permanent arrangement. Consider the following factors:
- Provide vegetation as cover, including trees, hedges, shrubs, vines, and grass. It is best if you layer these types of vegetation, in which case you will need to consider what plants thrive in the shade.
- You can consider manufactured shelters, such as birdhouses, nest boxes, and bee hotels. However, you should approach manufactured shelters carefully, as they will not all be of the same quality, could negatively impact the environment, and may encourage permanent or frequent residence from some wildlife.
- Create nooks and crannies. Rocks, bushes, and stacked logs can create shelter for everything from insects to small mammals. Even aquatic or amphibious creatures will feel safer if they have covered, secluded areas to hide and rest. Insects may even benefit from simple holes drilled into logs.
A vital component of backyard conservation is to ensure that the wildlife is safe, and feels safe and comfortable. You can accomplish this through the following measures:
- Ensure that wildlife has a place to take shelter, especially within natural or semi-natural structures, such as vegetation, rocks, or logs.
- Warn residents, neighbors, and visitors about your conservation efforts if necessary, so that they can try to avoid inadvertently startling the wildlife.
- Keep pets away from the wildlife as much as possible.
- Teach your children to respect wildlife and keep their distance.
- Keep noisy items, such as cars or lawnmowers, away from the sanctuary as much as possible.
- Give the wildlife the opportunity and space to keep their distance from each other as well, even among the same species.
- Be aware of any potential danger to the species that you are trying to conserve, and take reasonable measures to mitigate that risk.
- You may even consider choosing your home based on your conservation goals, as the location will play a significant part in the safety and comfort of the wildlife.
- It can also be helpful to move into new homes in an efficient manner, in order to reduce disruptions such as noise pollution from moving vehicles.
It’s not only important to ensure that the wildlife is safe, but also you, your pets, and other people in the area. You can accomplish that through careful research about the wildlife you are conserving, as well as by taking the following measures:
- Choose your target animals: Carefully consider what wildlife you choose to invite into your space. Many predators can be dangerous to humans or pets, but it is also important to consider the risk of aggressive animals like moose, or venomous animals such as wasps. Species-based risk may also be impacted by unique circumstances of the household, such as the age of children, the size of pets, or specific allergies.
- Communicate with the community: Ensure that everyone in the area is aware of what you are doing, so that everyone is in the loop, knows to take appropriate precautions, and can communicate with you as necessary.
- Talk to the kids: Take special care to communicate any possible dangers with children, and teach them to keep a respectful distance from wild animals.
- Research any wildlife you are considering inviting into your yard and prepare safety measures specific to that creature, such as allergy medications, defensive sprays, or objects to create noise.
- Prepare for unexpected guests: Keep in mind that by inviting one species, you may also inadvertently invite other species that are attracted for similar reasons or that prey upon that species. Be aware of these creatures, and prepare appropriately in the event of their appearance. If possible, take measures to prevent their entrance.
- Know distinguishing features: Be able to identify the differences between similar species, such as bees, wasps, and hornets, so that you can fully understand the temperament, dangers, and implications of each and can respond accordingly.
Efforts intended to attract wildlife can also inadvertently attract pests. You can reduce the chances of this by taking the following precautions:
- Be aware of any species in your area that eat similar items to those that your conservation efforts are directed at. Choose food items that are less appealing to the unwanted species, or make additional efforts to dissuade them.
- Do not leave food out to spoil. Offer it on a regular schedule, and adjust if it is not being consumed rapidly enough.
- Clean up food refuse, e.g. leftover husks, that may amass and attract undesirable rodents or insects.
- Avoid items such as meat and dairy products, that are prone to spoilage and stench.
- Keep a wary eye on your yard, and what wildlife is partaking of the natural or supplied foods there.
- Consider sprays or other products that repel pests, without dissuading the particular species you are seeking to attract and conserve. Such products that are safe for bees and butterflies, in particular, are common.
