Creating wildlife habitat
How to create wildlife habitat in your own yard or country property.
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Wildlife of all types are important parts of the environment in which we live, whether in a city or out in the country. Wildlife also provide us with essential services such as pollinating the plants we grow for food and, for many of us, a personal sense of well-being. Helping to maintain or improve wildlife habitat contributes to healthy ecosystems and biodiversity across Ontario.
Habitat may be described as the combination of land-type, vegetation, and climate conditions that a species needs for food, shelter, and reproduction. Habitat components may also be important for migration and hibernation.
Creating and maintaining wildlife habitat can be as simple as doing nothing, letting nature be, or as involved as developing and implementing a multi-year management plan. Whether you have a large property or a small space, think about what habitat (and vegetation) types are suitable for your property or those that could add some local diversity. Also consider how you might complement habitat features on your neighbour’s property and create larger patches or safe travel corridors.
Wildlife are wild and do not always behave predictably so before you do anything, first ask yourself:
- do you or your neighbours really want more of the wildlife that may be encouraged by the activities you have in mind?
- Could any of your ideas lead to increased pressure from predators on neighbouring livestock farms or damage to adjacent agricultural crops? It’s a good idea to discuss potential plans with your farming neighbours first.
- are you willing to accept those unanticipated visitors that may show up in addition to or instead of the ones you had in mind?
- does your municipality allow the habitat improvement ideas you may have in mind?
If the answer is that you want to improve your local wildlife habitat then let’s get started.
To begin, figure out how much of your property you have to work with and what kind of wildlife you want to provide habitat for. We’ve provided some suggestions suitable for a variety of wildlife species which begins with ideas for small spaces such as:
- apartment balconies, front porches or window ledges
- small yards
We then move onto ideas for larger areas such as:
- large yards
- small properties with a few acres
- large properties
Figure 1 is a nested illustration of possible suggestions, but let your imagination be your guide. Additionally, many of the ideas for small areas may be suitable for incorporating into plans for larger properties.
Balconies and yards
A. Apartment balcony, front porch or window ledge
To encourage butterflies to stop by your apartment balcony, front porch or window ledge for a visit we suggest you use a planter or two.
- Planters – A simple way to provide for wildlife in a limited space is to add a planter or two with flowers which will attract pollinating insects and butterflies. However, please do not attempt to attract birds to areas close to your windows as collisions with windows kill many birds each year.
And please remember to follow what your building rules permit and be a good neighbour.
B. Small yards
A small yard allows you to expand some of the small-scale features above.
- Garden colour - A pollinator garden (PDF) is an effective way to make your property wildlife-friendly while also growing lots of brightly coloured and attractive flowers (PDF). Having a variety of different native flowers will attract a wide range of different pollinators, including butterflies and bees and perhaps even Ruby-throated Hummingbirds. Make sure to choose different colours of flowers and ones that bloom during different times of the year to maximize the variety of insects that you will attract. Adding or keeping native trees and shrubs to a corner of your yard may provide shelter and nesting habitat for small birds and squirrels and a well cleaned bird bath may be welcome on those hot summer days. Be selective with what you plant in your garden to avoid invasive species. Find out more from our invasive species gardeners action plan.
C. Large yards
Large yards may give you the opportunity to plant or maintain several of Ontario’s native trees and shrubs which provide seasonal food, shelter and nesting or den habitat for a variety of wildlife. Some additional suggestions for large yards include:
- Fallen trees and snags - One of the first things homeowners remove from their yard is dead trees, or snags. Snags (PDF) can be used by many different species including:
woodpeckers, Tree Swallows and flying squirrels. Woodpeckers excavate cavities in dead or decaying live trees to lay their eggs and raise their young. Many bird species use these trees as a source of insects for food, digging into the wood or under the bark to find larvae and other bugs. If you decide to leave a snag on your property, make sure that it’s safe and not a potential danger to people or property.
- Bird and bat houses - Building or purchasing birdhouses is an easy and satisfying way to help out these wildlife species. There are many different methods of building birdhouses and the finer details such as the size of the hole, the distance from the floor of the house to the opening and the height of the pole can all impact which species you are most likely to find using the birdhouse. Eastern Bluebirds and Tree Swallows are common species that will use birdhouses, just make sure to install them far enough away from each other to limit territorial conflicts between rivals of the same species. Bat houses are also a great way to help attract bats to your property. Many species of bats have seen their populations drop dramatically in the last decade after the spread of white-nose syndrome, a fungal infection that can wipe out entire colonies over the course of a year. Providing safe roosting habitat in more places will give them a better chance of survival. Bat houses can be difficult to get in the right spot and may take several years before they are used by bats. Do not get discouraged if bats do not use them right away, they just might not have found them yet.
