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Creating a Habitat for Wildlife Watching

A mature white-tail buck at the edge of a forestWildlife watching is a pastime enjoyed by millions, and with some simple land management knowhow, it's a hobby you can bring into your own backyard. Besides the recreational value provided, landscapes designed to attract wildlife can increase property values, help prevent outbreaks of plant diseases and reduce levels of nuisance insects, which are eaten by different wildlife species.

First, you'll want to get to know your land. Next, consider the four basic needs your land can provide to wildlife: space, shelter, food and water. By ensuring these elements suit local wildlife, you'll increase the attractiveness of your land to a variety of species.

Making a management plan

Start with a plan that considers the habitat you already have in place. Cornell University wildlife specialists suggest you draw a map of your property, noting any:

  • rock outcroppings or caves
  • wetlands, streams, ponds or other water sources
  • forest areas
  • clearings
  • trees, shrubs, groundcovers and flowers, especially those that produce nuts, berries, seeds or fruits
  • dead or living trees containing holes or hollows
  • standing dead trees and fallen logs

You may also want to note any overgrown fencerows, fallow fields or cropland on or near your property. It may be beneficial to note soil types and any problems with invasive plants.

You may even want to put together a binder with maps, wildlife guides, land maintenance or improvement schedules and other notes. This can be a great place to keep a journal of the wildlife you encounter after you put your plan in place.

Next, it's time to consider habitat needs for the species you want to promote. Generally, many of the same techniques will attract a variety of species, be they amphibians, birds or mammals.

Space requirements

Different species have different range requirements. Cornell wildlife specialists say an 80 acre stand of hardwood can hold up to 15 species of mammals and 80 species of birds. If you don't own a large amount of land, you may want to consider cooperation with neighbors to provide suitable habitat across a larger range. Think about the species you are trying to attract. Are there elements lacking in the area, such as a particular food source, that you can provide?

Think vertical as well as horizontal. You may be able to increase the space of your habitat vertically by thinning trees or clearing areas that result in different levels of vegetation for birds.

Shelter and food

A general recommendation is that the more diverse the vegetation, the better an area will be for wildlife. Wildlife tend to prefer natural-looking, varying edges between two different landscapes, such as grassland and forest. As much as possible, promote the growth of native plant species, both to avoid problems with invasive plants and provide foods that are best adapted to local wildlife needs.


In general, aim for a mixture of open space and forested areas in various stages of growth to attract a diverse population of wildlife. Periodic clearing of areas by burning or mowing will allow small vegetative plants to grow that provide food for many species. If possible, connect forested areas with strips of trees or shrubs to provide cover for animals traveling between them.

If you are trying to attract grassland bird species, allow some areas, such as field edges or fencerows to become overgrown. Populations of many birds have dwindled because of overzealous mowing and clearing by landowners looking to keep things “clean.” Grassy areas may also attract rabbits and mice, and, in turn, owls and foxes.

In the forest, promote the growth of hardwoods such as oaks, hickory and beech; their nuts provide food for turkeys, deer, squirrels, chipmunks and bears. If you are thinning trees, try to preserve as many large, food-producing trees as you can.

It's important to leave fallen trees and standing dead trees where possible. As they decay, the moist environment provides a home for reptiles and amphibians. Woodpeckers and other birds will feed on the insects within dead trees, and chipmunks, squirrels and deer feed on the fungi that grow on decaying wood. The hollows within standing dead trees provide nesting sites for birds, squirrels, raccoons and bears. Taller dead trees provide perches for eagles, owls and hawks.

Another tip to attract birds, especially if you don't have other types of nesting cover, is to build nesting boxes throughout your property. Bluebirds, owls, wood ducks, wrens and chickadees are examples of some of the birds that might benefit from these structures.

You may also choose to plant supplemental foods. Plants that produce fruit or berries such as grape vines, dogwood or raspberries attract both birds and mammals. Flowering plants produce nectar for bees and hummingbirds and attract butterflies. You can also consider planting small annual plots of seed-producing crops such as winter wheat or millet.

Water needs

Different species require different water sources. Some species meet their water needs from dew, rainwater and their food. Some water-loving species, such as ducks, require large areas of standing water. One general piece of advice: if you have streams or ponds on your property, leave vegetative buffers near the edges.

You may not need a standing water source to attract wildlife, but you can consider creating a small backyard pond that will attract frogs and birds that feed on many insect pests.

Be patient as you put your wildlife plan in place. Songbirds may take up immediate residence in new plantings, but it may take a few years to build a suitable habitat for some species. Eventually, however, your plan will reward you with an abundant diversity of wildlife to enjoy.

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