This is the third in a series of four articles about considering your backyard wildlife habitat.
One lovely August morning I was harvesting tomatoes in my vegetable garden. The air was pleasantly warm and the garden was still dewy as I crept along, crouching between the tall beefsteaks, picking the newly-ripened tomatoes at the bottom of each plant.
I reached around the base of one plant to get to a tomato in the back and felt a tickly spiderweb on the back of my hand, pulled my hand back and saw A HUGE BLACK AND YELLOW SPIDER RUNNING UP MY ARM!
I jumped up and shrieked, tossing the spider off my right arm into the air, and holding tightly to the basket of precious tomatoes I vaulted a row of Romas in 30” cages from a standstill and ran out into the middle of the yard where nothing could get me, slapping at my arm and shaking myself.
Most of what lives in your backyard you will never see, or never notice, unless you go poking around into their protected little habitats, and it’s there for a reason. Even though I pictured something that had legs as long as railroad crossing bars, it was just a common garden spider, and perfectly harmless to me—but deadly to most of the tiny flying insect pests that might decide to munch on my tomatoes. I hope it didn’t mind being relocated in such an ingracious way.
Finding your residents
Birds are obvious, and are often the reason people consider backyard wildlife habitats, and butterflies have become very popular now that people have realized they can actually attract them with specific plants.
Wild rabbits are generally welcome, squirrels can’t be avoided, and the most dedicated even put up with groundhogs, raccoons, opossums, deer and plenty of other species depending on where you live (you can tell I’m in the northeast) as long as they aren’t predators and don’t pose danger to humans or other animals.
Not too many people consider arachnids, amphibians, reptiles or even less-obvious mammals, like bats. But a certain number probably already live quietly in your habitat, and for a good balance you would want to consider attracting more.
Start by considering these categories:
And again, like your diagram and plant species list, organize it in the way you are most comfortable with your computer or a notebook or little scraps of paper you can organize later.
Identifying your species
Unless you’ve been observing wildlife or have some training in the field, this is going o be the hardest part of assessing what you have to work with, in no small part because you may not even know what is supposed to be there and what it may look like.
Don’t stumble on this. You can either just identify what you know and learn the rest later, or begin applying yourself now to learning what could be there and then going to look for it.
For plants I listed three guidebooks for my region. For this section I have only one book, to identify birds, A Field Guide to the Birds East of the Rockies, written and illustrated by Roger Tory Peterson, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1981. You just flip through the book looking at the illustrations until you find the one that looks like the bird you saw in your yard. It can seem tedious, but before you know it you’ll become familiar with the book and be able to flip to the image you are thinking of much more quickly.
For other species I now hop on the internet or ask a few friends and colleagues who are knowledgeable about individual species for quick introductions. For more detailed information I visit the Audubon center or the zoo. Descriptions can be tricky, “I saw this big blue bug, and it had wings…” so take notes on what you see and take a photo if possible.
The easiest category to cover would be fish, because unless you have a backyard pond, which you have stocked, or live next to a body of water that has fish in it, which is probably monitored by a county or state fish or game agency, you can be reasonably certain that no fish are hiding under your forsythia.
The species of reptiles and amphibians that could live in a backyard, or even a slightly more extensive, habitat is limited, so you can find a list of what is native to your area and determine whether or not you have the right habitat for that species. For these species especially I usually have to find a scientist friend and describe what I’ve seen, or ask for a list of what I should look for. In any area of the country you’d at least be looking for frogs or toads, turtles, snakes, salamanders and lizards.
The number of insects that could be living in your backyard is seemingly endless. This category includes butterflies, which you may also want to attract, and obvious species such as bees and dragonflies, which are familiar and easy to find, and pests like Japanese beetles and aphids, which attack a plant and don’t let go until it’s dead. Again, the internet is a great resource, but a local reference person can tell you what you should look for.
Mammals can vary greatly from one region to another and in urban, suburban and rural areas. Some species, like foxes and coyotes, haven’t been seen in years, but are making a comeback. Many of the mammals that inhabit your habitat are nocturnal, so you’d never actually see them except by accident in the dark, but you could find their tracks or other traces of them, such as a path through your grass.
More opportunities to learn
Just as I mentioned with identifying your flora, take your time with this part of the process, too. You will learn so much about your habitat in this way, and not just about what lives there, but how they all work together. This is where the puzzle pieces begin to fit together as you realize that, for instance, many bird species eat insects, and you may or may not have a certain species of bird in your yard because you don’t have a specific insect. And you may be overrun with a certain insect because you don’t have any habitat for spiders, which would keep them under control, even if they would send you screaming on a lovely summer morning.
And, again, the greatest satisfaction is being able to share what you’ve learned with other gardeners. You can become the problem-solver, too.
About the art and photos used in these articles and on this blog
All the images used in this blog are mine, many from my own backyard. For years I’ve been documenting the flora and fauna here in photography and art, just for my own purposes. All of the images are also available as prints and notecards, some of which I have printed and sell regularly, but I can custom print any image on my site. If you see something you’d like, check my Marketplace blog to see if it’s a recent offering, the Marketplace on my website, which outlines everything I sell as merchandise, or e-mail me if you don’t find it in either place.
Now that you know what’s there…
It’s time to figure out what’s missing, and how to attract it.
Also read the first two articles in this series:
And the final installment:
Also read about my art, photography, poetry and prose inspired by my backyard wildlife habitat:
All images used on this site are copyrighted to Bernadette E. Kazmarski unless otherwise noted and may not be used without my written permission. Please ask if you are interested in purchasing one as a print, or to use in a print or internet publication.