Nurturing Wildlife Habitats: Five Ways To Save the Planet

For many of us, attracting wildlife to our gardens sounds good in theory but fails in practice. Especially when it comes to that four-legged pest the white–tailed deer. However, there are many sound reasons for enticing birds, insects, even small animals back into our yards. It’s not only good for our local ecosystem, but it also keeps our flowers blooming. And it just might be the right thing to do.

So says Nancy Lawson, author of The Humane Gardener: Nurturing A Backyard Habitat for Wildlife. Rather than see them as a nuisance, she views animals, birds and insects and most importantly, their symbiotic relationship with plants as our teachers. Without them, our gardens aren’t just static, they ultimately aren’t even possible. 


Sadly, many of us are rapidly removing wildlife habitats every weekend while engaged in yard chores like clearing land or using the leaf blower. Lawson points out that, unlike humans, animals’ home ranges and food supply are limited to only a small area. “Consider this,” she says.  “The average family moves 11 times in a lifetime whereas many animals stay in the same location for generations. They have no choice but to soldier on as we come and go.”

In my view, that’s a game changer. Think about the box turtle, who has a life span as long as a human’s. Where does he go if we remove his home? Or the northern bobwhite. In the 1970s, the dappled birds’ distinctive whistle was a common summer sound along the Eastern seaboard. Now in sharp decline due to loss of habitat, you’d be hard pressed to find even one.

And unfortunately, that’s only the tip of the iceberg. According to scientists, insects are also in ‘catastrophic decline’ worldwide, with more than 40 percent at risk of extinction within the 21st century. A key species in global food webs, insects play a major role in natural ecosystems and agriculture. And studies show that when they disappear, birds do too, and eventually mammals and so on up the food chain. 

“More and more life is being heartlessly scraped off the planet.,” says Lawson.

Loss of wildlife habitats, invasive species, pesticides and climate change all are having repercussions on the planet’s ecosystems that will be catastrophic. “It’s up to us to protect them,” says Lawson.


It all started when Lawson moved into a new home. Not new, actually, it came with an old garden that had fallen into disrepair. Amongst the plants, she discovered many native species that had been neglected. So the family decided to leave what was there to see what would happen.

“Knowing what was there wasn’t just for nostalgia. It showed me what was possible,” she said.

Over time, as the plants reestablished, the wildlife habitats came back. And today, the garden is filled with birdsong and the flowers buzz with pollinators, all living in a symbiotic relationship.


In Lawson’s view, it’s time to put out the welcome mat and cultivate our gardens with wildlife habitats in mind. This includes protecting wild nurseries and learning to coexist with nature. Following are 5 ways to get you started.


“Even in the barest of lawns there’s usually a seed bank waiting to sprout,” says Lawson.  Rearing native plants from seed is easier than it looks. And a side benefit is that many native species produce such abundant growth that they can withstand a little pruning. Lawson recommends nurturing graze plants for animals and creating a buffer that can take the pressure off our cultivated gardens.


When removing invasive species, do so carefully so as not to destroy wildlife habitats. Many insects, birds and animals may be using these plants as shelter.

When clearing land, replace one small section at a time to protect species that live in that area. Then replace invasive species with native plants to provide local food for your wildlife. The more diversity you create in your yard the more support you’ll give to different pollinator needs. By the way, those ‘specialty’ plants that have been bred to bloom later than usual? They can disrupt the natural cycle of pollinators in the area, all of whom didn’t get the memo.

Lawson advocates bringing back the ‘middle layers’ in our landscape, those medium-sized shrubs and perennials that provide a transition from turf to trees. Not only are they important for nesting sites but they also provide escape routes. Think about it. When you only have lawn and trees, there’s no place to hide.


With our narrow focus on just ornamental flowers and plants we can disrupt whole life cycles of other species. For instance, 70 % of our native bees are ground nesters. They’ll also take up residence in old perennial stalks, twigs and branches. You can nurture wildlife habitats by leaving dead plants to winter over in the garden. They’ll provide much needed shelter and dried flower heads have great winter interest.


There are plenty of unintentional hazards that can be mitigated in the garden. Garden netting and artificial lights at night are two of the biggest offenders. Not only do they trap wildlife, but they disrupt their nightly schedule. Consider switching to motion-detecting lights to cut down on the problem.

And bird baths are good but can also spread disease. If you have one, clean and scrub it out regularly.

Lastly, don’t trap and relocate animals unless you absolutely have to. This causes a lot of suffering and dooms them to becoming prey in an area they’re not familiar with.


Bird feeders are top of mind here. If you’re having trouble with other birds and mammals stealing seed, try bringing the feeder in at night. Or put out less seed. Don’t shoot the squirrels with bb guns or scream at the window. Use plants as a deterrent around the base of the feeder or stop feeding birds entirely. Instead, plant things they’ll eat naturally. 

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About carole funger

I'm a landscape designer and Maryland Master Gardener living in the Washington, DC area. I blog about new trends in horticulture, inspiring gardens to visit and the latest tips and ideas for how to nurture your own beautiful garden. Every garden tells a story. What's yours?

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