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Inviting Wild Neighbors In

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Published on: Mar. 2, 1996

Last revision: Oct. 21, 2010

Here's how to make your back yard attractive to wildlife.

It's known as the back yard.

Charlie Schwartz, late artist and moviemaker for the Conservation Department, carefully skirted bunches of wildflowers when he was mowing the back yard. The little wildflowers were instant landscaping.

Don Christisen, retired wildlife biologist for the Conservation Department, turned his lawn into a mini-prairie. He fought a long skirmish with city officials who claimed he was letting his lawn grow up in weeds, in contravention of city ordinance.

Don won.

Our rural back yard is somewhat more of a wildlife area than most city back yards - it extends 40 acres. But we still plant and encourage wildlife to move closer to the house. A half-dozen bird feeders dangle from close by trees like strange Christmas ornaments.

We have several bat houses by the lake and a cedar log sauna which is home to a substantial black rat snake that once fell on the shoulder of a guest as he blissfully basked in the same heat that was making it too uncomfortable for the snake.

The house is new so we can start wildlife landscaping from the ground up. We already have one major component, a source of water. A one-acre pond is only a few feet from the front of the house.

We have worked on the pond over the years. I've dropped a couple of trees in the water which provides logs for basking turtles. One warm spring morning, there were seven lined up, enjoying the new season as much as me.

I'm planning to dig a small waterhole above the pond and use a recirculating pump to draw water from the pond to create a small waterfall. It wouldn't take much electricity and would become a birdbath and frog pond.

Prospecting Canada geese often visit the pond. We've entertained wood ducks, grebes and a stately blue heron. But they don't stay because of our barking dogs. Some back yard wildlife just won't tolerate that much activity. Most city dwellers won't be able to pull everything in, because of human activity and a lack of wildlife travel lanes to the area.

But there's always something, especially birds. Everyone knows about bird feeders, but many plants are natural bird feeders. The flowers of red buckeye are a magic draw for hummingbirds, and it's eminently more satisfying to see a hummingbird at a flower rather than at a feeder.

Birds zero in on fruiting shrubs and trees, as do small animals. Dogwood offers winter food to birds and is the state tree, to boot. The hawthorn is a good bird nesting tree and it provides the state flower in spring.

In addition to bird feeders, bird houses are an attractant. Our son, J.B., made a wren house in Cub Scouts that never failed to entice a family of wrens. J.B. is over 30 years old now and the house is tattered, but it still houses birds. Although artificial houses help, birds and animals relied on native plants for nesting and resting cover long before the Cub Scouts came along.

Keep in mind that you can't attract just the critters you want. Your brushpile may harbor both a rabbit and a snake. You may run afoul of anti weed ordinances. It's a sad fact that many urban dwellers are afraid of a wild back yard. If it won't burn, mow or trim, they don't want it. And others, who might manage a yard for wildlife, are intimidated by their neighboring neatness freaks.

The thick foliage of eastern redcedar is good for nesting birds and the blue berries provide wildlife food, but the trees also can be a host for cedar apple rust which hammers apple trees.

The family garden also can be a casualty of a wildlife-oriented yard. You may call it a garden, but it's just another food plot to wildlife and unless you take precautions, your share of the produce is likely to be minimal. After all, wildlife gathers food night and day.

Rabbits and deer will mow down peas, beans, beets and carrots like a scythe. Raccoons can decimate a sweet corn patch overnight. Possums are ever-fond of sweet melons, and even box turtles will lumber into the tomato patch to sample your Mortgage Lifters.

Some animals can be discouraged by sprinkling blood meal, which also is a good fertilizer; however, you need to re-apply it after each rain. Chicken wire is a cumbersome and expensive solution. Sometimes you have to roof plants over as well as protect them from the side. An electric fence may also offer a solution.

But if you are able to live with the drawbacks, a wildlife-oriented back yard can reestablish a link with nature many have lost in the modern world. Once I heard a loud thump against the window and looked out to see a dazed female cardinal which had flown into the window.

And then I saw the reason for her headache. A sharp-shinned hawk clutched her struggling, fiery-feathered mate.

It was a grim reminder that all the cute little birds at the feeder are no more than supper to predators and that nature is a pretty stark place, not Romper Room for Bambi and his friends. The more we interact with our fellow critters, the more we accept that death is part of life and realize that the environment is a vast, interconnected web where individuals are routinely sacrificed for the good of the species.

