By Dr. Nicole Heller,
Director of Conservation Science

When you picture “wildlife habitat” a backyard habitat is probably not the first thing that comes to mind.

But maybe it should be?

Native plants and animals have been hammered over the years as urbanization has grown in our region. Many unique and beautiful creatures are struggling, despite all the open space that has been saved. Species that live in the bottom of our valleys have been especially displaced by development and common landscaping practices that are not supportive of native biodiversity.

This means we miss out on the joyful experience of seeing as many different kinds of animals in the places where we live and work.

But that doesn’t have to be the case. Or at least there is a lot more we can do to support native species.

In my yard, when we first moved in we wanted to cut down these large unattractive hedges. Thank goodness we didn’t! Turns out those hedges are the home to dozens of quail, who are locally becoming quite rare. It’s a reminder to me that my yard is not just for me.

I love this recent story about Tim Wong a scientist from the California Academy of Sciences. Through rearing in his backyard he is successfully re-populating a beautiful California pipevine swallowtail butterfly to San Francisco:

While most of us don’t have the time or expertise to rear butterflies, we can all help by planting its host plant California pipevine, and other native plants that have become rare, but are important food plants for native butterflies.

Our backyards are truly spaces of opportunity. The National Wildlife Federation since 1973 has been promoting backyard habitat. This program provides a checklist and lots of ideas about how to support wildlife in your backyard.

And if you really want to be cool, you can get scientific with your yard by contributing information to a national citizen science project! Researchers from Cornell University and The Nature Conservancy have teamed up to create Habitat Network. This project is aimed to deepen our collective understanding of how the landscaping of backyards affects wildlife survival. It also provides guidelines for improving your backyard habitat.

Here are my go-to rules for landscaping that will help native Californian species flourish:    

1.Create structural complexity

Plant a diversity of trees, shrubs, and herbs that bloom and flower at different times. Having variation in space (lots of layers) and time (different phenology) creates microclimates and structure, which allows lots of different types of critters to co-exist.  

2. Use plants that provide food

Provide a diversity of host plants, pollen and nectar plants, berries and other fruits for butterflies, bees and birds. Find out about native species in your area and the host plants they need.

3. Minimize toxic chemicals

If you want to support critters in your yard, reduce the amount of pesticide and herbicide used. Even if you are not impacting desired species directly, toxic chemicals can move through the food chain and have unintended impacts. Also, the more you build up your backyard food web, the more it will keep pests in check. Healthy food webs are built in pest control.

4. Use drought adapted plants and minimize irrigation

Limiting irrigation is important for protecting our water supply, but you may not have realized that it can also benefit native animals. Many weeds and invasive animals need water to survive. For example, the invasive Argentine ant relies on water to establish and displace native insects. By planting native, drought adapted plants you are selecting for habitat that favors native drought adapted animals as well.

Banner image: “Monarch” by Elizabeth Nicodemus / CC

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About Post

Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST) protects open space on the Peninsula and in the South Bay for the benefit of all. Since its founding in 1977, POST has been responsible for saving more than 76,000 acres as permanently protected land in San Mateo, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties.

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