A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

Creating Your Own Wildlife Preserve

How to turn your backyard into a natural home for flora and fauna

Patricia Seliger’s Arizona backyard preserve

By Carolyn Gray Anderson

When it comes to keeping fit, doing a little something, even it’s just huffing up a couple flights of stairs on a daily basis or walking briskly around the block, is always better than doing nothing.

Likewise with the health of the planet.

Yes, some would assert that unless you’re single-handedly preserving vast tracts of wetlands or converting entire housing subdivisions to wind power, you can’t possibly be making a detectable difference.

“It’s easy to feel that there is no hope for wildlife in our modern world of smog, traffic and asphalt,” concedes naturalist David Mizejewski, a National Wildlife Federation (NWF) spokesperson and author of Attracting Birds, Butterflies and Other Backyard Wildlife. “But there is hope.”

Mizejewski will tell you with tireless enthusiasm that anybody can help restore wildlife habitat, whether on a small, urban balcony garden or a multi-acre farm.

Since 1973, the NWF’s Certified Wildlife Habitat program has been recognizing individuals and institutions – including schools, churches, and even an Indiana fast-food restaurant – that take steps to provide local wildlife with four basic elements: food, water, cover, and places to raise their young. A simple application and a modest fee that cycles directly back into the program open up a wealth of online guides, from Bird Feeding 101 to Coping with Drought, to empower gardeners to practice sustainable gardening.

Ten years ago, Patricia Seliger replaced the thirsty lawn that had been planted by the previous homeowner in Mesa, Arizona, with a xeriscape garden. Rising water bills and a sense of “the insanity of trying to keep a yard green in the middle of the Sonoran Desert” drove her to change the previous high-maintenance urban landscape. “It had four large pine trees, a large eucalyptus, a small orchid tree, three cat’s-claw vines climbing up the house, a privet hedge next to the house on two sides, and three juniper hedges along the fence,” Seliger recalls. “It was a water guzzler and time consumer. I had to buy a lawn mower, a weed whacker, an electric hedge trimmer; and I was constantly running to the hardware store to buy fertilizer and grass seed, and find parts to constantly repair the sprinkler system.”

Seliger took advantage of her city’s rebate program for residents who implement low-water solutions. She was already an NWF member when she decided to rid herself of the costly landscaping that was so inappropriate to her small patio house.

“I did all the work and planting myself, buying most of my plants from the Boyce Thompson Arboretum,” says the former interior designer. “I started out with hop bushes, Baja fairy dusters, sage, desert lavender, desert honeysuckle, ruellia, jojoba, cassia, chuparosa, globe mallow, and brittlebush, and I planted a thornless Chilean mesquite in the back. I threw out native wildflower seeds in the fall, some of which still come back up year after year. It is a riot of color in the spring when everything is blooming.”

A Wisconsin native, Seliger moved to the Southwest with no previous special interest in desert flora and fauna. Then a friend introduced her to a side of Arizona most people don’t see – nature preserves – which spawned conversations with other plant and animal enthusiasts.

“I didn’t know a thing about birds,” she admits, but she knew she wanted to attract them to her yard. Making the extra effort to research plant and bird species at the library and getting to know the people at her local arboretum was part of the pleasure.

No purist, she has introduced compatible non-natives that attract certain birds she enjoys. She is vigilant about invasive plant species, but her NWF certification doesn’t hinge on keeping the habitat free of encroachment. Interlopers like Eurasian collared doves have lately taken up residence.

“Sometimes there’s a misconception about our program,” says NWF’s Mizejewski. “It’s not designed to be the yard police.”

He adds that aesthetics are also a consideration. “Having a wildlife-friendly garden doesn’t require any garden design skills whatsoever. We concentrate on teaching people what wildlife needs. It could look messy and disheveled and overgrown – and, in some ways, it could provide an even better wildlife habitat.”

That said, the NWF does caution people to be aware of neighborhood standards and, more important, pest and safety regulations. Swaths of dry weeds might create a fire hazard or attract rats and other rodents that threaten the balance of life in a backyard habitat. Seliger, however, found no difficulty adhering to her homeowner association’s requirements.

Creating a backyard wildlife habitat is a seemingly small yet significant eco-friendly gesture that just about any American can make. The key is restoring ecological balance as best you can in the built environment. This doesn’t mean reintroducing all displaced species, much less attracting every feral cat in the neighborhood. In fact, says Mizejewski, sometimes it’s best to remove food sources if, say, squirrels and possums are outnumbering finches and hummingbirds, and threatening their livelihood. He describes NWF’s educational mission as a movement, and participants are ambassadors of this movement.

“Encouraging your neighbors to join with you can lead to a neighborhood or community habitat that provides wildlife with greater incentive to call your piece of the earth home,” he says.

Of the roughly 136,000 NWF certified wildlife habitats in the United States, 1,800 are in Arizona. When Seliger sought her certification, the NWF notified her local paper, the Arizona Republic, and she was all too willing to be interviewed for an article published in the gardens section.

“I wanted even people like me with a tiny urban yard to know they can have an impact and can have fun watching birds in their own backyard,” says Seliger, now fully in the spirit of doing-something-is-always-better-than-nothing. “To date, I have identified 22 species of birds.” Among them is Arizona’s state bird, the cactus wren.

Ten years on, Seliger’s xeriscape garden is largely self-sustaining. “I am constantly moving or adding plants, but this is a labor of love rather than necessary maintenance,” she says. “I also added some nectar feeders to provide a little ‘fast food’ for the many hummingbirds that visit my yard and a couple of birdbaths for water. I have a nyjer [seed] feeder across from my kitchen window so I can watch the bright-yellow lesser goldfinches. And I put out orange pieces for the gila woodpeckers and verdins, and suet in the winter for whoever would like some.”

The biggest bonus? “I turned off the drip irrigation about five years ago. The mature desert plants no longer need it.”

I call that something.

For a wealth of tips and guidelines on creating your own backyard wildlife habitat, visit Garden For Wildlife.