Food sources for wildlife
Rufous hummingbird (Bird Images)
Backyard wildlife won't stay in your yard if there's no food for them. Part of their day is focused on finding enough nutritious food to carry them through the night and into the next day.
In spring and summer, their food needs are even greater when they have offspring to feed. In winter, it's worse—animals must consume enough in daytime to carry them through frigid nights that relentlessly attack their efforts to stay warm. The search for enough high-fat foods may consume their entire day, day after day. It's a matter of life or death. So, what should you provide and how?
Provide food-producing trees, shrubs, flowers
Nectar-providing plants attract butterflies and moths, as well as other beneficial insects.
"Host" plants invite butterfly and moth caterpillars, along with other insects, to lay their eggs. The hatched caterpillars then feed on the plants until they reach the adult stage. Birds, opossums, raccoons, foxes, rodents and others will enjoy the seeds, berries and fruits that
Robins love berries (Jemini Joseph)
fall to the ground after plants have bloomed. Plant a mass of edible plants in a corner of your yard or even go bigger -- make it your goal that nearly every plant in your yard will produce something wildlife can eat. Does this mean all your plants will be nibbled down to nothing every year? Not at all; you'll still have pretty plants to enjoy, but you'll have wildlife reaping benefits from them, too. Think of it as merely giving back some of what urbanization took away.
Share some of your vegetable garden with wildlife. Fence part of it for yourself, if you wish, but plant some extra that you leave accessible to critters.
Plant some fruit trees and berries.
Choose plants that will flower at differing times of the season so your yard always has something desirable to offer. Some plants hold their seed or fruit into winter, providing food after other sources have been consumed.
Furnishing your habitat with insects is easy. Don't use pesticides or, if you must, use them judiciously. "Pesticide" is the catchall word used by scientists for all the -cides -- insecticide, herbicide, rodenticide and others. If you do nothing more than eliminate the use of these products -- especially insecticides and rodenticides -- you'll create a friendly environment.
Take insects, for example, what one landscape architect calls the "plankton of a wildlife habitat." If you use insecticides, birds, who eat insects as well as seeds, will check out your yard and move on. It doesn't take them long to determine, from their perspective, that your yard is mostly a barren wasteland. They'll also remember not to bother returning. However, by giving them "bugs" to eat, they'll not only hang around, but help scour your plants of many unwelcome insects.
Most insects are either benign or beneficial. When you spray a plant with insecticide to get rid of, say, aphids, you are killing everything. This includes beneficial insects like lady beetles, preying mantises and green lacewing larvae who feed on the aphids and other insects. And, it isn't only birds who fancy insects. Lizards, frogs and opossums eat them, too.
Insects also benefit your habitat in indirect ways. The birds who eat insects are themselves, along with their eggs, food for other animals, such as hawks, raccoons and snakes. (Snakes are actually among the good guys. Read here about snakes and how they benefit our yards.)
Snakes in turn are preyed on by opossums, raccoons and hawks, or even by other snakes. Nature lets nothing go to waste. Animals who die of natural causes in your yard will be consumed by microbes or carrion-eaters, like opossums and certain insects. Providing you don't kill the animals who are trying to live in your yard, it can be teeming with life from the tips of the trees all the way down to below the grass you walk on.
Birdfeeders aren't strictly necessary, but they'll add a lot to your enjoyment, as birds are the wildlife most easily seen. Feeders provide a ready food source, of course, but they also serve to concentrate birds in a small area. Once your yard offers a smorgasbord of insects, birds will visit your yard whether there are feeders or not. But, with a feeder, they'll be grouped on or under it in full view, rather than scattered about and sometimes hidden. Birdfeeders incidentally attract other seed-eating critters like mice. The mice are consumed by hawks, owls, snakes and other wildlife. So, mice are a good thing. (If you see that cats or birds of prey are killing birds at your feeder, move it to a different location.)
Hang hummingbird, oriole feeders
Hummingbirds and orioles readily come to nectar feeders. The feeders are easily found at seed, hardware, and department stores or online. These require maintenance; they must be cleaned every time you change the nectar, which is every few days. Nectar ferments in two or three days, making it unsafe for birds to drink.
Suet is animal fat, packed full of energy-producing calories. In winter it helps birds carry on through punishing temperatures. In spring and summer it gives them energy for building nests, mating and caring for their young. There are opponents to providing suet in warm weather. Among their worries about softened suet: It can mat feathers, reducing their insulating and waterproofing properties; may cause disease and maintenance problems when residue falls to the ground; isn't necessary when other nutrient-rich sources are available. Whether you decide to use it all year long or not, it will be popular. Suet laced with nuts, grains and fruits is loved by woodpeckers, nuthatches, chickadees and any other animal who can get to it. Be sure to hang it in a wire cage.