An­i­mal At­trac­tion

The right land­scap­ing choices can help bring na­ture to your back door

RSWLiving - - Features - WRIT­TEN BY ED BROTAK

Mak­ing the right land­scap­ing choices can turn your yard into a wild king­dom.

Phyl­lis Gre­sham, chair of the Veg­e­ta­tion Com­mit­tee for the City of Sani­bel, has a spec­tac­u­lar yard on the is­land’s Poin­ciana Cir­cle. She has planted an in­cred­i­ble va­ri­ety of flow­ers, shrubs, and trees. Peo­ple even come to tour it. But her yard is not just beau­ti­ful; it is also a sanc­tu­ary for a wide ar­ray of lo­cal wildlife. And that’s just what Gre­sham wanted. “It is a re­spon­si­bil­ity for us all to pro­tect and re­spect those with whom we share this planet,” she says. “This is true for birds, beast, or fish! And, frankly, I am just de­lighted to see all of the crea­tures.”

Land­scap­ing with wildlife in mind has ben­e­fits that go far be­yond the en­joy­ment peo­ple get by see­ing birds, in­sects, and other crea­tures amidst the plants, es­pe­cially since much of the na­tive wildlife habi­tat along the Florida coast has been de­stroyed by de­vel­op­ment.

“Land­scap­ing for wildlife is in­te­gral in sup­port­ing its pop­u­la­tions,” says Jenny Evans, na­tive plant nurs­ery man­ager for the Sani­belCap­tiva Con­ser­va­tion Foun­da­tion ( SCCF). “As nat­u­ral habi­tat dis­ap­pears, our back­yards are the places where wildlife eats, sleeps, raises young, mi­grates to and through, rests, and gen­er­ally lives.”

It’s not hard to have a yard that is gor­geous to look at and at­tracts birds, but­ter­flies, and other an­i­mals. For­tu­nately, there is plenty of help out there for home­own­ers who want to achieve both goals. On Sani­bel and Cap­tiva, for ex­am­ple, SCCF runs a spe­cial “Land­scap­ing for Wildlife” pro­gram. The group pro­vides in­for­ma­tion pack­ets, work­shops, and tours of its na­tive- plant gar­dens and will even make house calls to of­fer sug­ges­tions.

Of­ten peo­ple think of gar­dens and yards as just at­tract­ing birds and but­ter­flies. SCCF’s Evans says home­own­ers shouldn’t limit them­selves. “On Sani­bel, we have a va­ri­ety of mam­mals, rep­tiles, and lots and lots of na­tive in­sects other than but­ter­flies, which in turn at­tract our in­sect- eat­ing birds,” she says. With the right com­bi­na­tion of plant­ings, all kinds of mam­mals and rep­tiles could also be­come reg­u­lar visi­tors, ev­ery­thing from marsh rab­bits and gopher tor­toises to green anoles and even bob­cats.

What all the an­i­mals are look­ing for is food and shel­ter. Plants that have flow­ers, seeds, nuts, or fruit will be a great food source. Vines, shrubs, and trees can pro­vide cover and nest­ing sites. Na­tive plants are eas­ier to main­tain, and na­tive an­i­mal species are adapted to uti­liz­ing them.

Cab­bage palms— the state tree of Florida— grow ev­ery­where down here. Gre­sham says that her cab­bage palms are “a vir­tual apart­ment house for wildlife. Birds nest there, rac­coons and the red- bel­lied wood­pecker eat the fruit, small bats and snakes hide and rest there, and spi­ders and scor­pi­ons hide in the boots.”

An­other great tree for wildlife is the stran­gler fig. Its fruit is eaten by a whole host of birds and an­i­mals, and the tree it­self is a fa­vorite shel­ter for many birds as well as lizards, rac­coons, ro­dents, and snakes.

But one species alone won’t create a wel­com­ing en­vi­ron­ment for wildlife. “It is very im­por­tant to have a di­ver­sity of plants,” says Gre­sham. She sug­gests a va­ri­ety of trees, shrubs, vines, and grasses. The more vari­a­tion in height, the bet­ter it will be for at­tract­ing dif­fer­ent types of wildlife.

Plants should pro­duce flow­ers and fruits at dif­fer­ent times of the year to pro­vide a con­tin­u­ous food source for an­i­mal visi­tors. Though pretty, man­i­cured lawns pro­vide lit­tle in the way of food, noth­ing in terms of cover, and cer­tainly aren’t na­tive. They also re­quire a lot of main­te­nance. Na­tive ground cov­ers such as sun­shine mi­mosa re­quire much less work and sup­ply wildlife with food and shel­ter.

