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Attracting Wildlife to Your Back
A Guide to Increasing Wildlife Diversity
and Aesthetic Value Around Your Home
The Needs of Wildlife:
Wildlife require water just as we do. Water is
essential for life. Songbirds use it for bathing and preening;
waterfowl and shorebirds for finding food and escaping predators;
and muskrat, mink and beaver for every part of their existence.
Providing water can be as simple as a bird bath or
small fiberglass pond or as complex as the construction of a large,
excavated wetland with an artificial or clay liner.
If you have an existing water source, you are
fortunate. A small, natural wetland or creek is ideal to provide
water for wildlife and should be used if available. If there are no
natural wetlands and you have the space, water source and finances
to create a wetland, construction is an excellent route to go.
Artificial water can be defined as water that does
not naturally maintain itself from precipitation and runoff. It is
an alternate to natural water and will be a choice that many will be
forced into making because of limited space. Small artificial water
sources like fiberglass ponds and bird baths are less expensive and
require less space. Downfalls are that they require periodic
maintenance and provide limited plant growth and living conditions
for most other aquatic life.
The most simple method of providing
water is a bird bath. The structure need not be elaborate, an old
pie tin works as well as a prefabricated concrete structure. Make
sure the water is no deeper than three inches and that smooth bottom
baths are enhanced with some type of structure or objects for
perching. To cut back on maintenance, simply hang a garden hose
above the bath and allow water to drip into the bath at a slow rate.
Birds also require water in winter. By providing
open water, you may potentially attract more birds for viewing.
There are a variety of options including dog and poultry water
heaters as well as commercial water heaters designed specifically
for bird baths.
It is important that you always keep placement in
mind both for the bird's safety and for your viewing enjoyment. Keep
the bird bath near a favorite viewing location but at least ten feet
away from vegetation or other cover. This will help in preventing
neighborhood predators such as domestic cats from killing birds.
Small backyard ponds with artificial liners are
another method of providing water for wildlife. Choose a location
which receives sun part of the day to stimulate plant growth. Begin
pond construction with a pre-fabricated fiberglass shell or similar
item such as a kid's wading pool or old washtub. A good option to
both of these methods is utilization of 20 mil black plastic. Sources for
fiberglass liners are located in Appendix E.
Finally, you may choose to use concrete. Concrete is
a little more difficult to use but can be poured in any shape
desired and will last for many years without maintenance. A drawback
is that the appearance may seem less natural and may crack if made
If you begin with a child's wading pool or washtub,
it should be lined with 10-30 mil black plastic. This will insure
water does not leak from the pond and will give a more natural
background color than that of a wading pool or other structure.
Begin by excavating soil out of an area roughly
equal to the size and shape of your liner. Remember, the location of
your pond should be where you can view it from your house. You
should also consider keeping it within reach of a garden hose for
filling purposes or and electrical supply for powering any pumps or
aerators. A pond need not be more that ten feet long and two to five
feet wide. Providing varying depths from a few inches to a couple
feet will increase chances of different wildlife using your pond
After fitting the liner, field stones, flat rocks or
timber can help hold and hide the edges of the plastic liner. Adding
soil over the top of the positioned liner will allow future planting
of aquatic vegetation. An alternate method to lining the entire pond
bottom with soil is to put aquatic plants into pots and then
submerge the pots in desired locations within the pond. Stabilize
pots with rocks or other means to prevent tipping. Plan to have
enough aquatic plants to cover 30-40 percent of the surface area.
There are three basic categories of aquatic plants:
emergents, floating, and submergents.
Emergents are plants that root in the bottom
and grow out of the water including bulrush, cattail, smartweed,
giant reed grass and arrowhead.
Floating species are those which root in the
bottom and have leaves that float on the water's surface like water
lily and some duckweed species. Finally, submergents are
those which grow entirely underwater and include plants like
pondweed, coontail and elodea.
Other plants that prefer moist soils adjacent to
wetlands include species such as wild mint, phragmites, reed canary
grass, giant goldenrod, prairie dock, prairie cordgrass, and marsh
milkweed. A diversity of plants will help attract wildlife and
To keep water from stagnating, it may be necessary
to add additional water during hot summer months when evaporation is
high. The addition of a pump to circulate water is recommended and
will aid further in helping prevent stagnant water and excessive
algae growth. Algae growth which cannot be controlled may require
chemical control, but only as a last resort.
If you are more ambitious, raise the level at which
circulated water returns to the pond. A waterfall will be formed, a
sound which many times attracts additional birds. Waterfalls also
add more variety and beauty to your pond. Again, rocks can be used
to hide components used in the construction of your waterfall.
