Cre­ate a wildlife­friendly back­yard

Australian Geographic - - Geo buzz -

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.

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