Small and large properties and farms
If you have a bit more property, consider making a plan that incorporates your surrounding landscape and the potential of your property to provide a variety of wildlife habitats.
D. Small properties with a few acres
Here’s an idea for those motivated more by observing, rather than doing; take a corner of your property – assuming it has no invasive plants – and “do nothing” with it.
- Let it be - Letting nature return by simply leaving it alone is one of the easiest and most effective ways of attracting wildlife to your property. Not mowing an out of the way corner of your lawn or field will slowly see it being replaced by native grasses, forbs, and shrubs. In time, even trees may begin to take over. All of which will provide excellent habitat for various mammals, amphibians, snakes, birds, and insects. This can be a great learning experience for young children. You can watch as your children and wildlife habitat grow and change over the years. Photograph and record wildlife and vegetation observations at various stages. You will be amazed how dynamic your “do nothing” experiment really is.
- Native plantings – If you aren’t a fan of just letting your property grow on its own, you can help guide it to what you would like by planting native trees and shrubs. There are many different places (PDF) where you can purchase native plants. Nurseries or your local conservation authority can provide advice on which plants to select and where and how to plant them. Choosing plants that provide different benefits to wildlife including shelter or food can help determine which wildlife species are most likely to come to your property. Alternatively, if you are still interested in having a garden but want to use native plants, there are plenty of options out there depending on where you live in the north (PDF) or south (PDF) of the province.
- Rock or brush piles and logs – Simple things like creating a pile of stones, or leaving brush piles and logs on the ground can provide a variety of benefits for many different species. Blue-spotted Salamanders like to live in the moist, cool soil underneath logs, while Ruffed Grouse use fallen “drumming” logs to attract mates. Rock and brush piles provide safe places for small animals and their young to hide from predators, while snakes may use the rocks to warm themselves on in order to start their day.
- Invasive species management – Unfortunately there are many species of non-native plants and animals that have taken hold in Ontario and are outcompeting the native species, creating ecosystems that do not provide the same benefits to wildlife as native species. These invasive species are very common, especially in areas highly travelled by humans such as roads and paths. Invasive species removal can be effective in restoring the ecological function of your property and increase the diversity of life that will use it. Some invasive species can be quite difficult to remove and may take many years before they are all gone. However, if you can identify these species outbreaks early, you may be able to stop them from becoming an invasion. Once you remove invasive species, planting native plants makes it more likely that the invasive species will not come back.
- Floating Cover – Ponds can be great sources of diversity on your property, and one way to make them healthier is to increase the complexity of the water’s surface. By adding or leaving logs in the pond (PDF), you will provide a spot for turtles to pull themselves out of the water and bask in the sun. They also provide great cover for fish and frogs that need to hide from predators. Plant cover (PDF), in the form of lily pads or thick stands of native grasses and reeds provide great nesting habitat for birds and nursery habitat for young fish.
E. Large properties and F. Farms
Owners of large properties or farms may have more flexibility to provide for wildlife habitat.
Connecting habitat with your neighbours
How the habitat on your property can connect with your neighbours and across the landscape is very important to the movement and well-being of wildlife. Thinking about connectivity is a good place to start when planning for wildlife habitat but please be aware that farming neighbours may have concerns about habitat features that may facilitate the movement of predators or wildlife damage to crops. Adjoining woodlots, streams, and even fence rows provide security for wildlife moving between shelter and feeding areas. This connectivity can also help wildlife recolonize vacant habitat and may help in migration.
- Early successional forest - Shrubs and young trees that are a few metres in height are important to a variety of warbler species, Ruffed Grouse and Eastern Cottontail. This forest type is now relatively rare in some parts of southern Ontario where much of the privately-owned forest may be mature. Disturbance such as fire (in the past) or forest harvesting is required to create and maintain this young forest type. If you are interested in increasing habitat diversity on your properties, you may retire marginal agricultural lands (PDF), plant shrub and tree seedlings in open areas, or create openings in existing mature forest by cutting small patches of aspen or even maple. To maintain the diversity of forest structure, rare species, and the aesthetic and ecological value of very mature trees, consider leaving tall White and Red Pines, big oaks, and any Eastern Hemlocks or Carolinian species. Please check with your municipality before cutting any trees.
