Bringing Wildlife into Every Day.
To share our passion for animal, plant and habitat conservation, Cheyenne Mountain Zoo developed a program for creating wildlife habitats throughout the city. It will enable you to practice, and benefit from, conservation actions in your daily life.
There are aesthetic, environmental, educational, economic, psychological and sociological benefits for all of us from creating these urban wildlife habitats. Wouldn’t it be nice to…
- Pass a schoolyard and see children outside counting nests?
- Hear a hummingbird feeding outside as you sit in the doctor’s waiting room?
- Increase the value of your property because of the wildlife present?
All these things and more are possible if we create functional areas that support wildlife.
Our goals are:
- To educate you on the needs of various types of wildlife.
- To help evaluate your site and situation to determine which aspects are present or absent.
- To develop together a plan of action to create a habitat.
- To expand on those efforts to unite neighborhoods and communities to create contiguous swathes of wildlife habitat called habitat corridors.
The first thing we need to do is answer the question, “What does wildlife need to survive?”
According to the National Wildlife Federation, there are four habitat requirements: food, water, cover and a place to raise young. Other organizations often combine the last two and classify the need as cover/shelter and space. It is important to realize that not everything overlaps, so we will make the distinction and discuss cover and a place to raise young as separate categories. Although different species will require various proportions, all four aspects must be present to sustain wildlife in your area.
- All creatures need food to survive. It seems like an obvious concept, but the details are sometimes missed. Think about your own eating habits. Are there times of the day or year that you eat more or less? Do you eat throughout the year? Do you prefer certain foods to others? Do you appreciate variety? Are there certain tools or set-ups that facilitate the consumption process? Do you like fresh food? Animals, including humans, would answer yes to most of these questions.
- Butterflies need abundant food supplies during the spring and summer months for the larval and adult phases of their life cycle.
- Large predators, like mountain lions, will feast on 20 to 30 pounds of meat after a kill, and then enter into a famine until another meal can be found (sometimes weeks later).
- Bears feed regularly, and then gorge in the fall to store up for their long winter nap. Hibernation, for bears, reptiles, and bats (and diapause, the similar state for insects) is the exception, not the rule, as most other species of animals require food throughout the year.
- Look at the migration of birds, butterflies, and hummingbirds that fly south because food isn’t available in their summer habitat.
To offer food for wildlife, you can choose one of three approaches:
- Provide plants that produce food. Use our lists of plants that attract birds, hummingbirds, butterflies, and deer. For those who don’t want deer, the deer list also includes plants of lesser preference.
- It is best to provide plants in a variety of sizes, shapes, densities, arrangements, and maturity levels to suit the preferences of many different animals.
- Try to select plants from each of the five broad categories: conifers, grasses and legumes, summer fruiting plants, autumn fruiting plants, and nut and acorn plants.
- Scrub Oak acorns and Douglas Fir cones are seed sources of preference for squirrels, while chipmunks prefer sunflower seeds.
- Set up a supplemental feeding station. When people think of supplemental food for birds they often think strictly of seeds, but did you realize that many species want additional nutrient sources like fruit, nectar, or peanut butter? You can find tips for supplemental feeding at your local WildBirds Unlimited or other wildlife supply store.
- Attract insects (or small prey) that are the food source. Attracting insects or smaller food sources will be the most difficult of your three options.
- The best way to accomplish this is by planting trees and shrubs native to your area. Native plants may support 10-50 times more species of native wildlife, most of which are insects.
- Second in effectiveness is to follow the saying, “A penny saved is a penny earned.” Resist the urge to kill bugs on site. If those aphids won’t kill your plant, why don’t you leave a few for the ladybugs to eat? Spraying pesticides will damage beneficial insects as readily as those we deem harmful. This includes chemicals that are applied to lawns that kill grubs, earthworms, and nightcrawlers. Snakes have a bad reputation, but are often times better friends than foes. They will take care of slugs and pesky rodents.
Here are some final tips about food:
- Consider the location of the food source. Some animals feed from the ground; others prefer an elevated site.
- Make sure the food is close enough to cover that the animals feel safe while eating but not too near for a predator (like your house cat) to lie in wait for its next meal.
- Keep seed dry and off the ground so that it doesn’t rot.
- Be diligent about changing the nectar in hummingbird feeders so that it doesn’t spoil and ferment. Don’t use red food color or honey. Honey was formerly recommended but it can cause fungal growths in their throats.
- Remember nocturnal feeders such as deer mice, bats, owls and toads, and try to provide for them whenever possible.
- Finally, separate feeders so that territorial animals can comfortably eat.
- At your site, water may or may not be easy to provide. Animals need water for bathing, drinking, washing food, and completing their life cycle. Think about the wildlife you hope to draw and their specific needs.
Water can be provided in several ways.
- Large sites may already have a stream or pond or have the room to accommodate one. With these you will be able to attract fish, ducks, and geese.
- In smaller yards, use hardscapes like bird bathes, fountains, or other water features.
- Don’t underestimate the potential of mud puddles for frogs and toads, wet sand for butterflies, and misters for hummingbirds.
Here are some tips concerning water:
- Avoid stagnant water, which is a magnet for mosquito larvae and bacteria. Keep water fresh and available year round.
- Put wood logs into a birdbath to help keep the water from freezing in the winter. During warmer months they will provide a landing pad for bees and other insects.
