National Wildlife Federation’s
Backyard Wildlife Habitat Program

Faith Peterson
Adams County Master Gardener

National Wildlife Federation’s Backyard Wildlife Habitat™ program educates and inspires people to enhance and maintain their landscapes with the needs of wildlife in mind. People who restore habitat to their yards and improve their local environments are recognized through a certification process.

What is habitat? Habitat is the living place of an organism. The four main components of habitat that all species need to survive are food, water, cover and places to raise young. A Backyard Wildlife Habitat site is a mini-ecosystem with multiple food chains. It is best to provide as much food as possible through native vegetation so as to meet the year-round needs of a variety of species. Trees, shrubs, herbaceous plants, succulents and even grasses produce foods such as nuts, berries, fruits and seeds. Buds, seeds, sap, nectar and pollen are also important wildlife food produced by plants.

In a healthy ecosystem, some of the creatures that feed on plants will become food for other species higher up the food chain. Insects, for example, are prime food for many species including birds, amphibians, and small rodents. Natural food sources can be supplemented with feeders. A bird feeder will provide for five to ten species, but planting a variety of native plants will provide for dozens of species of wildlife for many decades.

Nature provides water to wildlife in many ways that can be replicated in your habitat. Make sure that your water source is similar to what would normally occur in your area. With limited space, one can provide a birdbath. An elevated birdbath is fine for birds, but creatures like toads, rabbits or turtles will need water closer to the ground to meet their needs.

A simple solution is to partially bury an inverted trash can lid in the earth and fill with water. Always provide a large rock or two for small birds to climb on to avoid drowning if the water is over an inch deep. If space and funds are available, a pond installation is an excellent way to provide water as well as a living place for many creatures. Remember that a pond should not have steep, smooth sides, which can prove deadly to wildlife that cannot climb out of the pond.

Wildlife needs protective cover from predators and extremes of weather. The same plants that provide food will do double-duty as cover. Cavities in snags (standing dead trees) or fallen logs provide roosting and nesting areas for many animals. Brush piles or rock piles can provide wildlife cover if piled naturally.

A place to raise young is necessary to make your Backyard Wildlife Habitat area complete. Without this unique type of cover, wildlife may utilize the food, water and cover you have provided but will not be able to take up a truly permanent residence in all stages of their life cycles.

Brush piles, mature trees, ponds, tall grasses and dense shrubbery will all be used by some species as places to raise young as well as for cover. Many species are dependent upon a very limited number of plants. Monarch butterfly caterpillars, for example, can only feed on milkweed. The majority of amphibians must mate and lay their eggs in standing bodies of water.

If you are interested in obtaining some assistance with your backyard habitat, NWF offers a training program for volunteers, called Habitat Stewards, who are available to assist homeowners, schools, public facilities, and businesses in establishing wildlife habitats on their properties.

Your NWF Habitat Steward can help you to identify the native plantings you will need to attract certain species. Some individuals may want to attract mostly birds to their property. Others may want to attract butterflies and beneficial insects. There is a place in NWF’s Backyard Wildlife Habitat program to accommodate differing desires of habitat providers.

Usually people who wish to attract wildlife to their yards come to realize that limiting the size of their lawn while increasing native plantings greatly enhances the number of species that visit and reside in their backyard habitat.

The NWF Backyard Habitat program also works in urban settings where container gardening provides a solution to limited space, along with perhaps some vines growing up a wall or fence, and a small fruiting shrub or two. Add a water source, like a birdbath, some nesting boxes and a bird feeder, and you have established an urban habitat.

Coping with drought becomes less challenging with the NWF Backyard Wildlife Habitat program since the wildlife habitat utilizes locally native plant species. These species have adapted over thousands of years to their particular region and are genetically suited to their location. They thrive in local soils and under regional rainfall patterns and temperatures. Native grass species, unlike exotic turf grass varieties, make better use of the moisture content of the soils to which they have adapted. Their root systems, unlike the shallow root mat of traditional lawn grasses, extend deeper into the soil. Native plants also have other ways of dealing with drought, including trapping and collecting dew.

In addition to their water conservation benefits, native plants are more wildlife-friendly, providing the best overall food sources for backyard birds and other animals. Native plants may support ten to fifty times as many species of wildlife as non-native plants. Trees, shrubs, ground covers and prairie or meadow patches are much better environmental choices than lawn or other non-native plant species.

By making a home for wildlife in their backyards, people can make a valuable contribution to protecting Mother Nature’s gifts. At the same time, they discover the joy of gardening for wildlife. The loss of wild places is a major reason wildlife is disappearing all over the country. Habitat restoration and conservation are critical for wildlife in urban and suburban settings where commercial and residential development have eliminated most natural areas. Providing habitat for wildlife is especially critical during times of drought when food and water sources are particularly scarce.

Since 1973, NWF has been rewarding people for their efforts to welcome wildlife by certifying their properties as official Backyard Wildlife Habitat sites. To qualify for certification, a habitat must provide four essential elements: food, water, shelter and places to raise young. Today there are thousands of certified Backyard Wildlife Habitat sites throughout the country. Those who have had their backyards certified can rest assured that they have personally made a difference by protecting and improving the environment, both for themselves and for the animals with which they share the planet.

The biggest reward, however, is that with native habitat, there is more time for observing and enjoying the garden or yard and less time mowing, watering, mulching and fertilizing.

For more information on the program, log onto and go to "your yard"; or call the NWF at 703-438-6174. You will be contacted with the name of a local NWF Wildlife Habitat Steward, who will be happy to help you turn your backyard into your piece of paradise. As Henry David Thoreau once said, "In wildness is the preservation of the world."

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