Create a wildlifefriendly backyard
AS SUITABLE NATURAL habitat for native wildlife decreases, more and more of our native birds, mammals, reptiles and frogs are moving into urban areas looking for homes. Unfortunately, few neighbourhoods naturally provide the perfect habitat for many, if any, of these creatures. And so here we offer hints and tips from our friends at the NSW Wildlife Information, Rescue and Education Service (WIRES) on how you can help provide suitable environments across our built-up areas.
Wildlife-friendly gardens require as much diversity as possible and the natural environment can be complex to replicate in your backyard. Birds and animals use plants for many things, including food, shelter and breeding sites. Remember, plants don’t necessarily have to provide food directly because they may attract insects, which in turn provide food for native mammals, reptiles and amphibians. Plant native vegetation.
Trees and other larger plants should be complemented by ground covers, grasses and small dense shrubs, because dense undergrowth provides protection for birds and reptiles such as blue-tongue lizards.
Choose plants such as lemon-scented gums that provide food for possums as well as for flying-foxes in the form of nectar and pollen. Locate possum boxes in safe places, preferably high in your yard, away from domestic animals, such as dogs. For instructions on making a box, visit: environment. nsw.gov.au/ animals/GuidetoMaking APossumHouse.htm
Or visit the Bunnings website for a video on how to assemble a box: bunnings.com.au/ diy-advice/outdoor/ pets-and-wildlife/howto-build-a-possum-box Place a pond in a sheltered spot to provide water for birds and habitat for frogs.
Use large rocks to create habitat for lizards.
Allow mulch to build up because this will decrease the need for water while providing feeding opportunities and nesting material for ground birds and small mammals.
Grassed areas are attractive for some bird species such as magpies and noisy miners.
Talk to your neighbours about planting their garden in a similar way to increase habitat in your local area and create wildlife corridors.
If you use netting and fencing to keep wildlife off vegies and other plantings, please only use wildlife-safe material. For advice on the best products to use, visit: wildlifefriendlyfencing.com
Don’t use chemicals or pesticides in your garden. You might, for example, only be planning to kill snails, but if native animals eat poisoned snails they can be affected as well. Instead, please use only safe, natural, non-chemical alternatives for pest control and cleaning such as white vinegar and baking soda.
Provide a simple birdbath in a place that is safe from cats. Be sure also that it’s not accessible to young children. This needs to be cleaned regularly and should be shallow, or have twigs inside so that the birds can easily climb out.
Aggressive control measures have now more than halved their numbers, but they are still a nightmare of a pest found in nearly all corners of the country.
Some Australian urbanites might delude themselves that they have a personal brushtail possum problem of trans-Tasman proportions. But it is unsurprising that these highly adaptable animals are right at home in an environment we have unwittingly fashioned to suit both us and them.
They will happily feast by night on everything from rosebuds and magnolia f lowers to unattended pet food, and by day consider unprotected roof cavities the perfect city condos. But, although common brushtails and ringtails are now thriving in cities beyond the urban fringe and into their supposed strongholds among the open forests and woodlands of eastern Australia, these possum species are not doing as well as they once did. Again, habitat fragmentation and increased predation are two of the most likely causes of their demise.
Ecologist Clare McArthur from the University of Sydney’s School of Life and Environmental Sciences heads up a research group studying possum adaptation and behaviour changes due to urban encroachment on Sydney’s northern fringe at St Ives, one of several suburbs abutting the 15,000ha Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park. At the interface between the natural possum habitat in the park and a typical, low-density leafy Sydney suburb, Clare’s group is gaining some interesting results. Surprisingly, she admits, at the outset the group had considerably more trouble trapping brushtails in the bush than in the city. “We just can’t f ind them!” she says. “But out at Ku-ring-gai we’ve got them all along the edge.”
It seems living in this environmental halfway house pays off for some brushtails. Many seem to be risk-takers and bold nocturnal foragers coming to houses in search of food. Their diet is more varied than the usual mainstay of eucalypt leaves, meaning despite threats from cars, cats and dogs, they probably enjoy a survival advantage. “If you are not prepared to take risks,” Clare says, “it’s diff icult to live in cities.”
But, having eaten their usual native offerings, and perhaps raided a vegie patch or grazed on a few favourite exotic plants, a number of the study possums still prefer to retreat to the sanctuary of the bush by day, within the national park, where they’ll nest in natural tree hollows.
So, next time a battalion of brushtails marches across your roof in the middle of the night, or a ringtail prunes your garden to its liking, don’t feel annoyed and frustrated. Perhaps it’s time for you to pause, think laterally and consider installing a nesting box for your resident possum, abandon the roses and plant natives that both humans and possums can enjoy.
“We should feel privileged that we have these animals in our midst,” Clare says with conviction. “We find they’re disappearing in the bush, and yet people say, ‘Oh, they’re a problem in my roof.’ It’s not until they’re rare that someone suddenly cares.” And, to invoke Joni Mitchell and her 1970 song ‘Big Yellow Taxi’, “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone”.
Common ringtail possum Pseudocheirus peregrinus
Common brushtail possum
A common brushtail possum happily sets up home in this garden nest box in a Canberra backyard.
University of Sydney PhD student Katie Wat (top, at left) and volunteer Sam Lee release a common brushtail possum from a modified ‘bookcase’ (see right) into a hessian bag (above), where Katie removes its GPS collar. The bookcase is used to test for three personality traits: boldness, exploration and activity. Most – both city and country possums alike – go straight to the top level first.