Supporting local wildlife; one native plant at a time
Adding habitat elements to support wildlife in your native plant gardens
Habitat at Home is Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s program devoted to helping Washington residents create wildlife habitat where they live, work, and play. WDFW has certifications for small-space habitats like container gardens, balconies, patios, habitats in backyards, acreage, and other larger spaces, and for shared community habitats like schools, community centers or gardens, and businesses. Certifying your habitat symbolizes your commitment to being a space for wildlife, shows commitment to sustainable practices, and helps promote the idea of creating wildlife habitat in your community. Providing habitat for species to thrive benefits all of us by strengthening local ecosystems and reducing conflicts between people and wildlife.
Gardening with native plants is beneficial for many reasons, but the importance to our local wildlife cannot be overstated. Washington’s native plants evolved alongside the state’s many species of wildlife and are adapted to the local environment. Native plants provide the most nutritional value and provide food for wildlife when they need it most.
Native plants support a greater number of species and life cycles than non-native plants. Research shows that native plants are four times more attractive to pollinators than non-natives (Applegate, 2015). Another study indicates that native oaks support more than 550 different species of butterflies and moths alone, unlike non-native trees (Tallamy, 2007). Native flowers bloom at times that match the breeding seasons of our native pollinators. When we provide local wildlife with plants that are better suited to support their habitat needs, we increase their chances of survival.
Plants make up the basis of the food chain. When we choose what we plant, we directly decide who we support in our space. The greater the diversity of plant species, especially native ones, the more variety of foods are available to insects and other animals. The more variety of insects and plants available, the higher the diversity of species such as birds, bats, amphibians who are supported by those resources.
Biodiversity, simply put, is a variety of life. It is the term we use to describe the variety of species in an area, the variety of the populations within that species type, and the different ecosystems that exist within an area. The higher the biodiversity (or the more variety), the more resilient species and ecosystems are to external forces such as climate change, habitat loss, disease, invasive species, overexploitation, and pollution. By diversifying the plants in your area, you make your habitat stronger and more resilient for wildlife.
Shelter is more than the places where wildlife hide. Different species use the same habitat in different ways. Planting a variety of native species can provide layers of vegetation for wildlife to spread out, find food, create nests or burrows, and be protected from weather and predators (Link, 1999).
- Overstory canopy — Above the treetops is important hunting ground for many bird and bat species. Maintaining stands of trees or planting trees in cleared areas can help provide robust tree canopies many species rely on.
- Understory canopy — Trees also provide habitats for all the life that lives among the branches and leaves.
- Shrub and flower layer — Known as the midstory in a forest habitat, this layer is where ground-based wildlife make their homes, move through their territory, and find food. Shrubs provide shelter and nesting habitat for everyone from wrens and turkeys to coyotes and deer while providing year-round food through their leaves, fruits, and seeds. Flowers bloom at this layer and support pollinators.
- Ground layer — also referred to as groundcover. These plants grow low and can spread, filing the space with a variety of foods, water gathering spots, and areas for fallen vegetation to feed natural composters like slugs and snails. Sparrows forage in ground cover while amphibians and reptiles make their home under the leaves, logs, and soil.
By providing shelter for wildlife at each of these levels, we create a balanced ecosystem in our habitat with a diversity of species. Tall, medium, and low spaces allow more species to coexist within a smaller footprint.
Space to raise young
If we plan our habitat to provide shelter at all layers, many wildlife species will find what they need to create nests and raise their young. We can also intentionally create additional spaces for wildlife to raise their young, and support more species in need:
- Bird houses are great for bringing in wildlife that you can view and enjoy throughout the spring. To best support the birds in your area, it’s important to research and get the right bird house for the right species. Nest Watch from Cornell Lab of Ornithology provides area-based lists and you can use the WDFW building plans.
- Bat houses supplement essential tree roosts being lost every year. Knowing what local species need will help you provide the best habitat for bats in your area. Learn more about Northwest Bat Houses on WDFW’s blog.
- Toad abodes are a fun and easy addition to any habitat. You can use items you already own to loosen dirt and include shelters for native amphibians. Smart landscapes — Toad Abodes video can show you how.
- Leave the leaves — not only is leaf cover great compost and protection for your plants, but it is essential wildlife habitat. Many pollinators use leaf cover to lay their eggs. Piles of leaves, rocks, sticks, and other natural debris are used as nest and egg sites for so many different species.
Be extra aware when pruning or cleaning up your yard or garden for the spring. Early nesters, like hummingbirds and several ground nesting birds will already be building nests or laying eggs. Tromping through brush, mowing lawns, or pruning trees can inadvertently destroy nests or flush out brooding mothers. Look closely, listen carefully, and leave the space if your presence draws a strong reaction.
Just as wildlife come in sizes big and small, so should their water sources. Even if your space is small, you can provide a water source that wildlife needs. If you can, try to diversify the ways you offer water. Having multiple options will cut down on competition and allow smaller species to get what they need.
- Pollinators like bees, moths, and butterflies can’t swim and need shallow places where they won’t fall in. Use a shallow pan or dish, fill it partway with water and scatter the bottom with small and medium rocks. Provide access to other water sources by creating a low sloped entry so they can walk in.
- Running water is the best choice for bird baths. If that’s not an option, clean baths regularly and add fresh water to reduce the spread of disease. Consider multiple bird baths at different sizes and places to reduce competition between species. Placing a bird bath under a tree will allow smaller birds to use it without fear of attack from above.