But con­tin­u­ous veg­e­ta­tion isn’t a re­quire­ment. Yards can have “is­lands” of veg­e­ta­tion that are fairly close to­gether, so that

Though pretty, man­i­cured lawns pro­vide lit­tle in the way of food and noth­ing in terms of cover. Na­tive ground cov­ers such as sun­shine mi­mosa re­quire much less work and sup­ply wildlife with food and shel­ter.

It’s not hard to have a yard that is gor­geous to look at and at­tracts birds, but­ter­flies, and other an­i­mals.

wildlife can eas­ily and safely move from one sec­tion to an­other.

But­ter­flies and birds are the eas­i­est an­i­mals to at­tract and pro­vide a col­or­ful ad­di­tion to the yard. But both are very par­tic­u­lar in their needs. Dif­fer­ent types of but­ter­flies like dif­fer­ent types of flow­ers. And if they lay eggs in the gar­den, the cater­pil­lars will need leaves on which to munch.

When it comes to birds, nec­tar- eat­ing hum­ming­birds like flow­ers. Many of the smaller birds like fruits and seeds. Even in­sect- eat­ing birds can be at­tracted by flow­ers that, not sur­pris­ingly, at­tract in­sects. ( Check with SCCF or Univer­sity of Florida’s In­sti­tute of Food and Agri­cul­tural Sciences’ lo­cal ex­ten­sion of­fices for specifics on what to plant to at­tract par­tic­u­lar types of but­ter­flies or birds.)

Be­sides the plant­ings, pro­vide a source of wa­ter, such as a bird­bath or even a small pond if you’re so in­clined. This will at­tract more birds. “I have a red- shoul­dered hawk that bathes in one of my deeper bird­baths,” says Gre­sham. ( Bird­baths should be flushed with clean wa­ter at least once a week to pre­vent mos­qui­toes from breed­ing there.)

Look at a dead tree or stump as more than just an eye­sore. Many in­sects bur­row into the rot­ting wood, pro­vid­ing a buffet for birds. Wood­peck­ers es­pe­cially love it. It also pro­vides an ex­cel­lent roost­ing site for larger birds.

Birds and in­sects are just the start. Ponds can at­tract am­phib­ians or rep­tiles like frogs, tur­tles, and snakes. A big- enough pond may even at­tract an al­li­ga­tor or two. Yes, they can be dan­ger­ous, so en­joy them from a dis­tance.

Brush piles are also good for pro­vid­ing food and shel­ter for small mam­mals and rep­tiles, such as snakes. The good news is that most of these slith­er­ing crea­tures are harm­less and an im­por­tant part of the lo­cal ecosys­tem. On Sani­bel and Cap­tiva, the only poi­sonous snake res­i­dents need to worry about is the eastern coral snake, a small, reclu­sive crea­ture that is sel­dom seen. On the main­land, there are also cot­ton­mouths and rat­tlesnakes. Like the al­li­ga­tor, if given their space, even these snakes will not cause prob­lems.

Sani­bel is fa­mous for its gopher tor­toises— just think of its “Gopher Tor­toise Cross­ing” signs. True to its name, the gopher tor­toise is an ex­cel­lent ex­ca­va­tor and loves to dig bur­rows in dry, sandy soil. If you want to at­tract mem­bers of this en­dan­gered species, they love sunny, dry ridges. SCCF has a brochure on plants the tor­toises like to eat.

An ad­di­tional ben­e­fit of lur­ing gopher tor­toises is that their bur­rows can be­come home to lit­er­ally hun­dreds of other an­i­mals. One in par­tic­u­lar is the non­poi­sonous eastern in­digo snake, the largest snake na­tive to North Amer­ica and also an en­dan­gered species.

Work with your neigh­bors to es­tab­lish larger ar­eas of wildlife habi­tats. The more area that is hos­pitable to wildlife, the more wildlife that will use it. Make it easy and safe for the an­i­mals to get from one yard to the next.

“These crea­tures are not likely to be able to thrive from one out of ev­ery ten back­yards cre­at­ing a wildlife habi­tat,” says Evans. “And they are also not likely to thrive by solely depend­ing on pre­served lands.”

SCCF sug­gests cre­at­ing nat­u­ral, con­nected cor­ri­dors of plants that wildlife can use, es­pe­cially if they lead to wa­ter­ways. In this way, home­own­ers can at­tract the wildlife that lives in pro­tected ar­eas.

This is ex­actly what Gre­sham does with her land, which ad­joins one of SCCF’s pre­serves. She doesn’t mind when the oc­ca­sional ar­madillo comes dig­ging through her yard look­ing for grubs and in­sects; she en­joys what­ever na­ture pro­vides. As she says, “When a bob­cat lies in the shade of a bay cedar with her kit­ten, I am blessed!” Free­lance writer Ed Brotak is a re­tired-me­te­o­rol­ogy pro­fes­sor turned stay- at- home dad. He and his fam­ily live in western North Carolina, but they love Florida and va­ca­tion there ev­ery chance they get.

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