- Wetlands - If you have a low poorly drained area or an existing wetland, consider letting it return to nature by leaving it as is. You may also be interested in restoring wetland habitat. The Ontario Eastern Habitat Joint Venture (ON-EHJV) is a collaborative partnership of government and non-governmental partners coordinated by Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry and Environment and Climate Change Canada. Partners in the ON-EHJV work with landowners on the conservation of migratory bird habitat, particularly wetlands and associated upland habitats. In addition to providing valuable wildlife habitat, wetlands provide an essential service through ground water recharge, maintaining the water table upon which our rural wells depend. Something to think about during those hot, dry summers.
- Grassland habitat - If you have the opportunity for dedicated grassland habitat on your property, keep in mind that most grasslands in Ontario are in a state of transition so they will eventually become forests if left undisturbed. Historically, our native prairies, savannahs and grasslands would have been renewed naturally by fire. Today, active management is needed to maintain our existing grasslands. Active management activities could include delayed grazing (as part of rotational grazing systems) and controlling encroaching trees and shrubs through mowing or prescribed burning (done only under the appropriate conditions, policies and approvals); all of which should be undertaken every 3 to 4 years and outside of the breeding season of grassland birds. There is much interest in restoring grassland habitats so searching “grassland”, “tallgrass”, and “native grassland seed mixes” may provide some helpful information.
Examples of grassland wildlife species include:
- Riparian habitat - If you are lucky enough to have a creek or stream running through your property, leaving a buffer (PDF), a strip of area beside the water with grasses, shrubs, and trees, will help out immensely. This area, called the riparian zone provides excellent habitat for many species. Plant species that live here are adapted to grow along the side of moving waterways and their long and interweaving roots will help to hold back the soil and limit erosion, which will make the water cleaner and everything that relies on the water healthier. Good management of riparian areas, ponds and floodplains can also make good business sense for farmers. Buffer strips are a proven and affordable best practice for conserving soil and water quality.
- Livestock – The impacts of livestock on the environment can be greatly reduced through careful consideration of a few key factors. To help keep livestock manure out of the water and reduce the likelihood of sediment loading, algae blooms, and contamination, please provide alternate water sources for livestock, fence around sensitive areas like ponds and streams, and keep a strip of tall vegetation between the fence and the water.
- Crop rotation – There are many different ways that farmers can help to increase the environmental benefits of their farms. One of the most effective is crop rotation. Crop rotation has benefits for both the farm and the environment, which can trickle down to wildlife in the area. Thoughtful selection of specific crops can improve soil health, reduce soil erosion, and decrease the need for pest and disease control. If the fields are left to fallow occasionally or are used as pasture for grazing livestock, they can provide habitat for grassland birds and other species that benefit from open grassy areas.
- Windbreaks - Rows of trees, shrubs and other plants that separate sections of farm fields are called windbreaks. Their primary purpose is to prevent strong winds from causing erosion that strip away nutrients from the soil, allowing crop yields to increase. They also create excellent habitat for a wide variety of species, and can serve to link larger sections of forest, allowing species that normally would not travel long distances in an open field to make that trek under cover of trees or shrubs where they may feel safer. The Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs offers helpful tools and mapping applications which allow users to design and map windbreaks as well as estimate costs.
- Delaying haying – Grasslands are a unique southern Ontario habitat type. A variety of species that once relied on these fields have shifted their habitat from native grasslands to farmer’s hay fields and pastures that could serve the same purpose. Unfortunately for some of these species, primarily grassland birds, the best time to harvest hay from the field is also when the nests still have eggs and chicks in them. There are many different ways to avoid disrupting these grassland birds including delaying haying (PDF) to avoid the peak nesting and fledging seasons.
There are a variety of incentive programs to assist land owners in creating and maintaining wildlife habitat, including:
- Conservation Land Tax Incentive Program
- Managed Forest Tax Incentive Program
- Environmental Farm Plan – ideas for farm families to increase their environmental awareness in up to 23 different areas on their farm.
- Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association programs
Do not feed wildlife directly
Finally, it may be tempting to directly feed wildlife in the belief that this will help them out. This is not a good idea (other than winter bird feeders) for wildlife, for you or for your neighbours. Wildlife feeding can lead to conflicts or contribute to the spread of diseases. See Feeding wildlife: dos and don’ts. If you want to provide wildlife food sources, consider some of the suggestions above such as planting a pollinator garden or native trees and shrubs. With a variety of habitats, nearby wildlife will readily find their own food sources which will contribute to their well-being and a healthier landscape.