A habitat that attracts lots of birds, bugs, and beasts is not necessarily neat and tidy. Land that brings a lot of species flocking, hopping, slithering, bounding, and flying is pretty messy, and natural mess is a far cry from the human-made litter of paper, broken glass, tires, and other debris we often see in our communities. This is a great thing! If the land is too well-groomed (like the lawn of a golf course, for instance), a few birds may hop by looking for worms, but that's about it. A sleek expanse of turf allows for no vertical or horizontal diversity It does not provide shelter, travelling lanes, hiding holes, escape hatches, mud puddles, dusting spots, lookout perches, or safe sunning spots - and probably not a lot of tasty snacks. This may be ideal for golfers, but not at all for wildlife.
A wide range of species is crucial to biodiversity - that is, a variety of living things that depend on each other to survive. Your backyard habitat is sure to attract a host of wildlife species if it has four important elements: plant diversity, structural diversity, horizontal diversity, and vertical diversity.
• Plant diversity: Include a wide mixture of different trees, shrubs, vines, legumes, perennial flowers, annual flowers, and grasses.
• Structural diversity: Include structures such as feeders, nest boxes, logs, brush piles and rock piles, as well as birdbaths or other sources of water.
• Horizontal diversity: Include puddles and ponds for frogs; wildflowers for butterflies; fruit trees and clover for deer; fallen logs for fungi, beetles, and salamanders; and snags for flying squirrels, hawks, and woodpeckers.
• Vertical diversity: Include different levels of habitat for different creatures. For example, many species of birds use treetops both for nesting and for perching while looking for prey. Other animals, such as burrowing owls and chipmunks, spend time above and below the ground. Some species pass their whole lives at just one level. Others require several levels to find food, water, and shelter. You could describe vertical diversity as the combined levels of an unusual five-floor apartment building, with different species living on each floor.
These five habitat levels are:
• Shrubs and climbing vines
• Tall grass and wildflowers
• Ground, short grass, and low-lying ground cover
Take a stroll around the area you want to improve for wildlife. Now that you know the importance of diversity, you can choose backyard habitat projects that appeal to a maximum variety of wild species. This checklist will ensure that you don't forget anything important:
• Arrange your vegetation so that it looks casual (even messy) as opposed to too tidy.
• Vary the size and height of plants to ensure vertical diversity. Include a variety of trees, shrubs, legumes, native flowers, and grasses.
• Remember the seasons. Offer plants that will shelter or feed wildlife year-round.
• Create structural diversity by using feeders, nest boxes, and bird-baths, as well as log, brush, and rock piles.
• Arrange plantings in clumps instead of single, scattered plants.
• Create several habitats, such as wildflower beds, watery spots, trees, open spaces, clumps of shrubs, and tangles of brambles and vines.
• Incorporate as many layers of vegetation as possible by planting large and small trees, shrubs, vines, and ground covers.
• Promote biological integrity: Plant only native species of vegetation.
• Refer to "Choose the Perfect Planting Arrangement" for more ideas.
In time, you'll recognize the benefits of the "unkempt" look. You may have to help your community see the beauty of natural processes and relationships as they take their course in your backyard. If you don't, your neighbours may not appreciate the results you see as positive, such as an abundance of rabbits, bats, weeds, and blowing leaves on your property.