By Gary Balcerak, Balcerak Design and member of Tree Care for Birds Committee
It seems that many people believe that relatively large areas are needed to provide wildlife habitat to have any real impact. The reality is that even small spaces can make a big difference. This is encouraging news, because urbanized areas are where the greatest need arguably is and urban areas tend towards smaller lot sizes. What is needed is the commitment to provide wildlife what they need and the patience to let the landscape develop into its potential.
My home in Santa Rosa, CA is a case study of what one can do to dramatically increase the wildlife habitat on very little land. The lot is only 40’x100′ in size and there is only about a foot of elevation difference across the yard. When acquired in 1990 there were three small fruit trees and tiny lawn in the front yard and nothing but exotic annual grasses in the rear. It was clear that the property had little to offer wildlife at that point.
While the plant pallet that now makes up the landscape is largely California natives there are non-native plants as well. A primary consideration in plant selection was that they should be drought resistant and low maintenance, but some plants do require summer water to survive. To provide habitat for greatest variety of animals a mix of plants species should be used. Likewise, the greater range in heights and density that plants provide the broader the range of wildlife that landscape can support. As soon as there were bird feeders and consistent water sources (two bird baths and three very small ponds) birds started visiting. Available water is important to attracting wildlife, but do not create an environment where you are allowing mosquitos to breed, I use a wildlife-friendly insecticide.
Some of the earliest visitors included northernmockingbirds (Mimus polyglottos), and California scrub-jay (Aphelocoma californica), ringneck dove (Streptopelia capicola), Anna’s hummingbird (Calypte anna), and house finch (Haemorhous mexicanus). As the landscape developed other birds followed: dark eyed junco (Junco hyemalis), American crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos), bushtit (Psaltriparus minimus), chestnut-backed chickadee (Poecile rufescens), lesser goldfinch (Spinus psaltria), white crown sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys), California towhee (Melozone crissalis), oak titmouse (Baeolophus inornatus), American robin (Turdus migratorius), and Nuttall’s woodpecker (Dryobates nuttallii).
The trees that make up the landscape are: strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo), silktassel tree (Garry elliptica), valley oak (Quercus lobata), and coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia). Larger shrubs include toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia), island ceanothus (Ceanothus arbutifolia), spice bush (Calycanthus occidentalis), ocean spray, (Holodiscus discolor), ninebark (Physocarpus capitatus), chaparral currant, (Ribes malvaceum), Buddha’s belly bamboo (Bambusa tuldoides ‘Ventricosa’), and common manzanita (Arctostaphylos manzanita). Some of the lower growing plants are sticky monkeyflower (Diplacus aurantiacus), bee plant (Scrophularia californica), hebe (Hebe ‘Patty’s Purple’), and coffeeberry (Frangula californica). Ground cover plants include of a number of native grasses like California fescue (Festuca californica), and California melic (Melica imperfecta), as well as kinnikinnick (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi), coral bells (Heuchera spp.), gray rush (Juncus patens), wood strawberry (Fragaria californica), and California pipevine (Aristolochia californica).
It has taken time and a lot of planting failures, but the yard is now an important haven for wildlife. Since the landscape has matured birds I know that have nested in the trees include chestnut backed chickadees, juncos, and northernmockingbirds. Additionally, a pair of dark eyed juncos built a successful nest in the dense, sprawling growth of the California pipevine (Aristolochia californica). Beyond providing habitat for ground nesting birds, the California pipevine is important because it is the only thing that the caterpillar of the California pipevine swallowtail (Battus philenor) will eat.
Currently a native western gray squirrel (Sciurus griseus), has built a nest in a coast live oak and has been living there for about a year. The squirrel and California scrub-jay stash copious quantities of acorns in the yard. It is quite enjoyable knowing that the yard is appreciated by so much wildlife. I know even more wildlife make use the landscape than I notice.
It is my hope that this post will encourage others to understand high quality wildlife habitat is not dependent upon the amount of land available, it is just a function of desire and time. It is always the case that there are limits of what any landscape can provide, the goal is to just do the best you can within the limits of your particular situation.