Backyard Wildlife

Backyard Wildlife: Gardening to attract wildlife

CorrespondentJanuary 24, 2014 

  • January: Wildlife watch

    Northern Cardinal

    North Carolina’s state bird is present in the state year-round.

    What to look for: Cardinals are fairly large songbirds with thick bills and noticeable crests. The vibrant overall coloring of adult males makes them a favorite sight at backyard feeders. Males also have red bills and red crests. Their faces are black. Females have reddish wings and tails, but their bodies are pale brown. They have a smaller red crest, blackish face and a red-orange bill.

    Where to look: Often seen in pairs, cardinals prefer to nest in low shrubs and vines. Their normal diet includes various types of seeds, fruit and insect larva. To attract this popular bird, let shrubs and undergrowth remain in your garden and provide feeders with plenty of room for them to perch.

    How to feed: Cardinals will eat from the ground or from a feeder. Favorite seeds are black oil sunflower and safflower seeds.

    Source: Cornell Lab of Ornithology

In January, we gardeners often take time out to rethink aspects of our growing efforts, noting which plants thrived and which ones missed the mark due to pest damage, a bad location, or any of a multitude of factors that wreak havoc on best-laid garden plans.

But for me, this January marks a turning point. I am shifting from many years of concentrating on ornamentals and herbs to formulating a growing plan that nurtures backyard wildlife. And I will be writing about that process each month in The News & Observer.

My motivation is concern for displaced creatures. As a hub in one of the nation’s fastest-growing states, The Triangle has experienced a development boom over the past two decades. The recent recession slowed things down, but now that the economy is percolating again, we can expect another flurry of land development, putting increased pressure on wildlife struggling to survive and thrive in the Carolinas.

While we can’t put a stop to progress, many of us can provide a nurturing backyard haven for the variety of animals who have lost their homes or sources of fresh drinking water to a sprawling apartment complex or new retail development.

The list includes frogs, butterflies, insects, turtles, skinks, salamanders, bees, bats and birds, and also snakes – at least the kinds that are beneficial to the circle of life in a well-balanced garden setting.

In this column, we will also be sharing tips to ward off party crashers such as hungry deer and rabbits – lovely creatures who seem far less appealing when caught sneaking off the greenway to snack on expensive plants or carefully tended shrubs.

I hope you will join my quest to see how beautiful gardens and bountiful wildlife can coexist. I especially want to hear your stories about backyard wildlife, tips from seasoned wildlife gardeners, and questions that may pop up throughout the year.

As I begin, my first concern is what can be done in these dark days to help attract and sustain birds and other wildlife.

Juan Hisada, manager of Wild Birds Unlimited on Falls of the Neuse in Raleigh, notes that many species thrive on native plants with berries, seeds, foliage and nuts. But in the winter, these offerings may not be sufficient to replace the bounty of insects and other high protein foods that are missing from the backyard buffet.

Hisada recommends filling bird feeders with high-calorie foods such as black-oil sunflower seeds and peanuts. Suet is best for insect eaters, such as woodpeckers, bluebirds and wrens, because it provides an extra bit of protein.

He also recommends that gardeners with nesting boxes clean them out and block ventilation holes with cardboard or other safe materials to allow birds and other small creatures to use them for protection from inclement weather.

Sudden drops in temperature can take a toll on small mammals, such as birds, voles, and even squirrels.

“It causes them to expend energy quickly,” Hisada says, adding that birds can lose up to 10 percent of their body weight on a single bitterly cold night.

While experts agree that birds – and perhaps squirrels – are the only wild animals that should be given supplemental food by humans due to the danger of overpopulation, the National Wildlife Federation has other suggestions to help frogs, chipmunks, squirrels and other visitors stay cozy in winter:

• Leave shrubs, brush piles and even piles of leaves untrimmed. They provide excellent shelter for many types of mammals and reptiles.

• Build small rock piles to serve as homes for turtles, mice and snakes.

• Leave tree stumps in place, or even dead trees (in safe locations), to provide shelter and sustenance for a variety of birds, insects and reptiles.

• If you have a pond on your property, allow leaves, sticks and other debris that fall in to remain. These can offer added protection to fish, frogs and crayfish.

Gardeners have long considered January a good time to sit down with a stack of catalogs to plan for the next growing season. This year, I’ll be keeping a sharp eye out for native nut- and berry-bearing shrubs and other plants for my garden to help expand my support of wildlife throughout the year.

A great resource comes from the experts at the N.C. Botanical Garden. Check out their list of recommended plants for our area at

Meanwhile, send me your questions and suggestions, and we will explore the wild side of backyard gardening together.


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