- Consider whether they really are pests. With the exception of invasive species, local wildlife all play a role in the ecosystem, one of which may even involve the consumption of other pests that may be actually harmful to your yard. It is best to ensure you aren’t accidentally mistaking your cavalry for invaders.
Backyard conservation efforts are also a great opportunity to teach children about wildlife and the environment. A few considerations and options for approaching backyard conservation efforts with children include:
- Building shelters or helpful features, such as birdhouses, bee houses, bug hotels, nest boxes, and trellises: These activities can teach children about the needs and habitats of wildlife, as well as develop creative skills.
- Backyard wildlife identification and documentation: This activity can teach children about local wildlife and their activities, as well as means of identifying species.
- Responsible wildlife rehabilitation: This activity can help children better understand the needs of wildlife, and develop empathy.
- Cleaning up litter and other refuse: This activity can teach children about the impact of waste on the local environment, as well as encourage physical activity.
- Gardening efforts: This activity can teach children how wildlife interacts with plants, the variety of plant life in their area, and how to cultivate plant life. It can also develop patience and precision, as well as a personal sense of accomplishment.
- Maintaining a compost bin: This activity can teach children about the decomposition process, as well as how decomposed items feed back into the natural cycle of life. It can also help build waste reduction habits.
- Building and maintaining a terrarium: This can help children better understand how an ecosystem operates.
Wildlife conservation and eco-friendliness go hand-in-hand, and therefore efficacy in either field is tied to the success of efforts in the other. As such, if you are interested in wildlife conservation, it will also be prudent to make more eco-friendly choices in your day-to-day life, including:
- Following the reduce, reuse, recycle philosophy: This philosophy seeks to reduce harmful byproducts of waste and production processes.
- Maintaining a compost pile: This offers a way to reduce waste and productively repurpose it.
- Using energy-efficient appliances: This can reduce energy that produces harmful emissions during production.
- Limiting your water usage: This can help prevent waste of a finite resource, as well as reduce the need for wasteful water treatment options.
- Meal planning: This can help reduce food waste.
- Choosing local products: This can reduce fuel consumption needed for transport, as well as disincentivize larger factory models.
- Choosing sustainably-produced products: Some products are less wasteful to produce than others, and some companies take greater strides toward sustainable practice than others.
- Reducing the use of personal vehicles: This can help reduce fuel consumption, even if you opt for public transportation instead.
- Picking up your pets’ waste: Pet waste carries parasites that can contaminate local water supplies through runoff.
- Using pesticides and chemicals carefully or using natural options: You may accidentally poison plant life or wildlife if you don’t use, store, and dispose of chemicals properly.
- Using renewable energy: Renewable energy can reduce the production of harmful byproducts and the depletion of resources.
- Using sustainable building materials. Whenever you add structures to your property, you should choose sustainable building materials when possible.
National wildlife conservation resources can provide you with reliable information as you pursue your backyard conservation efforts:
- National Wildlife Federation: You can use this resource to certify a local wildlife habitat, which can give you perks relating to information and resources distributed by the organization.
- World Wide Fund for Nature: This is a comprehensive informational and news resource regarding conservation.
- National Association of Conservation Districts: This resource can provide users with general conservation information, as well as information about current conservation initiatives.
- Wildlife Habitat Council: This organization offers conservation resources regarding certification, consultation, and general information.
A wide variety of conservation resources may offer valuable tools and insights for your conservation goals, including:
- Conservation.org: This is a comprehensive resource of conservation news and information.
- U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: This search tool allows you to identify endangered species in your area.
- iNaturalist: This website and the associated app allow you to take pictures of wildlife and plant life, and submit them to the forum. This will allow you to find out what species you have pictured, and even contribute to crowd-sourced data about local wildlife.
- Nest Watch: This search tool allows you to identify birds native to your area, and download plans for building appropriate birdhouses or nest boxes for each bird. It also gives you some valuable information about the status of the species and the difficulty of building shelters for them, with select building guides even being labeled as being “kid-friendly.”
- Pollinator.org: This allows you to find a guide to pollinator-friendly plant life appropriate for your area