If you're going to turn your back yard into a wildlife area, start with a plan. Draw a sketch of the area (do it on graph paper to keep it to scale). You're planting years ahead. Trees will take years to mature and even shrubs don't leap into full growth overnight. Some native grasses may take a couple of years to become established.

Talk with a naturalist. The Conservation Department has nature centers in St. Louis, Kansas City, Springfield and Jefferson City and a natural history center in Cape Girardeau. Each has information on working with wildlife.

Most Conservation Department employees have good knowledge of wildlife needs or can send you to someone who does.

If your yard is big enough, you might have more than one "ecosystem" (a grouping of plants and animals suited for each other, like a wetland or a prairie or a wooded area).

Prairie grass seed should be planted on a hard surface. You can collect seed from wild grass, or buy seed. See the article "Tallgrass" in this issue of the Conservationist.

There's no need to plow or otherwise prepare the ground, but you should eliminate as much existing grass cover as possible. Till it shallow and roll it hard.

Prairie is more than grass. There are many "forbs" (plants other than grass), including some that are spectacularly beautiful. Blazing star, butterfly weed, sunflower, coreopsis and coneflower all are common prairie flowers.

The Conservation Department's Missouri Wildflowers book should inspire you. It shows you what the flowers look like and gives information on what habitat they prefer. Some plants, like sweet cicely, are edible, as are wild parsnips. Jan Phillips' Wild Edibles book is a good guide.

You can start wildflowers from seeds in pots or flats, which is the cheapest way. Plant nurseries, arboretums and other sources offer wildflower seeds. (See "Tallgrass.") Nurseries that specialize in wildflowers also will sell you started plants.

No one should dig to transplant. First, it's usually against the law and, second, it probably won't work. Native plants often are so deep-rooted that digging will kill them.

By common law, a landowner owns the plants on his land, so you need permission to collect any plant. Digging on most public areas is prohibited. If you want to collect plants or seeds on public lands, contact the agency that manages those lands first, be it the Highway Department, U.S. Forest Service or the Conservation Department, to ascertain regulations.

Plants cost more than seed, but flower quicker, often the same year you plant them. Seeds may take 2 to 5 years to bloom. If you collect the seeds yourself, it's an excuse to visit a wild area and begin to know its incomparable charm. There is an investment in time and effort, but it's an axiom that we appreciate most what we work hardest to get. You will need some knowledge of plant ecology to be effective. For example, prairie plants generally seed in the fall, but woodland plants often flower early and seed during the summer.

"It's better to do a large area from seed," says Merv Wallace, who raises native plants at Missouri Wildflowers Nursery near Jefferson City. Wallace cautions against buying seed mixes that may contain plants not native to Missouri (something from the Colorado mountains, for example, or common wild plants that originated in Europe, such as oxeye daisies).

Wallace worries that we're losing diversity in wild plants because of development and other land use changes. "If you have a pocket of native plants, you have an historical treasure," he says. "Consider it an antique that needs your help to make it through the coming hundreds of years."

That's a weighty burden - to plan and plant for the centuries. Some people don't quite see it that way. Jim Keefe, former editor of the Conservationist once fielded a complaint from a reader who said deer were eating his snap beans.

He told the reader to "plant enough for both of you." The next year, he got a letter from the reader, still disturbed, who said, "I did what you said - planted twice as much - and so far your deer haven't come by for their share. What are you going to do about it?"

Sometimes you get either too much or too little of a good thing.

Information Sources

National Wildflower Research Center, 2600 FM 973 North, Austin, TX 78725, lists all wildflower nurseries and will send you a list of those in your state and adjoining ones.

Missouri Native Plant Society, Box 20073, St. Louis 63144-0073 has chapters in several communities. The group publishes Petal Pushers, a newsletter, and offers both information and nature outings.

Books About Wild Back Yards

  • Landscaping For Backyard Wildlife is the Conservation Department's self-help publication. It lists other publications, as well as several books on backyard wildlife.
  • Missouri Wildflowers, by Edgar Denison (Missouri Conservation Department, Box 180, Jefferson City 65102).
  • Wild Edibles, by Jan Phillips (Missouri Conservation Department, Box 180, Jefferson City 65102).
  • Growing and Propagating Wild Flowers, by Harry Phillips.
  • Requiem for a Lawnmower, by Sally Wasowski.
  • Landscaping With Wildflowers, by Jim Wilson.
  • The Backyard Bird Watcher, by George Harrison.

 

 

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