Citizen Science

Make Your Yard (or School Grounds or Office Building) a Wildlife Haven

October 13, 2016

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American goldfinches on a sunflower. Photo © plant4wildlife
American goldfinches on a sunflower. Photo © plant4wildlife

Turning your yard – or other small outdoor space – into a wildlife haven is easier than you think. Get started with Habitat Network, an online community of citizen scientists working together to build habitat to support wildlife.

Habitat Network is a partnership between the Nature Conservancy (TNC) and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (CLO) that grew out of an earlier project called YardMap. Similar to YardMap, participants map their yards using a simple online tool and add them to the network. They also learn and share the best tips to create a beautiful outdoor space that’s attractive to wildlife.

“Habitat Network expands upon the previous YardMap platform by integrating new functionality such as the new planning tool,” Megan Whatton, Project Manager for Habitat Network explains, “which analyzes the maps created by Habitat users, provides goals users can set for the property, and suggests actions users can take to reach the goals set for each property.”

Don’t have a yard? No problem. You can map and share your container garden, community plot or local park.

Get Started with a Wildlife-Friendly Space

Check out these easy tips from Megan Whatton to get started on transforming your yard:

  • Plant Native. Next time you think about putting a planter together or re-planting your landscaping, think about planting native plants. The benefits of native plants are numerous and it’s fairly easy to find a nursery who has native plants to sell. Our explore tool on Habitat Network is available for everyone to use (no sign-in required) and provides you the resources you need to make these decisions.
  • Reduce or eliminate chemical use on your property. Often the use of chemicals like fertilizers and pesticides are overused. Reading labels and following use procedures can help reduce the amount of chemicals used and wildlife impacted. Also using chemicals after sunset can reduce the amount of insects impacted by the application.
  • Set aside an area for a brush pile. Creating a brush pile of the sticks and limbs that fall on the property can provide shelter and nesting opportunities for wildlife.
  • Leave dead, standing wood, a.k.a. snags. Trees die, and when they do, they continue their good work by providing food for insects and in turn for wildlife that feed on those insects, shelter, and nesting materials and locations. Check out our article on snags for more suggestions on how to make them beautiful and safe.
Planting trees in Louisville, Kentucky. Photo © The Nature Conservancy (Devan King)
Planting trees in Louisville, Kentucky. Photo © The Nature Conservancy (Devan King)

The Power of Grassroots Conservation

Habitat Network focuses on actions that people can take to have broader ecological and social impacts.

Did you know that 40 million acres of land in the U.S. are taken up by lawns? That’s primarily made up of short grass, which provides few benefits for native flora and fauna. Habitat Network aims to change that trend by giving people the resources they need to create stunning lawns with plants that are native to their unique ecoregion.

“Planting natives in place of ornamentals or exotic plants has benefits for humans and wildlife,” Whatton notes. She adds that native plants support a wider variety of herbivores, which in turn provide food for other wildlife; are low maintenance (less work and expense for you!); and are often as beautiful as common exotic species, for instance, consider planting Redtwig Dogwood instead of Burning Bush.

When you join Habitat Network, you will see that many small actions taken together have already had a remarkable collective impact. Participants have already mapped nearly 350,000 acres. That’s a significant and constantly growing network of wildlife-friendly turf stitched together from yards and local parks.

Students from Chamblee Middle School in Atlanta, Georgia conduct a habitat survey – looking for pollinators, insects, and other wildlife – in their school garden which is used as an outdoor science lab. Photo © Nick Burchell for The Nature Conservancy
Students from Chamblee Middle School in Atlanta, Georgia conduct a habitat survey – looking for pollinators, insects, and other wildlife – in their school garden which is used as an outdoor science lab. Photo © Nick Burchell for The Nature Conservancy

Information from the Habitat Network community will help scientists to answer questions about creating outdoor spaces that are good for nature and people too. Questions like: What practices improve the wildlife value of residential landscapes? What impact do urban and suburban wildlife corridors and stopover habitats have on birds? Which measures show the greatest success of our projects?

“Most of the questions we are seeking to answer require a lot of long-term data,” Rhainnon Crain, Project Leader for Habitat Network says. “The more people who participate in the project, adopt some goals for the sites they manage, implement changes, and record the new data the closer we get to being able to answer those questions for a diversity of landscapes.”

The answers to these questions will help people greatly reduce negative impacts of our living spaces on nature and contribute to wildlife conservation by creating valuable havens and corridors for wildlife.

Get Involved

Join Habitat Network for more information specific to your region and to start setting goals. You can use the mapping tool to add your own land or to share information about public lands.

Katydid nymph on black-eyed susan. Aurora, Nebraska. Photo © The Nature Conservancy (Chris Helzer)
Katydid nymph on black-eyed susan. Aurora, Nebraska. Photo © The Nature Conservancy (Chris Helzer)

The learn page provides more than 150 articles on topics from leaf litter to supporting pollinators to help you get started creating your own outdoor paradise. And if you have a question that isn’t covered, the forum is a place to ask questions and share advice about what has worked with the community.

You can also join or form groups with others in the Habitat Network community who share a common interest. For instance, you might be interested in improving the placement of bird feeders or connecting with people in your region.

Add your yard, container garden, or even your local park to Habitat Network. With a relatively small effort, you can make a big impact for wildlife.

