by Whit Gibbons

April 15, 2002

About a decade ago in the Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America, Americans were accused of being "unable to identify the plants and animals in their own backyard." I felt at the time that the same could be said as easily of Germans, or Italians, or Australians. But Americans are the ones who got picked on by the author (who was Swedish); his real point was that many Americans do not seem to care enough about their own local environment to find out what lives around them. Perhaps that situation has changed. The number of Americans who do enjoy wildlife may now outnumber those who do not.

If you are able to identify the plants and animals in your own backyard--or want to be able to--take advantage of an upcoming event. The event: National Wildlife Week. The date: April 22 to 28, 2002. The theme: "Explore Nature in your Neighborhood." The sponsor: the National Wildlife Federation (NWF).

The NWF sponsors the Backyard Wildlife Habitat program, which operates on the principle that more natural habitat means more native wildlife. The NWF's mission is "to educate, inspire and assist individuals and organizations of diverse cultures to conserve wildlife and other natural resources and to protect the Earth's environment in order to achieve a peaceful, equitable and sustainable future." As part of fulfilling its goal, NWF has become a leader in teaching people how to enhance wildlife by improving habitat. You may know the organization by some of its magazines, which include RangerRick, National Wildlife, and International Wildlife.

The backyard program helps you plan a wildlife habitat in your own yard. Once you complete certain straightforward guidelines, you can apply for official certification by completing an application form and sending a $15 fee. To get started, check out the NWF Web site at

The program gives four points for developing and maintaining a backyard habitat to attract wildlife. These are the basic ecological requirements of food, water, cover, and places for animals to raise young. A wide variety of habitat elements is recommended to attract the greatest diversity of birds, insects, and other animals.

The program emphasizes the value of using native plant species as much as possible to provide food sources. Oak, hickory, and cherry trees are obvious choices for providing food for many species. If you do not already have trees and shrubs, you may want to consult a nature center or plant nursery to determine those most suitable for your area.

The most difficult essential for many people to provide is water. The program suggests birdbaths, a dripping hose, or even a small sunken pool kept as a year-round water source. However, remember that standing water must be checked regularly in the warm months for mosquito larvae. Supplying running water could be costly, so you may have to decide if the returns on wildlife you attract and sustain justify the expense. In many cases, the answer will be yes.

Cover for wildlife should be the easiest item to provide and can work in your favor if you're tired of carting away shrub and lawn trimmings. Piles of brush or rocks need not be discarded; they can be organized aesthetically, in a manner that will satisfy your neighbors and attract wildlife. Creating hiding places for small animals such as chipmunks or lizards will greatly increase biodiversity in your own backyard.

The final ingredient for a healthy and diverse backyard is the creation of places for animals to give birth and raise their young. Dense shrubbery, tall trees, and some of the wildlife cover will help in this effort. Although some species are extremely particular about where they nest, placing birdhouses on trees will be sure to attract something. A dead tree can provide future nesting sites for woodpeckers, flying squirrels, and lizards. If the tree poses no danger from falling, why cut it down?

I think every week should be national wildlife week, but Americans do seem to like the idea of an extra special week for any cause. And anyone taking the backyard habitat plan seriously for a week will have the rest of the year to enjoy it.

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