Backyard Wildlife Management (NRCS & Michigan DNR)

Nature offers a myriad of gifts that may be found as close as your backyard. Imagine the splash of colors of a gold finch, the enchanting tunes of a cardinal, the sweet fragrance of flowering crabapples, the high-spirited flight of a butterfly. All this and more could be yours by managing the land for wildlife around your home.


By understanding wildlife needs and using suitable vegetation, you can invite many "guests" to your home. And, you may enjoy less yard work and more free time by landscaping your yard with certain trees, shrubs, flowers and grasses that attract wildlife.

(Wildlife habitat improvements may even increase the value of your property.)


Example of a naturalized yard design.

The three basic needs of any wildlife species are food, cover and water. The relative location of these is what creates usable wildlife habitat, which can be made available for some species in your backyard.

Generally, larger areas with diverse vegetation have a greater variety of wildlife. But, a well-laid-out variety of food, cover and water on a small area can entice a variety of wildlife to your home. (Click on image to see diagram.)


Here are four basic steps to take in beginning your venture:

  1. Determine the species of wildlife that live in your area.
  2. Select the species you want to attract and learn about their habitat and food requirements.
  3. Inventory the habitat available and habitat needs on your land and that of adjacent landowners.
  4. Design projects to improve wildlife habitat.

If your plans are extensive, or you want to allocate your expenses and distribute your work, develop a three- to five-year plan.


Trees, shrubs, grasses, wildflowers, and perennial and annual flower gardens all provide food and cover for wildlife. Rock piles, brush piles, decaying logs and compost piles are also valuable cover components to your backyard. They supply cover for chipmunks, rabbits, weasels, catbirds, salamanders, toads, snakes, snails and beneficial insects.

The size of your backyard, the vegetative mix and its placement, the types of wildlife you want to attract, and the habitat and land management practices on your neighbors' land dictate what can be done to encourage wildlife use in your area.


Let's take a closer look at some of the trees, shrubs, grasses and wildflowers that may interest some of nature's finest.


Trees and Shrubs

Trees and shrubs that provide food and cover for backyard wildlife are sought out by many birds and mammals. The heavy cover of dense conifers, also called evergreens, such as spruce and cedar, attract winter songbirds like cardinals and provide shelter for gamebirds such as the ruffed grouse. Food is supplied by bird feeders placed in or near the trees. Summer residents such as robins and mourning doves seek high quality nest sites furnished by conifers and thorny bushes and trees where concealed nests afford a safe haven from predators.


Trees and shrubs that provide food in the form of seeds and fruit for birds and mammals are highly desirable. All fruits and nuts are referred to as mast. Plants which supply fruit, soft mast, that last into the winter and possibly into the following spring are preferred. Included in this group are thornapples, crabapples, firethorn, mountain ash, American high-bush cranberry, nannyberry, arrowwood, staghorn sumac, and wild grape. Plants that furnish fruit during spring, summer and early fall include serviceberry, mulberry, elderberry, raspberries, cherries and dogwoods. These fruit and berry plants attract the blue jay, catbird, robin, cedar waxwing, pheasant, grouse, squirrel, raccoon, deer and many butterflies.


Conifers such as tamarack, white spruce, blue spruce, hemlock and white cedar, which hold their seeds in a semi-loose cone, may attract crossbills, finches, evening grosbeaks, chickadees and red squirrels. Other conifers like the white pine, Norway spruce and juniper serve as winter shelter and nesting sites for cardinals, mourning doves and chipping sparrows.


Example of a good arrangement for a backyard planting.If planted on the west and north sides of your property or home, the taller and more dense conifers are a natural insulation against the cold winds of winter. These trees may also be used to mark your property boundaries, serve as a living snow fence, or simply offer an esthetic landscape. (Click on image to see diagram.)

Trees such as oak, walnut, hickory, hazelnut, or beech that provide hard, winter mast (nuts) attract large seed-eating birds, small mammals and deer. Planting these trees on the south and east sides of your house provides shade in the summer and, in turn, may reduce your indoor temperature. After losing their leaves in the fall, the sun shines through the trees to help heat your home during the cool seasons. (See diagram above.) If you do not want to attract squirrels and chipmunks, then it is recommended you do not plant a yard full of these trees. If squirrels will inevitably visit, feeders designed for them, as well as feeders designed to repel squirrels, are desirable.