Lisa Feldkamp

Lisa Feldkamp is the senior coordinator for new science audiences. She loves all things citizen science and enjoys learning about everything that goes on four legs, two wings or fins. She has a PhD in Classical Literature and Languages from the University of Wisconsin - Madison and enjoys reading Greek and Roman literature or talking about mythology in her spare time. More from Lisa

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  1. I moved into my small New England cottage 12 years ago in spring, never having seen what it looked like in summer. I looked forward to see what would emerge. Disappointed when all that came up was an overcrowded bed of “ditch lilies” and a lot of just grass & weeds. Not even lawn. And no flowers or shrub other than the daylilies. On top of that, I learned that a past owner had filled in a spring-fed streamlet on the upper corner, and then tried to block the moisture by laying down plastic and covering it over with dirt (thus the shallow-rooted melange of wild grasses growing on squishy soil). I did have trees, including some lovely maples around the old carriage barn in back, which I’ve left be for the most part, except for removing 2 sickly box elders, parts of which I’ve incorporated into the garden as edging. Sadly, I’m stuck with the two giant cottonwoods beside my driveway (though the birds enjoy them).

    I set to work. A friend helped me dig out the spring and recreate the streamlet. I pulled up a huge mound of plastic from the earth, picking up little pieces one by one. I dug up the daylilies using a mattock, and knew they’d bedevil me for years (and they have). That year I set aside the southern most bit for my veggie garden, and developed a plan for the rest. The area by the streamlet was boggy, and perfect for semi-shaded moisture loving plants, including a native viburnum that gets shaped each year, with hostas, astilbe, giant lobelia, and beebalm growing around it. The slope to the bog I left to the birds to plant. Over the years they have brought me several kinds of aster, 3 small crabapple trees, and other native or naturalized bird plants. I remove overgrowth and the rampant invasives that they also bring. In front of the house is my “civilized garden”, with a magnolia tree, bulbs, more hostas, irises, and my beloved Charles de Mille rose. (I have a number of heirloom roses scattered here and there throughout the garden).

    Though some health issues keep me from grooming my garden as much as I’d like, it is still attractive. It is full of birds, I am visited by skunks (generally there is one in residence under my barn, which is fine with me, as we are on good terms), raccoons, and an occasional fox family, and likely other creatures who prefer not to be seen. It is a raingarden that drains not only the spring, but the increasingly heavy rains to the bottom of my yard, where the water disappears into a sandy layer (likely what it did before it was tampered with). I keep hoping the frogs and toads and amphibians my older neighbors described will come back, but alas the neighborhood as a whole is losing habitat, and mine is becoming isolated. The old field in back that was once a cowfield had been growing in, but now someone has cleared out much of the growth, and some lawns have expanded.

    However, when I moved in, I was the only one who kept a vegetable garden. Now nearly everyone is and it is quite the in thing to do. I noticed that some new folks are creating a natural area in back of their house down the street. Perhaps if I sign my little habitat up and put up a sign, more folks will join in with their own habitats until we conjoin with the natural areas that surround us, just back of the next block over.

    1. Thank you Annie! That sounds like a wonderful project. I hope that as others see the success and beauty of natural yards in your area, they will continue to expand the habitat.

  2. I love stumbling over your column just now, Lisa and agree that Annie’s yard sounds perfectly wonderful! The hard work was worth it.

    I’m in North Texas and have had an all organic yard and (mostly)house since 1975, now registered as a wildlife sanctuary. My neighbors are mostly organic but I believe I am the only one with a habitat; it is mostly enclosed with a wooden privacy fence in back with a wrought iron entry gate to allow rabbits and possums and other things passageway.

    I have had bird feeders near a brush pile in the back corner for years near a bamboo forest and various bird baths near the house where the (inside only) cats can enjoy watching the activity.

    There are many old Oaks on this large lot. Also a large pine tree next to a large pecan tree that was planted by the squirrels. I have had several generations of possums living under the hot tub shoji and this was the first year I have even had wild rabbits, two of them visit often. I have seen a fox and once a coyote in the street late at night and a variety of owls through the years.

    My front yard is also mostly oak shade with understory redbuds, monkey grass, poke sallet (poke salad), honeysuckle, Virginia creeper, iris, spiderwort, moon flowers and various bushes and plants with no turf grass whatsoever. I prefer ground covers.
    I put out various grains and seeds along with a bit of rabbit food for any passing critter, along with fresh water.

    I live at least two or three miles inside the city limits but I surprised two deer at 2 a.m. one morning when going out to walk my dog in the cool so we made a fast trip out and back in. I see in the monkey grass where they bed down out there near the multiple bird baths of various heights.

    I am a night owl and my dog is big and calm. We have often seen various sizes of possums on my front porch, one young teenager was holding on to the arm of the porch swing for dear life and when he got too scared of us, he shut his eyes!

  3. Lisa, if you have a newsletter, please put me on it. I cannot wait to see the variety of comments that you receive but I’m not sure that I can get back to this column again.

  4. Thanks for all of the ongoing studies that you provide these are my primary source of information about nature and the environment in which we live, please keep up your good work best regards Joe

  5. I want all Gods animals, insects all that he make to eat be loved and cared for.

  6. Thanks for the article, Lisa. I’m looking forward to adding my property to the Habitat Network.