Wildscaping, or managing yards for wildlife benefits, has become a popular concept for landscaping since it was introduced in Oklahoma. People want to attract wildlife to their yards for a variety of reasons but probably chief among them is that birds and other wildlife bring us pleasure. The colorful movement of butterflies, flashing natural beauty of birds, cacophony of sounds provided by birds and frogs and pleasure of watching the natural behavior of the common wildlife species attracted to our wildscapes allow us to live closer to the natural world. This step-by- step guide can help plan your own wildscape.
More information about establishing a wildscape can be found in this online copy of "Landscaping for Wildlife: A Guide to the Southern Great Plains."
Step 1: Identify the Wildlife Species You Want to Attract
Oklahoma is home to more than 800 species of wildlife. With so many options, this first step can be a daunting task. Many urban homeowners are interested in attracting birds in general, and some wish to attract specific bird species such as hummingbirds, bluebirds, purple martins and cardinals. Butterflies are also a popular group, and toads, frogs, lizards and bats are growing interest. By deciding which species you want to attract you can better prepare for the next step.
Step 2: Identify the Needs of Your Target Wildlife Species
One key to attracting wildlife to your property is to provide as many of the four basic elements of their habitat as possible - food, water, cover and space. The most successful wildscape plans include all of these elements to some degree during all four seasons. First determine in which natural community your property occurs. This can help you better understand which native plants and wildlife can occur in your area. Next, research the food, water, cover and space requirements of the species you favor. Hardcopy and online field guides of birds, butterflies, amphibians and reptiles can help determine if the wildlife you are interested in even occurs in Oklahoma.
Step 3: Evaluate Your Property
An initial evaluation of your property should identify which wildlife and plant species are already present. Make a base map of your property showing all structures including overhead lines. Note sunny and shady areas and how they change during the day or over the seasons. Consider whether space includes outside dogs or cats. If safe to do so, consider getting a bird’s eye view of your property by making observations from your roof. Note the distance of any undeveloped areas. Will wildlife that travel by foot be able to safely access your property? Finally, visit any natural areas near your property such as nearby parks that will give you ideas on types of wildlife and plants that occur in your area.
Step 4: The Food Habitat Element
The ideal wildscape plan uses natural vegetation to supply food all year – from the earliest summer berries to fruits and nuts that persist through winter and spring. Now that you know the food requirements of your favored wildlife, make a list of plantings that will provide food year-round. Keep in mind that if you want to attract birds that insects are especially important during the nesting season to feed baby birds. Wildflowers attract insects for pollination so be sure you have some plantings that will attract insects. Supplemental feeding stations can be incorporated into your plans for providing food but it should not be the only source for food as this will limit your ability to attract the diversity you may wish. Many lists of plants and their wildlife value for Oklahoma can be found in Attracting Birds to Your Backyard.
Step 5: The Water Habitat Element
Fresh water is essential to all wildlife. Most animals need water to drink and bathe, but fish and amphibians such as frogs and salamanders need water to complete their life cycle. Lack of fresh water is factor most often limiting the wildlife that will visit yards. Providing a clean, dependable water source year-round is one of the best ways to bring birds and other wildlife to your wildscape. Water sources could include a natural stream, bird bath, small pond or recirculating stream. Keep in mind that birds are skittish around water that is more than two inches deep, so provide shallow water sources if birds are a focus. If not designed properly, water sources can be death traps for some wildlife species so be sure to provide areas where wildlife can easily climb in and out.
Step 6: The Cover (Shelter) Habitat Element
Wildlife need cover, or shelter, to protect them from predators and weather. Traveling, resting, feeding, and breeding make individuals vulnerable, so they stay clear of yards that do not provide protective cover for these activities. Plantings can serve double-duty in the wildscape if plantings differ in mature heights and are placed in such a way to provide a layering effect. Layered plants will provide cover as well as a food source. Brush piles, rock walls, stumps and even fallen logs can provide cover and shelter, especially in a new wildscape where trees and shrubs haven’t reached maturity. In considering the space component of a habitat, humans tend to think on a horizontal scale but some wildlife species such as birds divide their space requirement vertically. Therefore, the layering effect created by plantings can also provide space requirements, particularly for birds.
Step 7: Create a Plan
Wildscaping is a long-term investment, not something that will take place overnight. By developing your wildscape in several phases, you’ll spread expenses and lessen your annual workload. Whenever possible, select native plant species which are adapted to your area’s temperatures, climate, and rainfall. This adds up to low maintenance for you! Successful wildscapes feature at least one element from each of the below categories.
Step 8: Wildscapes and the Law
Ordinances may restrict the number of things you can do to your yard, so check your city ordinances before beginning especially if you’re considering a wildflower meadow or prairie. Some ordinances require front yard grass be mowed every three weeks. Most important, be considerate of your neighbors and make sure your wildscaping does not interfere with their yard. Better yet, see if your neighbors would also like to wildscape thereby providing expanded habitat for wildlife needs.
Step 9: Maintaining Your Wildscape
Once your wildscape is established it becomes a low maintenance landscape. Three-inch mulch around your plantings will keep soil moist, inhibit weeds and provide important nutrients to the soil as it breaks down. Please practice benign neglect in your wildscape! Wildlife prefer an “informal” look so pruning should be kept to a minimum. Nest boxes should be ready each March for cavity nesting birds. Monitor your nest boxes and exclude the non-native house sparrow and European starling. Competition for cavities is usually won by these more aggressive birds.
Step 10: Let the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation Recognize Your Efforts
Since 1995, the Wildlife Diversity Program has administered a Wildscape Certification Program to recognize efforts of Oklahomans that landscape for wildlife. Over 500 properties from all over the state have been certified. To make your property an official Oklahoma Wildscape fill out the application form and provide a map and possibly some photos of your Wildscape.