Family-friendly Projects to Improve Backyard Habitat
With planning, these projects can each be completed in less than 2 hours
Lately, many residents have been spending more time at home than ever before. Fortunately, being home has led to more opportunities to enjoy the diversity of Connecticut’s flora and fauna sharing our backyards. Seeing wildlife around your home can be rewarding and may make you curious about what you can do to make your yard more attractive for some types of wildlife.
All wildlife needs sufficient habitat to survive. The four essential components of habitat are food, shelter, water, and space. Most larger animals will not find everything they need in just one place and must travel around a territory large enough to provide all four components. While you cannot create every type of habitat found across Connecticut within the confines of your yard, you can enhance aspects of those four components to help make your yard more valuable for dozens of species, from beneficial insects to larger mammals.
There are many projects and activities you and your family can do to improve your living space’s wildlife value. Several easy projects are detailed below, that with some advanced planning, can take less than two hours to complete.
Install a Bird Bath
Installing a bird bath is both quick and easy. Providing a source of clean water is a great way to bring many different species of birds to your yard, not just the ones that will eat bird seed. Birds not only bathe in the shallow water, but also drink it, so be sure to change the water every couple of days to keep it clean and minimize mosquito breeding. Bird baths can provide an important source of water year-round, especially during the hot summer months and cold winters. Some commercially available models even come with electric heaters to prevent freezing, but a bird bath can be as simple as using an old frying pan. A few important points when choosing a bird bath and its location include:
- Make sure it is not deeper than 2 inches and is shallower along the sides. Adding some flat rocks can help provide steppingstones and help birds gauge how deep the water is.
- Set it up where there is natural shelter nearby, in case predators approach, but not too close that cats can ambush unsuspecting birds (more on cats later). Placing it near some trees or shrubs can also provide a staging area as flocks of birds take turns in the water.
- Put the bird bath where it can receive a mix of sun and shade throughout the day.
- For maximum enjoyment, place the bird bath within view of a window so you can see the visitors.
An American crow softens food it found with water from a bird bath.
Identify Trees, Shrubs, and Plants in Your Area
One of the first things you can do to help improve your backyard habitat is assess what plants are already living in your yard, both native and non-native. You can start by taking a walk around and identifying a few of the tallest trees. Are they needle-leaf evergreen trees, like white pine, hemlock, or cedar? Or, are they deciduous broadleaf trees that might have colorful fall foliage, like maple, beech, or oak? Mature trees can provide abundant food and shelter for many animals.
Next, move on to identifying the smaller trees, shrubs, and bushes, and finally the understory plants that grow around your yard. The plants in your yard can provide two important components of wildlife habitat: food and shelter. Flowering plants, from clovers on up to white oaks, and other seed plants, provide a variety of food for wildlife. Flowers of plants (even some trees) have pollen and nectar for pollinators. Ripened fruits and berries are consumed by birds, mammals, and insects. Leaves, twigs, and bark are consumed by insects and even moose, deer, and rabbits. Seeds and nuts are an important food source for many animals, especially during the colder months. Plants also offer shelter, whether through tree cavities, dense foliage, or exfoliated bark. Having a variety of plants of different ages, sizes, and types can help provide shelter and food for a greater number of species. Identifying all the plants in your yard can take quite a while, so start by identifying a few of the dominant plants you see. Use a plant field guide or try a smartphone app which lets you quickly snap a picture and get an identification.
- Learn more about the plants you have identified.
- If you are unsure about a plant and cannot identify it yourself, post a picture to iNaturalist and get community feedback.
Are there any standing dead trees, known as snags, around? Some animals are dependent upon snags and need several within their territory for suitable habitat. Snags offer insects in the rotting wood for birds to eat, as well as cavities for nest and den sites for birds, mammals, and even some reptiles and amphibians. If it is safe to do so, consider leaving up some snags instead of removing them.
As you continue this project, take note of whether the plant species are native to Connecticut or not. Some non-native plants are used as ornamentals, many of which can be quite beautiful in the yard, but do not provide the same wildlife value as similar native plants. Some of these non-natives can be invasive, and if not kept under control, will spread, out-compete, and displace native plants.
If you identify some non-native plants you did not plant yourself, you might consider removing and replacing them with a similar native species.
- The Connecticut Invasive Plant Working Group can help with identification and control of invasive plants found in our state.
- The Nature Conservancy and Cornell Lab of Ornithology offer some tips about removing invasive plants.
Snags, like this dying white pine, provide foraging opportunities for woodpeckers.
Plant Native Shrubs and Flowers for Pollinators
After identifying some of the plants in your yard, you may have discovered there are not many native shrubs or wildflowers. To make your yard more attractive for butterflies, bees, hoverflies, and even hummingbirds, consider planting shrubs, like sweet pepperbush, northern spicebush, and azaleas, or herbaceous plants, such as cardinal flowers, swamp milkweed, butterfly weed, goldenrod, and New England asters.
It is important to know when each species blooms and try to pick a variety of plants that will bloom at different times, so there will be blooms from early spring through late autumn. Make sure you consider each plant’s soil, sunlight, and water needs when deciding which plants will work best in your yard.