- Wildlife passing through an area often use large water sources such as pools and troughs. For example, deer will use troughs when natural sources are low. Bats don’t land to drink, they swoop down and drink “on the wing” and need large water sources to do so.
Allowing wildlife to escape drowning is something to consider with all open water sources in your habitat. Google “wildlife escape ramps” to find solutions for every size and shape space; from ramps, to floating surfaces, to gradients, we can make sure wildlife can get to water without becoming trapped.
As our summer temperatures become more extreme, keep wildlife in mind. Place extra water dishes outside, especially under bushes and trees where wildlife will go to escape the heat. If they don’t have to travel to find water, they will be better able to conserve their energy and survive the heat wave.
Native plants help feed birds and wildlife and keep our ecosystems in balance and wildlife populations healthy. If you want to provide additional food for birds, it’s important to understand the impacts feeders can have, and strive to avoid conflicts or unintentionally attracting other wildlife.
- Bird seed attracts more than birds. Squirrels love feeders and seeds that fall on the ground can attract rodents, which can impact you and your neighbors, especially in urban areas. Be sure your feeder has a tray to capture fallen seeds or clean up regularly.
- Bears like bird seed too! WDFW commonly gets reports of bears going after bird seed feeders when they are passing through certain areas. If you live in bear country, learn the common times of year they are out, and bring your bird feeders in for a few weeks while bears are present. In Washington it is illegal to intentionally feed or negligently attract bears and other carnivores.
- If you have domestic livestock or pets that are in danger from hawks, consider skipping the feeders and sticking with native plants, or move the feeders far away from domestic animals. Feeders bring in concentrations of small birds and animals, which will bring in more predators.
- Skip the peanuts. They cause more problems than they solve. Squirrels and corvids (like jays and crows) love them but are resourceful and capable of finding the food they need. Most of the peanuts get cached (meaning buried or stored away for later) and while they don’t grow into trees, they do attract rodents.
Remember that bird feeders are just a small part of a bird’s diet. Some species of nestling birds rely solely on caterpillars, and many birds eat a large portion of insects as part of their diet. In addition to seed, natural nuts, fruit, and berries are essential at different times of the yea. Think of bird feeders as supplemental to their main diet which they find through the plants and insects in their habitats.
Do not feed mammals. Mammal species can become habituated to humans, and this will always cause problems. Feeding deer, raccoons, and other mammals doesn’t support healthy nutrition, disrupts natural population control, creates problems for human communities, and endangers wildlife (Link, 2004). The long-term effects always outweigh the short-term benefits. Don’t feed the animals.
Living with wildlife
Planning ahead goes a long way to living alongside wildlife. Understanding who lives in your area, and who may pass through seasonally will help you avoid things that may attract an unwanted guest. When working to provide habitat for your favorite species, remember that more of one animal may bring in their predators as well. Unintended food sources for wildlife such as garbage, compost, or outdoor cat food are the main reasons for unwanted wildlife visitors. Keep your outdoor areas clean, be intentional in your food offerings for wildlife, and work to create a balanced habitat that allows wildlife to keep themselves in check.
Throughout Washington, wildlife face increasing pressures from human development, wildfire, and drought. These factors result in the displacement of many animals. As these pressures mount, more wildlife is forced into the resource rich areas around human developments. We encourage you to think of wildlife habitat you create by planting with native plants as a relief value, providing for the needs of wildlife while increasing the space where all species can coexist peacefully.
For more detailed information on local species and ways to mitigate conflicts, visit the Living with Wildlife pages on the WDFW website.
Certify your wildlife habitat on the Habitat at Home page on WDFW’s website. The program is free and available to all Washington residents, regardless of the size of your habitat. More information is available at: wdfw.wa.gov/habitat-at-home
You can reach WDFW’s Habitat at Home Coordinator at HabitatAtHome@dfw.wa.gov
Habitat at Home: https://wdfw.wa.gov/species-habitats/living/habitat-at-home
Habitat at Home Certification application: https://wdfw.wa.gov/species-habitats/living/habitat-at-home/application
Bird Feeder Best Practices: https://wdfw.wa.gov/species-habitats/living/habitat-at-home#bird-feeder-best-practices
Right Bird House for the Right Birds: https://nestwatch.org/learn/all-about-birdhouses/right-bird-right-house/
Northwest Bat Houses: https://wdfw.medium.com/adventures-with-pacific-northwest-bat-houses-1db3c1940343
Build a Toad Abode: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lclWa3YIcec
Living with Wildlife: https://wdfw.wa.gov/species-habitats/living
Why we don’t feed mammals: https://wdfw.wa.gov/species-habitats/living/wildlife-feeding
Applegate, Roger D., (2015, March 16). Native plants provide equal or better nutrition than crop plants in wildlife plantings. Native Plants Journal (1) 28–36; DOI: https://doi.org/10.3368/npj.16.1.28
Tallamy, D. W. (2007). Bringing Nature Home: How You can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants. Timber Press.
Link, R. (1999). Landscaping for Wildlife in the Pacific Northwest. University of Washington Press.
Tallamy, D. W. (2020). Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation that Starts in Your Yard. Timber Press.
Link, R. (2004). Living with Wildlife in the Pacific Northwest. University of Washington Press.