Backyard Wildlife

Water feature draws wildlife to garden

CorrespondentMarch 21, 2014 

  • March: Wildlife Watch

    The red-shouldered hawk is found near forested areas in proximity to water in the Southeastern U.S., and to a lesser extent in the northeast and southwest.

    What to look for: Adults’ tails have a brownish-red coloration with narrow white bands. Juveniles’ chest feathers are streaked with brownish bands, while adults have orange bars on the breast. This hawk’s body is typically less than 20 inches long, and it has a wingspan of about 40 inches. The wing form is nearly flat when soaring, but takes on a slight downward bow when gliding.

    Where to look: They nest in tall trees, such as pines, and prefer mature forested areas with occasional clearings.

    How to feed: Include elements in your garden to attract amphibians, small mammals and birds.

    Source: “The Sibley Field Guide to Birds”

If you’ve ever filled a birdbath and watched in awe as dozens of birds flock in to wet their beaks, you know how even a small amount of water can make a garden more attractive to wildlife.

A fresh water supply sends out a signal, imperceptible to humans, for birds, squirrels and other creatures to drop by for a drink.

The idea to expand the birdbath concept into something more substantial occurs to most gardeners from time to time, but questions about materials, cost, maintenance and other unknowns keep us from acting on that impulse.

Luckily, I heard from Raleigh reader Juanita Frady Walker about a creative way to welcome wildlife with a water feature.

“It’s always difficult to keep a birdbath filled, so this idea came to me while I was outside and noticed a large amount of water gushing from our air conditioning unit; it was going to waste,” she said. “At the time, we were having our patio expanded. So I got the crew to scoop me out a little circle at the end of the patio and put in pipes that would funnel the water there.”

Walker describes her pond as 5 to 6 feet in circumference, similar in size to a child’s wading pool but slightly deeper, at 24 to 30 inches. She lined the bed with a specially cut pond liner and rimmed the edge with large rocks, stacked unevenly to keep the liner in place and provide lots of nooks and crannies for frogs, salamanders and other garden visitors.

The yard had included a high-maintenance koi pond, so Walker liked the idea of a self-sustaining water feature with fewer demands. Her project has been a great success, and she offers two important tips for anyone planning something similar: Use a good-quality pond liner and dig the hole lower on one side, so that overflow from heavy rains can easily drain out.

A heavy-duty liner will help reduce the risk of punctures and the cost of a replacement. Liners are available at lawn and garden centers, most of which Walker said will happily cut one to your specific size.

After constructing her pond, Walker filled it once from the hose and then let nature –with an assist from the basement dehumidifier and central air conditioning unit – take its course.

She planted Lysimachia nummularia, aka creeping jenny or moneywort, along the edges, and she sank pots into the bottom filled with water lilies and other bog plants, such as Iris pseudacorus, or water iris, and Ceratophyllum demursum, or hornwort. These plants help to oxygenate the water and keep it from becoming stagnant.

The number of birds now flocking to her yard astounds Walker. At times, migrating flocks make the pond “look like a circle of wings,” she said.

Frogs, lizards, bunnies, squirrels, butterflies, mud daubers, dragonflies and many other forms of wildlife also visit the backyard on a regular basis.

Build your own pond

For more tips, check out the National Wildlife Federation’s primer, “Build a Backyard Pond,” at Among its recommendations:

Make it a beach: Design your pond to deepen gradually, which will aid small visitors as they enter and exit. A shallower edge also encourages insects and butterflies to take a dip.

Mix sun and shade: Position your pond to receive direct sun part of the time, but not all day. Different animals will visit at various times, depending on the exposure.

Take a cue from nature: The healthiest backyard ponds have a similar makeup to natural ponds, with native plants growing and some debris on the bottom and floating on the surface to encourage a water quality balance that limits algae and growth and mosquitos.

Get a move on: Consider adding a water pump or fountain. Birds, in particular, are attracted to moving water. Moving water also impedes mosquito larvae from hatching.

Go deep enough: Consider winter temperatures when determining the depth of your pond. If the pond freezes down to the bottom, plants and critters may not survive.

Share your tips

Caring for a wildlife garden means limiting the use of pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers that may harm insects and other creatures. I would love to hear from experienced gardeners with tips for keeping soil and plants healthy while keeping wildlife safe. Email your suggestions to me, and I’ll use the best in my next column.


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