Many butterflies only lay eggs on specific plants, and if these host plants are not present, those butterflies will not remain in the area for long. Some example host plants include milkweed (monarch butterfly), spicebush (spicebush swallowtail butterfly), and even legumes like peas and beans (Eastern tailed-blue butterfly). Gardeners need to accept some feeding on the leaves of host plants by caterpillars.
If you do not have the space for planting shrubs or starting a flower garden, you can plant some bright blooms of some of your pollinators’ favorites in one or more window planter boxes. The flower selection could bring your favorite butterfly, bumblebee, or even a hummingbird right to your front door.
- Not sure where to buy native plants? Find a list of local native plant nurseries on the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station website.
- For a larger project, consider doing multiple plantings for an entire pollinator garden and enjoy bright flowers and butterflies from spring through the fall. Pollinator Pathways provides more ideas about your garden and information on other pollinator projects around Connecticut.
- Learn about native pollinators and the plants they need.
Red cardinal flowers are a beautiful native plant that attracts ruby-throated hummingbirds and pollinating insects.
Plant a Native Tree or Shrub that Provides Fruits or Berries
A project similar to planting for pollinators is to plant a native shrub or tree for the valuable fruits and seeds that are produced after pollination. Just as you would aim to have a variety of plants that bloom throughout the warm season, it is wise to have plants that offer fruits and seeds at different times throughout the year. Native plants that produce fruits in summer include highbush and lowbush blueberry, raspberry, and serviceberry (a small tree when mature). In fall, northern spicebush, elderberry, and chokecherry are among the many species to produce fruits of high value for birds and others. In winter, when conditions can be harsh for some wildlife, fruits produced by eastern red-cedar, bayberry, winterberry, inkberry, American holly, and others can be an especially important source of natural food and cover.
An interactive search of bird-friendly plants can be found on the Audubon Connecticut website.
Make a Brush Pile
Downed tree limbs in and around your yard can easily be repurposed into a backyard brush pile. Brush piles provide animals with shelter, which is an essential component of habitat. Depending on what wood is available, brush piles can be made with a base of larger logs, providing more gaps at the bottom, with looser branches on the top. Though a log base will make the pile last longer, logs are not always necessary. Discarded Christmas trees and a season’s worth of downed branches around the yard can be plenty of material to start a brush pile. As the pile naturally decays over the years, add more material to the top. For brush piles to be most useful, they should be placed within 10 feet of the edge of the woods. Some of the animals that use brush piles include cottontail rabbits, chipmunks, and sparrows, as well as salamanders and the insects they feed on.
If there are old stone walls on your property, consider keeping them intact. Stone walls have similar benefits as brush piles for wildlife, often providing homes for snakes, which can help keep mice populations in check.
- Instructions for building brush piles for wildlife.
- Information on stone walls and rock piles from The Nature Conservancy and Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
Brush piles, like the one pictured here, provide shelter for some wildlife.
Put Up a Nesting Box for Birds
Natural tree cavities come in all shapes and sizes. Because of this, bird houses, or nesting boxes, are designed differently to fit the specific needs of certain species. In Connecticut, more than a dozen species of birds nest in tree cavities, including black-capped chickadees, eastern bluebirds, tree swallows, several species of woodpeckers, and even some owls! When suitable tree cavities are not available, these birds can use artificial nesting boxes. If you want to invite birds to nest near your home, you first must decide which species you want to attract. Next, decide if you want to build the box yourself or order it from a retailer. Before erecting the nesting box, fill it with the necessary nesting material (often wood chips or shavings) so birds can excavate the cavity to their needs. When you have mounted the box in the recommended location, monitor its use from a safe distance – do you see birds coming and going? Lastly, the box needs to be maintained each year to remain suitable for nesting. After each nesting season, clean out the old soiled wood fill and replace it with fresh wood shavings before the next season.
Important considerations for nest boxes include location, nearby habitat, height, entrance hole size, cavity dimensions, aspect, spacing, what to fill the box with, and protection from predators.
Add Nesting Sites for Bees
When most of us think about different types of bees, we often think of honeybees (a non-native species to the U.S.), bumble bees, and yellow jackets (which are actually NOT bees). But did you know there are over 300 species of bees in Connecticut? Bees show a remarkable diversity in sizes, color (including blue and emerald green), and specialty. Some bees are social, living in small to large colonies, while others are solitary. There are bees that specialize in pollinating certain plants and are essential for the cultivation of some of our favorite fruits and vegetables. One easy way to encourage friendly bees to your garden is to install a bee nesting box or “bee hotel”. These boxes have nesting tubes for solitary leaf-cutter bees (18 species in Connecticut) and mason bees (16 species in Connecticut) to lay their eggs in during spring and summer. When these gentle bees lay an egg in a nesting tube, they also leave enough pollen for the developing larva to consume until it matures the following year. Bee hotels can easily be made from a large block of untreated wood with drill holes ranging from 5mm to 10mm wide and 3 to 6 inches deep. Many varieties of bee hotels can be purchased from retailers and building plans can be found online. Hosting a bee hotel can have great benefits for your vegetable garden, since mason and leaf-cutter bees are excellent pollinators.