- Place water on the ground and in elevated positions so different animals gain access. Inexpensive options include reusing the lid of a trashcan or a saucer from a garden pot.
- Running water signifies a constant supply and will serve as a reminder that a source is nearby. To accomplish this you can easily add a pump or purchase a spitting birdbath.
- The purpose of shelter is to protect animals from the weather and predators. In shelter they find safe resting and roosting.
Ideal hiding spots include:
- Densely branched shrubs
- Snags (dead and dying trees)
- Hollow logs
- Brush piles
- Meadow grasses
- Rock (in piles, outcroppings or walls)
The key with live vegetation is variety. Much like with natural food sources, it is important to have a combination of trees, shrubs, vines, perennials and grasses with different attributes—deciduous versus evergreen, tall versus short, dense versus thin, and so forth.
You need not make your yard ugly to provide cover! Retaining walls and dry streambeds, which are both functional and attractive, are often overlooked as excellent near-by hiding places for chipmunks, lizards and other reptiles, and insects that rest on the rocks soaking in the sunshine.In natural areas a snag may be quite appropriate, but in a housing development it most likely will not. Do you have a hidden corner, perhaps behind a shed or next to the garage, where you could easily start a brush pile?
Remember not to remove one source of cover just so you can provide another. Unless your trees and shrubs need to be pruned for health reasons, don’t cut branches off so that you can build a brush pile.
Combine these ideas to create safe passages so animals don’t feel exposed and in danger when crossing your yard.
Place to raise their young
- Early on, it was mentioned that many aspects of cover/shelter overlap with a place to raise young.
- Birds will often build nests in the same shrubs they flee to for safety.
- Snags are ideal sites for squirrels to build dens and take cover from the weather.
- Water not only serves as protection for fish and frogs, but is also the place for laying eggs.
- Water fowl will use cattails and reeds next to a pond for both protection and nesting, but prefer islands inside bodies of water for the added distance from predators.
As you see, there are many examples of overlaps. But what about butterflies that need very specific types of plants, called host plants, on which to raise their young? A Monarch won’t lay eggs unless she knows she’s resting on a milkweed. More information is provided in the supplemental handouts about creating butterfly habitats.
You can leave a strip of grass unmowed or seed a section using native grasses and wildflowers and let it go natural.
Nest boxes are built or purchased with the intent to invite certain species of birds. Features such as overall size, hole shape and size, outside perching, interior space, and construction material will determine which species find it most suitable for raising young. Other factors to consider are where the box is hung, and how it is oriented to the sun.
Make sure animals also have access to building material. That seems like an odd requirement, but it will be less challenging to build a nest if small twigs, pine needles, and mud are readily available.
Next, we will compare the viability of your site with your goals and resources to determine whether or not to proceed.
When we see whether food, water, shelter and places for animals to raise young are present on our site, and in what quantities, we’ll be able to compare that information with an assessment of your needs and wants.
- What type of wildlife are you hoping to attract? For some people the priority is bringing butterflies and hummingbirds into their yards, while others care about watching and listening to songbirds from their decks or porches. Many people delight in seeing a rabbit scurry under a nearby bush; others fret that they will soon be destroying the vegetable garden. Squirrels, chipmunks, and deer can also be a mixed blessing—they may eat your vegetables and garden plants or steal the seed left for birds, yet they are important contributors to backyard ecosystem.
- Another important factor to consider is whether or not you will be inviting larger mammals into your yard. Black bears have excellent noses and can smell food from many miles away. Mountain lions, also called pumas and cougars, may be drawn by the abundance of prey.
After you determine your goals, you need to evaluate the resources that are necessary to invest in the project to make sure they are compatible. The most important investments to consider are time and money, which, depending on the current status of your site, may be minimal or significant. To properly evaluate expenditures, you need to consider both initial and upkeep requirements. Make sure you can answer some of these basic questions:
- How many new plants do I need to install?
- What are their water, pruning, and fertilizer requirements?
- Will I need to switch from traditional pest control methods to more environmentally friendly options?
- Can I provide food and water year round?
- Will my pets interfere with my plans?
- What is a realistic time frame for completion of this project?
- Who can I recruit to help me?
- Together we will discuss these and other questions that may arise to build a plan of action.
Ultimately, we hope we can all work together to create wildlife corridors via a chain of certified individual habitats.
After reading this information, some people might be tempted to say, “My yard isn’t big enough,” “I don’t have the money to incorporate all these aspects into my habitat,” or “The previous homeowner covered every last inch of our yard with plants that don’t attract wildlife.” The point is not to become discouraged, but rather to empower yourself to take action and make a contribution toward building habitats for wildlife. A small contribution is still a positive step in the right direction.
Don’t let the lack of space restrict you. You can apply these same principles to create a balcony garden at an apartment. Or start a community-based habitat. That would work well for condos that share green spaces. If you don’t have space to add more plants, talk to your neighbor. Share with them the benefits of using plants that provide a natural food source for wildlife.
The best thing we can hope for is to get everyone involved. Isolated islands of habitat are not as effective as continuous corridors. As the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo continues to certify habitats, we will display a city map that shows the development of corridors. The quicker we build habitat corridors, the sooner we all begin to reap the benefits. By participating in this program, you see the value it adds to our community. Please speak to your friends, co-workers, and neighbors about certifying their yards, schools or businesses as wildlife habitats.