Wild Yards: Give Me Shelter, Or Give Me Death!

When most people think of shelter for wildlife, they think of man-made wildlife housing, like birdhouses. These are great additions to the landscape and can be very decorative; different birds like different houses. Who you are hoping to house will determine the dimensions of the house you provide. If you are wanting specifics regarding dimensions for building or purchasing birdhouses for specific birds, “The Complete Birdhouse Book: An Easy Guide to Attracting Nesting Birds,” by Lilian & Donald Stokes, is an excellent guide. There are also a plethora of birdhouses & plans available online. Birds are not the only creatures that one can find formal housing for. Houses can be made or purchased for bats, butterflies, bees, squirrels and raccoons as well.

There are more informal or natural ways to house wildlife. Snags are an important housing source. A snag is a standing, dead or dying tree. It is often missing branches or a substantial part of the top. These snags attract insects and grow fungi, mosses and lichens that feed a wide variety of birds, frogs, toads and other animals. Cavity nesters, like woodpeckers & owls will hollow out or utilize already hollow snags for nests sites. Raccoons and squirrels are also known to use hollow trees, either standing or fallen, to raise their young. Homeowners often want to keep the landscape “tidy” by clearing dead or dying trees and every leaf falling from trees. Consider adding shelter to your landscape by letting such snags stand. Think about leaving some chopped up leaf litter in the beds as well. Leaf litter may provide winter shelter to garden pests, yes, but they also provide homes for beneficial insects needed to keep pests in check.

Another important component of shelter in the landscape is the brush pile. Brush piles are the easiest and least expensive way to provide shelter for wildlife. Resist the urge to tidy completely and leave a designated area for a brush pile. Whenever you prune or clean up fallen branches after a storm, stack them in a corner of the yard instead of placing them at the curb for pick up or on the fire pit. A brush pile can provide shelter from the weather, a shady place to rest, or an escape route for smaller animals or birds. A brush pile near a bird feeder can provide temporary cover to birds that come to feed. Some animals and insects make more permanent housing in or around the brush pile. Brush piles also attract predators looking for whatever is hiding in it. Predators can then, in turn, control rodent or insect populations throughout the larger landscape. If you are wanting to protect birds or other smaller animals from predators while in the brush pile, some chicken wire can be placed over a portion of the pile to keep predators from entering.

The most important thing to remember when considering shelter is providing a diversity of material, plant habitats and sizes, from evergreen to deciduous. The greater the diversity, the more options there will be in the real estate market for the plurality of tastes and needs. You might like a single family dwelling hole in a tree, but another might just need a motel for an overnight stay amongst some leaves. The more and varied the shelters, the cooler the neighborhood, and the more balanced nature becomes.

Amy Myers, Lead Horticulturist

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