If you are not interested in installing a bee hotel, a pile of bare dirt on the edge of your property or garden can provide solitary ground nesting bees a great opportunity to dig a small nesting hole. These ground nesting bees are also important pollinators for flowers and other plants around your yard.
Whether you decide to install a bee box or leave a natural area of dirt, bees are more likely to used them if there are plenty of flowering plants nearby for bees collecting pollen.
Helpful websites for learning more about the benefits of bees:
- Pollinators in Connecticut
- Pollinator Conservation Program - Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation
A leaf-cutter bee, measuring only a few millimeters in length, visits a bee hotel. The nesting tubes can be seen in the background.
Avoid Pesticides and Rodenticides
If you have a lawn, you may have spent a lot of time and money trying to keep it lush and green, maybe applying chemical treatments over and over. Unfortunately, many pesticides have broader effects than what you may intend. In some cases, these indirect impacts include killing plants and insects (including pollinators) that are actually beneficial for your lawn and garden. Rodent poisons can be particularly deadly, since rodents that have died can be consumed by pets and native animals, which then receive a dose of poison as a result.
Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is an environmentally conscious strategy that combines information about the life cycles of plant and insect pests to manage the damage they cause and prevent damage from reaching a critical level. It follows a four-tiered approach of setting action thresholds, identifying and monitoring pests, damage prevention, and control. IPM has shown to be an economical and environmentally friendly approach to managing pests on large agricultural scales and in residential settings.
- How to adopt IPM practices on your property and tips for reducing pesticide impacts on wildlife is on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency website.
- Information about the link between some pesticides and the decline of bird and bee populations is on the National Audubon website.
Keep Cats Indoors
After creating a special place for native wildlife in your yard, the last thing you want is for it to become a killing field for your or your neighbors’ outdoor cats. Researchers estimate that free-ranging cats in the U.S., both owned and unowned, kill 1.3-4.0 billion birds and 6.3-22.3 billion mammals (including native mice, shrews, voles, squirrels, and rabbits) every year. About 30% of this predation is from owned cats that are let outside. Much of the overall predation from owned cats is not for food because most kills are not consumed. Cats account for far more bird deaths each year than window/building strikes, powerlines, wind turbines, and cars combined. While habitat loss and degradation remain a critical threat to species-wide survival, cats roaming around your yard put a strong and consistent pressure on the wildlife living there.
For some perspective, many of the migrating birds that come to Connecticut travel thousands of miles from wintering grounds in Central and South America. Surviving this journey each season is no easy task, but studies of banded birds show that many birds return to the same breeding grounds, and even nest in the exact same territory year after year. Can you imagine a scarlet tanager going through all that effort each year, only to be ambushed at your bird bath by a neighbor’s cat.
While it is best for wildlife and the health and safety of our beloved pet cats to stay indoors, you can take steps to make your backyard wildlife habitat a safer place from cat attacks:
- Take your cat outside using a harness or leash.
- Do not feed cats outside.
- Put an anti-hunting collar on your cat. This is basically a soft, oversized, brightly-colored collar that makes cats more visible to their outdoor prey.
- Set motion-activated sprinklers near places you want cats to avoid.
- Some scent deterrents may be effective at repelling cats from an area.
- Scare away cats you see hunting in your yard.
More information about the impact of outdoor cats on native wildlife is available from these resources:
- Cats and Birds - American Bird Conservancy
- Outdoor Cats and their Effects on Birds - Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Keep cats indoors -- it is safer for both the cats and wildlife!
Observe the Results of Your Hard Work
Watch for hummingbirds, bees, moths, and butterflies. Listen for more bird songs. Set up a game camera or bird cam near the brush pile or bird bath. Part of creating and improving wildlife habitat is evaluating how well plants and animals adjusted to the changes you have made. Observing which species of birds, frogs, salamanders, butterflies, and mammals are using your yard is a great reward for the work you put into the improvements. Because some animals are only going to be in your yard for a short period of time each year, take note of when wildflowers bloom to see new species of butterflies or even a ruby-throated hummingbird. Listen for frogs and toads calling in the evenings during spring and summer. Take a few minutes each week to listen to the birds at different times of the day. Some animals will be more active or noticeable in spring, while others are more active in summer, fall, or even winter.
Setting up motion-activated trail cameras around a brush pile, rock wall, tree, or bird bath can capture photos or videos of animals using your yard, day or night, throughout the year.
A motion-triggered camera setup at a bird bath captured this group of bluebirds.
Lastly, share your observations and the results of the work you have done. You can add your observations to iNaturalist, share on our Connecticut Fish and Wildlife Facebook page, or tag us in your Instagram posts (#ctfishandwildlife).
When planned properly, you can transform your backyard into a year-round oasis for Connecticut’s native species. Improving backyard wildlife habitat provides exciting new opportunities to watch wildlife, without needing to travel. No matter how small your backyard is, you can create a valuable natural area with only a few hours of effort.
Content last updated on July 7, 2020.