Standing dead trees (snags) and those with dead tops or limbs are very attractive to many wildlife species. These trees furnish cavity nest sites for many songbirds, squirrels or bats, as well as provide insect larvae for woodpeckers, nuthatches and flickers.


Grasses and Wildflowers

To most backyard managers, grass is something that must be mowed weekly and fertilized to keep it growing. A typical yard is constantly green, and weed free and mowed to less than 3 inches tall. WHY? It seems tradition has dictated it so everyone's yard is as manicured as the neighbor's.


Converting your yard to an unmowed grass meadow, or planting tall grass provides nest sites, food and cover for wildlife. Tall, native prairie grass such as switchgrass, big bluestem and Indian grass provide a lush variety of cover 4-7 feet tall and provide nest sites and winter cover for quail, pheasants, songbirds such as cardinals and blue jays, rabbits and deer.


Prairie grasses, mixed with prairie wildflowers such as gray-headed coneflower, woodland sunflower, and aster are an attractive way to provide wildlife habitat. During the summer, small birds like meadowlarks and bluebirds find hundreds of small insects there to feed their young.


Another option to mowed grass is a perennial wildflower garden. These areas are also called songbird or butterfly gardens. Many wildflower mixtures that provide colorful flowers from late April until the October frosts are commercially available. These wildflower mixtures should include a variety of species such as coreopsis, black-eyed susan, phlox, blazing star, yarrow, bee balm and butterfly weed.


Wildflowers are easily grown and take little maintenance. Enjoy the spectacular colors, and forget the mowing!

Native woodland wildflower garden
Click on image to expand.


Most wildlife are very mobile and can usually find enough water in nearby ponds or streams or from rain, morning dew and even from insects. However, providing standing water in birdbaths or small ponds can be an effective attraction to wildlife. If you decide to provide water, remember to keep it fresh! Small water areas, filled with algae, can be toxic to some wildlife species as well as provide the ideal living site for undesirable mosquitoes.

Birdbaths should be no deeper than 3 inches and have gently sloping sides. The sound and sight of dripping water or spray of a waterfall or water fountain will increase your project's attractiveness.


A secure place to raise young may be a limiting factor in attracting some species of wildlife. This factor can often be addressed by the placement of houses built especially for bluebirds, wrens, tree swallows, purple martins, kestrels, wood ducks, squirrels, raccoons, owls or other species. After putting up these houses, you can sit back and enjoy watching the nesting activities and the raising of the young. What better way is there to teach an appreciation for nature!


In a rural setting where large trees and nearby ponds or wide, flowing streams are available, wood duck nest boxes can also accommodate nest sites. Wildlife house plans and bird feeder plans are available from many organizations, your local nursery or library.

Bird feeders are also used to attract birds for close-up observation and can be designed to attract many different species. Hummingbird feeders placed near the windows of your home may bring these tiny, nectar feeders from the flower garden to the window.


Species such as the mourning dove prefer to feed on the ground under feeders placed in the open, while chickadees prefer their feeder to be close to protective tree cover.


The Rewards

A variety of hard and soft mast-producing trees and shrubs, thorny trees and shrubs, dense conifers, wildflowers and unmowed grasses produce a variety of food and cover for wildlife. The more you provide, the greater the variety of wildlife you may attract and enjoy. Native vegetation, wildlife houses and feeders and birdbaths contribute to your enjoyment. By landscaping the property around your home you are creating wildlife habitat as well as providing attractive flowers, cooling shade, windbreaks and natural insulation, and reduced maintenance and expense.


As you plan, design and work on your projects, remember you are doing something positive for wildlife. But, not everything you do is a "quick fix" for a low population. It may take several years to see all the results you seek. Be patient, give vegetation time to establish itself, and the wildlife will move in and multiply.


Perhaps as neighbors and friends see the rewards of your habitat improvement, they too will want to help wildlife in their backyards.


Working Together for WildlifeBy learning more about the basic needs of wildlife species, our efforts to influence wildlife will be more effective. Your local Natural Resources Conservation Services (NRCS) and Soil Conservation District, working together with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and other agencies, are happy to assist you in implementing planning and habitat improvement projects.


You may contact your nearest county NRCS office, whose phone number can be found in the telephone directory under U.S. Government, Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Services.