14 September 2005
Virginia Cooperative Extension, Charlottesville/Albemarle County Office
460 Stagecoach Road, Charlottesville, Virginia 22902
phone: 434.872.4580 fax: 434.872.4578
As residential and commercial development by humans continues to expand, wildlife habitats in the affected areas are altered and may become unable to support the needs of species that previously occupied those areas. Alternatively, species that are better adapted to metropolitan conditions may increase their presence and abundance as a direct result of this development.
The actions we take on our own properties can have a significant effect on the various species that share this habitat with us. One way we can enhance the natural features we have in our yards, neighborhoods, towns, and cities would be to create enjoyable and environmentally friendly backyard habitats.
Potential Benefits of Creating or Enhancing a Backyard Habitat
Beauty and Increased Property Values: Many plants, shrubs, and trees that benefit wildlife also are attractive to people. Having a variety of plants adds interest to your yard and helps protect against drastic changes caused by insect pests and plant diseases. The beauty and health of your yard add to the value of your real estate.
Value for Wildlife: Each species has different requirements so you need to provide diversity in your habitat if you hope to attract a variety of species. Further, wildlife will fare better where habitats provide most of the food, water, and cover they require in one area, minimizing the amount of travel they need to do.
Environmental Benefits: Well-managed backyard habitats can save energy, protect the soil, and improve water and air quality. Vegetation reduces the temperature extremes of heat often associated with urban areas, and when plants are located appropriately they can help cool our homes during the summer and reduce heat loss in the winter. Trees and other plants hold soils in place during rain and wind, reducing the amount of sediment and contaminants that enter water bodies. Plants improve air quality by filtering particulates and removing carbon dioxide from the air, replacing it with oxygen. Plants enhance our privacy and reduce dust and noise from road traffic. These effects are especially noticeable in developed areas. Plants make towns and cities more comfortable and pleasant places to live, for humans and wildlife.
Insect Control: Many species of wildlife, especially birds, eat insects. This is a great way to deal with annoying pests. Depending upon the species of wildlife you attract to your habitat, you may reduce the need to use certain harmful chemicals.
Habitat for Humans: Creating your own backyard habitat brings nature into your home range, offering opportunities to learn, enjoy, and pursue hobbies like bird watching, drawing, and photography right in your backyard.
Low Maintenance: For easier maintenance of your wildlife habitat landscapes consider using native plants. Native plants are adapted to local weather and soil conditions, they better resist local insects and diseases, and they provide foods that are familiar and timed to the life cycles of the animals in the region. Using native plants also reduces the potential for introducing invasive exotics that can cause serious problems to existing native populations. As invasive non-native plants spread, they may crowd out and compete with natives, causing some wildlife to lose their preferred food sources.
Expect the Unexpected in Backyard Habitats
There are many reasons for creating backyard habitats. Whether you want to create an appealing space for humans or enhance conditions for a particular species or the wildlife community as a whole, you should be prepared to deal with potentially unexpected results. The adage "if you build it, they will come" certainly applies to habitats we create in our yards. Functional and diverse habitats on your property are very likely to attract the animals you desire. However, it also is likely that you will attract species that you did not anticipate. Without careful planning or management some of these species may become pests.
Very often, property owners will encounter snakes that have been attracted to the new abundance of insects or small mammals that have prospered in your new habitat. Other predators (e.g., hawks, owls, foxes, coyotes) may respond to and take advantage of prey populations that have increased in abundance and density. Free-roaming species, like raccoons, opossums, or skunks, may find your yard very attractive due to the food resources it now provides or the cover it affords. They also may find the garbage can, the open garage or storage shed, or the space below your deck to be an attractive resource, too. Herbivores like deer and rabbits may cause significant feeding damage to plantings if you do not take precautions. All wildlife species are protected or regulated by statute; they cannot simply be eliminated on a whim if you find a particular species to be objectionable.
Careful planning can reduce potential problem species, but increasing habitat diversity increases the probability of unexpected consequences. While this may be a part of the allure of backyard habitats, you should be prepared to deal with unexpected problems in a responsible way.
To help prevent unwanted animal attention to your house, yard, and garden keep those areas tidy. Keep brush or woodpiles away from the house or garden. Do not leave pet food or garbage outside and keep areas under houses and porches cleared and sealed when possible.
Contact your local Virginia Cooperative Extension office and speak with an Extension Agent or Master Gardener volunteer for more advice and information on lawn and landscape topics. The local Virginia Cooperative Extension office numbers are Albemarle 872-4580, Fluvanna 591-1950, Greene 985-5236, Louisa 540-967-3422, and Nelson 263-4035.