How to Transform Your Yard Into a Wildlife Sanctuary

By Karuna Eberl, for Mosaic Birds

Transform your yard into a wildlife sanctuary with these five changes, plus get a nifty plaque to show off to your neighbors.

Hummingbirds noisily zing by. Butterflies flirt with flowers. Tree frogs chirp from leafy canopies. A diversity of wildlife in our yards brings joy to us humans.

But as we are quickly learning, it’s about more than us. In a world where so much of nature has been gobbled up by development, the habitat we create in our yards provides a vital lifeline to countless wild creatures.

“Every habitat garden is a step toward replenishing resources for wildlife such as bees, butterflies, birds and amphibians, both locally and along migratory corridors,” says Mary Phillips, head of the National Wildlife Federation’s Garden for Wildlife. “You can make a difference right at home and in your community by providing pit stops for wildlife to forage and shelter.”

Whether you have a tiny patio or expansive suburban yard, here is how to turn your outdoor space into a certified wildlife habitat.

The Five Elements of a Wildlife Habitat

A well-rounded habitat includes five major elements: food, water, cover, places to raise young, and sustainable gardening practices. To officially qualify for certification, you’ll also need to complete this checklist.

  • Food: For certification, you’ll need three types of food sources, which can range from bird feeders to pollen and seeding plants. Native plants make excellent natural food sources and can be supplemented with feeders. Phillips recommends choosing natives with pretty blooms, interesting foliage and colorful berries. Native plants make our lives easier as well, as they require less water and maintenance. To find high-impact plants in your zip code, try the NFW’s Native Plant Finder.
  • Water: You’ll need at least one water source. If you don’t have a pond or stream in your yard, try a bird bath, hanging bird waterer, fountain or shallow bowl on the ground to give birds, pollinators and other wildlife places to drink, bathe and breed. Place rocks inside water containers to make them safe for bees to land without getting stuck. Try planting pollinator friendly plants around water features, like verbena and milkweed and yarrow.
  • Cover: You’ll need at least two shelters where wild things can hide from bad weather and predators, and hunt for prey. These can be elements like trees, shrubs, brush piles, fallen logs, roosting boxes, tall grasses or burrows. The more the merrier. If you’re also shrinking your lawn, try planting a perimeter of wild grasses and shrubs.
  • Places to raise young: You’ll need at least two elements that help wildlife reproduce, protect and nourish their young during all parts of their lifecycles. These are often the same as the “cover” elements, but could also include host plants for caterpillars and bird/bat/owl houses (which double for natural rodent control). Also, try not to prune trees and shrubs during bird mating and nesting seasons.
  • Sustainable practices: Maintain your yard or garden in natural ways to ensure soil, air, and water stay healthy and clean. This includes actions like ditching pesticides and instead encouraging beneficial insects and natural predators; using mulch and compost instead of synthetic fertilizers; limiting water use by installing drip hoses or xeriscaping; removing invasive species; and soil conservation. You’ll need at least two of these, but consider doing as many as possible.

More Tips for Creating your Wildlife Habitat

It sounds like a lot of work, but considering you can even achieve this on an apartment patio, it’s easier than you might think. The goal here is not perfection, but rather having fun and watching the positive results of each change unfold.

• Start small and transform your landscape in phases. This breaks your task into bite-size pieces and gives you time to see what’s working and what isn’t. Also, “Starting small gives neighbors time to get accustomed to your yard’s look,” says Phillips.

• Reduce the size of your lawn. Monoculture grass lawns support little if any biodiversity. You don’t need to eliminate your grass, just find a nice trade-off between civilized human space and wildlands for everyone else. Also consider replacing your lawn grass with native and low-mow grasses like fescues and buffalo grasses.

• Add ornamental birdbaths, garden benches, statues, and water features. “They add visual interest and make things seem less wild-looking,” says Phillips. “So do borders, paths, hedges, plant islands and fences, which frame garden areas and add a neat appearance.”

• Let it seed. Birds like seeds, so leave some areas un-mowed for flowers and grasses to go to seed, and don’t clear dried flower heads until spring. Also, keep around decaying leaf litter and wood mulch, as the insects, lichen and fungi that thrive there are valuable food for the whole ecosystem, especially birds trying to find enough protein to feed their young.

The Final Step — Certification

This is the easy part. Fill out the National Wildlife Federation‘s online form, pay $20 (that goes to wildlife conservation efforts), and join the 277,000 others who have done the same. You’ll automatically get a paper certificate in the mail, but for a little extra you can get a more official-looking plaque to put on your fence, which is a great conversation starter with neighbors and encourages others to create wildlife habitat in their yards.

“Remember, when you create a garden or landscape that helps wildlife, you are an ambassador for the idea of natural landscaping,” says Phillips. “You want your neighbors to be excited about what you’ve done, not to turn them off to the idea of restoring habitat.”

One Yard Really Does Make A Difference

Studies have shown that by creating a proper habitat you can increase wildlife by 50% in just one season. “These garden plots are like stepping stones that help support pollinators in a badly fragmented ecosystem,” says Phillips. Combine that with a neighborhood and it can really add up.

If you want to get even more involved:

For more resources on creating habitat see:

Words Mosaic Birds in green, with by Couronneco in black, and a orange bird illustration.