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Turn Your Backyard Into a Certified Wildlife Habitat

Pandemic spike in interest creates new spaces for birds, butterflies and other creatures

spinner image National Wildlife Federation Certified Wildlife Habitat
Courtesy of David Mizejewski

When goldfinches land in the garden to pluck seeds from the heads of spent coneflowers, Mary Sipe feels a deep sense of satisfaction.

Sipe, 62, planted coneflowers, camellias, hellebores, poppies and other flowering plants to help attract bees, butterflies and birds to the garden of her Marvin, North Carolina, home. The yard also includes a pond for frogs and lizards as well as birdbaths and bird feeders to provide food and drink for local birds. The efforts allowed Sipe to have her yard certified as a wildlife habitat through the National Wildlife Federation (NWF).

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"It's incredible, the amount of wildlife you can attract even from planting one or two different plants,” she says.

The nonprofit organization launched its Certified Wildlife Habitat program in 1973 to help gardeners combat the impact of development on wildlife habitats. Since its inception, it has certified 250,000 wildlife habitats — and NWF naturalist David Mizejewski has seen a huge uptick in interest since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Since the 1970s, we've lost almost one-third of our bird population in North America, and monarch populations have crashed because we've replaced natural habitats with asphalt and lawns,” Mizejewski says. “We wanted to give people information and inspiration to make their own yards a little better for local wildlife."

Making it official

The NWF operates its Certified Wildlife Habitat program on the honor system. Fill out the online application, acknowledging that your habitat contains all of the crucial elements, and pay the $20 fee (plus an additional fee for a “Certified Wildlife Habitat” sign for the garden, if desired), and the nonprofit adds your home to its ever-expanding list of backyard wildlife habitats.

But the NWF is not the only organization that operates a wildlife habitat program. The North American Butterfly Association and regional chapters of the Audubon Society offer garden certifications, too.

And you don't have to wait until spring to get started. Fall is a great time to plant trees and shrubs and hang bird feeders; even leaving fallen leaves on the lawn instead of raking them into piles provides essential food and nesting materials for birds, turtles and toads. The dormant season is also ideal for scouring seed catalogs and making a list of pollinator-friendly plants to add to the garden in spring.

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Your garden could consist of a small yard in the city or acreage in the country; there are no size restrictions when it comes to creating a welcoming space for wildlife. To qualify for certification, you must provide basic habitat components.

spinner image A butterfly on a flower in a a garden
Getty Images

1. Feed the masses: Plants are the primary way to provide food for wildlife, Mizejewski says. Choose plants such as sunflowers, echinacea, zinnias, currants, elderberries and acorn trees to provide a combination of seeds, nuts, berries and nectar.

Opt for native plants that have coevolved with native wildlife. Native plants attract the native insects that birds depend on for food, and butterflies, including monarchs, prefer to lay their eggs on native host plants, Mizejewski notes.

The NWF has a Native Plant Finder on its website; enter your zip code and learn what plants are native to your region. The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, Texas, also maintains a searchable native plant database.

Supplemental feeders will bring birds and squirrels to the yard but are not necessary for a thriving wildlife habitat.

2. Water for wildlife: A clean source of drinking water is essential to support wildlife, but the H2O in a wildlife habitat is for more than sipping: Birds use shallow water for bathing; butterflies absorb nutrients from the soil-water combination found in natural puddles; and frogs lay their eggs in ponds.

You can choose water sources ranging from birdbaths to streams and ponds; even a shallow dish placed on the ground can be an important water source for wildlife.

Sipe had the space to install a small pond in her backyard. “The first night, we could hardly hear each other because there were so many frogs in the pond,” she recalls. “It was like the baseball analogy: ‘If you build it, they will come.’ “

spinner image David Mizjewski, NWF Naturalist
Naturalist Dave Mizejewski advocates for sustainable garden practices.
Courtesy of David Mizejewski

3. Create cover: Wildlife need a place to hide from predators (and predators need places to conceal themselves while hunting for prey). Providing cover — including dense shrubs, bramble patches and rock piles — also provides places for wildlife to take cover from the hot sun or driving rain.

"The same plants that provide food can also provide cover,” Mizejewski says. “The idea is to minimize big open spaces with plants. The more you plant, the more cover you provide."

4. Pick a place to call home: Hanging a birdhouse is the most obvious way to provide nesting space for wildlife, but mature trees, dense shrubs, burrows, host plants for caterpillars and even dead trees also offer essential places for wildlife to raise their young.

Using sustainable practices to manage your wildlife habitat is also important. Eliminating chemical pesticides and fertilizers, adding mulch to reduce water use and minimize erosion, and collecting rainwater are all part of wildlife-friendly gardening.

You don't need to get certified to have a positive impact on butterflies, birds, bees, chipmunks, frogs, turtles and other wildlife. But Mizejewski hopes that the program encourages gardeners — and passersby who see the colorful signs designating yards as certified wildlife habitats — to think about the impact their gardens can have on wildlife.

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