The Virtual Gardener Jun 1998

Landscaping for Wildlife

One of several reasons I mentioned last month for choosing to landscape with native plants is to attract wildlife to your garden. If you are like me, watching animals and birds in your garden is a constant source of pleasure. Particularly at this time of year when we spend many mornings and evenings on the patio, we enjoy watching the small dramas played out before our eyes by the many creatures that live in the garden or stop by for visits. We have Desert Cottontails (Silvilagus audubonii). Rock Squirrels (Spermophilus variegatus), lizards of several different varieties, and of course lots and lots of birds. They court and play, squabble over food and water, and introduce us to their babies.

There are many resources on the World Wide Web that provide guidelines for creating landscapes that attract wildlife. A search for "landscaping for wildlife" on, one of my favorite metasearch engines despite its scatological name, and SavvySearch ( another favorite metasearch engine, yielded hundreds of documents containing that phrase. One of the most useful of these was a page of links to 75 sites discussing all aspects of landscaping for wildlife. The URL for that page is

Although the details about specific plants and animals vary from region to region, the principles of landscaping to attract wildlife are the same everywhere. All wild animals and birds have the same basic requirements. They require water, food, and cover.

Water is particularly important in this arid region. Wherever water is available, there you will find insects, birds, reptiles, and other animals. Since not too many of us are fortunate enough to have a spring or other natural water feature on our property, we will have to make one if we want one. The water feature can be as simple as an inverted garbage can lid or as elaborate as a fancy mission fountain. When creating a watering hole, keep in mind that most animals consider themselves very vulnerable to predators when they are drinking. For this reason it is a good idea to place your water source in an open area that is shaded but some distance from vegetation that could conceal an enemy. This will have the added benefit of allowing you to observe animals drinking. Be very careful not to create a trap that can drown your visitors. The water should be no more than two or three inches deep and the edges of the container should be gently sloped and have a rough enough surface that the animals can easily climb out. A couple of flat rocks to provide platforms in the water for animals and birds to stand on are also a good idea. If you can create a feature that has running or dripping water it will be even more effective in attracting visitors.

There are also some things to avoid. Don't forget to keep the water feature filled. Thirsty creatures looking for a cooling drink are as disappointed to find an empty watering hole as you would be. If the source of water is not dependable, they will be less likely to come back. Don't let the water become fetid and nasty. Not only can contaminated water harbor disease organisms that can make the animals sick, but they can also become breeding grounds for mosquitos that can make your life miserable or even give you dengue fever.

Food is supplied by both plants and other animals. Plant eating animals consume nectar, fruit, greens, seeds, and nuts. Pick plants for your wildlife garden that supply all of these products. Try for a large variety of plants and pick a mix that keeps something in bloom throughout the season. If you have plants you don't want your wild friends to eat, you will have to protect them with barriers. We protect small plants from birds and bunnies with chicken wire cylinders. The squirrels are usually clever enough to get what they want despite our efforts, so we just accept the losses. We are fortunate not to have to worry about deer, coatis, and javelina at our place but have had enough exposure to the problems they have created for others to appreciate the challenges they can present.

It is interesting that most of the documents on the Web that discuss gardening for wildlife ignore carnivores. Almost all the discussions of food for animals, especially birds, speak only of plant foods. Of course we all realize that the world is inhabited by meat eaters as well as plant eaters. In fact, we are thankful for the large quantities of insects consumed by birds and small reptiles. But we don't like to think about animals that eat other (non-insect) animals. Because plant eating animals are going to be concentrated in the food paradise we have created for them, the meat eaters are also going to be attracted there. Carnivores also have to make a living and have families to feed, so some of our plant eating friends are going to become meals. Sometimes the results are tragic. On one occasion last year, my wife and a mother quail unsuccessfully tried to stop a roadrunner from devouring a covey of tiny quail chicks.

One tragedy that can be avoided, however, is allowing our pets to terrorize our wild friends. We should not create a hunting ground for our pets. Cats are particularly hard on birds and small mammals if left to hunt freely in the garden. Our two dogs are potential threats to rabbits and squirrels except that the wild creatures are professional survivors and our dogs are strictly amateur hunters who are quickly outwitted. Even so, we take care to shoo away the bunnies in the back yard before turning out the dogs.

Cover provides protection from the elements and from predators, and you should take pains to provide hiding places and shelter for your wild friends. Ground nesting birds like tall grasses and low growing bushes to shelter in and nest under. Other birds like to roost and build nests in trees and cactus. One of the high points of our spring this year was watching a Curved-bill Thrasher (Toxostoma curvirostre) family build a nest in one of our chollas and produce a family of three chicks. The chicks have now all grown up and departed looking for employment and mates elsewhere, but they were great fun to watch while they were here.

Many small animals like to make their homes in man-made structures. Our pile of fireplace logs has been home to several generations of squirrels over the last fourteen years, and both the bunnies and the squirrels like to nest under the floor of my garden shed. One of the documents on the Web suggested that no wildlife garden was complete without a stone wall to provide hiding places for small animals and reptiles. Another suggested broken clay flower pots could be partially buried so as to become tiny caves to provide homes for lizards, frogs, toads, and tortoises. We often have Horned Lizards ("horny toads") - Phrynosoma platy-rhinos - who burrow into slopes in the yard, and I'm curious if they would like a flowerpot home.

While I'm on the subject of horned lizards, I would like to put in a plea for you to avoid using poisons to kill ants. These lizards live on a diet of ants and will die when they ingest the poisoned ants. Old timers will tell you that "horny toads" used to be very common and now have become very rare. One of the reasons for their disappearance is the widespread use of pesticides to kill their favorite food. Please don't use pesticides to kill ants.

I hope I have given you some ideas for creating a miniature wildlife preserve right in your own back yard. If you have access to the Web, look up some of the URLs I have given you and you will find many more ideas. Until next time - happy surfing.

Gary Gruenhagen
June, 1998