Provide areas for birds and turtles to make use of
your pond by adding log perches or a rock island. Creating a sandy,
gravel beach in one corner can provide the grit birds require for
digesting food. A sandy substrate also makes looking for wildlife
tracks an educational experience. After you have completed all the
necessary preparations, fill the pond with water. If using tap water
rather than well water, let stand for a week to let chemicals like
You may choose to see if plants will come naturally.
This could occur through transfer of seeds on bird's feet or from
their droppings. Another method to introduce potential plant and
invertebrate life is to scoop muck from and existing wetland and
transfer it to your pond.
Keep an eye on your pond often and log the plant
growth as a family activity. Before winter arrives, drain the pond
to prevent cracking of the liner.
Those who have the space can create a larger wetland
which can accommodate a more diverse array of wildlife and aquatic
species. These wetlands can be of any size, and only limited to you
budget and water supply available. The budget will be driven
by two up front costs - earth moving and a pond liner.
Earthmoving is a job that will probably need to be
contracted to an experienced earthmover. There are local contractors
you should contact who have had experience with this type of work.
Generally, your wetland should be planned to have
both a shallow area and a deep area. The deep area can either be in
the center with side slopes which gradually get shallower around all
sides or a situation much like a swimming pool where one end begins
with a few inches of water and culminates in a deeper end.
Depending on your desires, a deep end can be
anywhere from three feet to over twelve feet deep. Twelve feet is
the depth at which fish can normally survive over the winter.
Remember that a variety of depths is the most beneficial in
attracting and sustaining the largest variety of animal species.
How to hold water is your next consideration. A
detailed soil analysis of the proposed location will reveal whether
or not you are fortunate enough to hold water without some type of
liner. Some soils will not naturally hold water, while other with a
higher clay content will.
Reference a county soils map available from the
United States Geological Survey or have your soil tested to
determine its potential to hold water.
There are basically two options available for soils
that will not hold water. One is to use a naturally occurring clay
which can be purchased from various sources. Clay is packed along
the bottom of the pond, anywhere from a few inches in depth up to a
foot, to seal wetland's bottom from leaking. This option requires
that pond banks be fairly gradual because clay will not pack on
steep side slopes. Clay can be an advantage because it will allow
plants to grow naturally and provide a more realistic setting.
If clay is not available, or too expensive to haul
in, a plastic liner will function to maintain water. Manufacturers
of the liner will require accurate dimensions of the excavated pond,
including depths, to insure a good fit. Liners of this thickness are
heavy and fairly expensive so estimates of both the clay and plastic
options should be explored before making any decisions.
When planning your pond, take into consideration the
source of water. Ideally, natural spring runoff from snow melt and
seasonal rains will be enough to keep the wetland charged throughout
the year. If there is no existing area which gathers water for a
wetland (watershed), it may not be a good choice for a pond location
unless you can use an alternate source of water.
One alternate source of water is water which can be
tapped from your own well, either a well dug specifically for your
pond or an existing well used for other purposes.
If the well is being dug specifically to maintain
water levels in the wetland, it can be put in close enough to allow
water to trickle into the wetland over land.
Engineering this type of setup will create yet
another type of wet area termed a bog. A bog is waterlogged, spongy
ground that is not covered by water but remains wet all year round.
It will establish its own specific plant community of species such
as sedges. This area will be a natural attractant for frogs and
aquatic insects which will in turn entice other wildlife to visit
during feeding periods.
Larger wetlands have the capability of providing
homes to many wildlife species. Depending on the location, wood
ducks or other waterfowl may be lured to your water. If a pond
contains minnows, crayfish, or a good supply of frogs, wading birds
such as the great blue heron may be observed while in search of a
Increasing the diversity of a wetland can be
accomplished by providing structure on the sides and bottom of the
pond. Structure can consist of rocks, logs, brush piles or any
materials upon which aquatic organisms can attach or hide. Placement
of structure can be controlled more if it is done before the wetland
is filled with water. This is also the time to dig in any above
water perches that need to be anchored into the bottom.
Along the bank, logs and rocks should be used to
provide more habitat and hiding places for frogs and salamanders.
These structures also serve as perches for songbirds, wading birds,
turtles and waterfowl.
As mentioned previously, plants will add greatly to
a wetland both biologically and aesthetically. Plants can be started
by gathering and introducing seeds, spreading several shovelfuls of
muck gathered from an existing, mature wetland or by planting adult
wetland species purchased from a greenhouse. Plants may also be
gathered with permission from a private landowner who has wetlands.
A wetland will attract insects and provide a rich
source of food for many wildlife species. By providing artificial
homes for waterfowl, bats and bluebirds, or loafing areas for geese,
they may choose to take up residence in the area for the entire
season. Techniques for building and setting up living spaces will be
covered in upcoming sections.
Wetland construction has a price but it is sure to
please any landowner. You will be fascinated to see the
transformation toward a more diverse wildlife habitat right in your
own back yard.
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