Laura Dean Bennett
Anyone who lives in Pocahontas County knows where the wild things are – they’re all around us.
For those who’d like to bring some of these creatures in a little closer to home, there’s plenty of advice available from the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources and its “Wild Yard” program.
So many of us have bird feeders, native plants and water sources in our yards and on our farms, that I’ll bet a lot of us may already qualify for designation as a “Wild Yard.”
We just need to fill out the paperwork.
But you don’t need to own large acreage, and you won’t need to spend a lot of money to acquire the Wild Yard designation.
Providing habitat for wildlife can be rewarding and can make a positive impact on our environment no matter where you live.
Your backyard, garden, flower beds, and even your porch and patio are mini-ecosystems.
Everyone can be considered for the Wild Yard program – whether you live on a working cattle farm, in a house in town or in an apartment.
“It doesn’t take a large piece of property to make a welcoming habitat for birds and animals,” Jim Fregonara, WV DNR wildlife biologist and the coordinator of the program, insists.
An apartment dweller can attract birds and butterflies with bird feeders, nest boxes and window boxes planted with flowers.
They can play host to pollinators with flowering vines or shrubs planted in pots on their porch.
Porches, patios and walkways are all potential sites for little mini-habitats to attract birds and butterflies. You just need to plant the right flowers and plants.
“No matter where you live, you can have a beneficial effect on local wildlife,” Fregonara said.
The West Virginia DNR Wild Yard information package includes all the advice you’ll need to add more wildlife habitat to your surroundings.
The 45 page “Wild Yards” booklet provides an excellent overview of how to bring wildlife to your environment.
It includes an explanation of habitat components and advice on providing habitat for birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians – for example: gardens to attract birds, city gardens, butterfly gardens and nest boxes.
It explains wildlife landscape planning and provides a specific example of site analysis and a sample landscape plan, from which applicants can take inspiration.
The booklet also presents a helpful list of preferred native West Virginia plants, shrubs and trees.
There are four requirements necessary for wildlife to thrive in any environment.
1. water – streams, ponds, bird baths
2. food – preferably, use native vegetation for food
3. shelter – e.g. nest boxes, snags, stone piles or woodpiles
4. space – fields, woods, uncleared land – the rough side is better for wildlife than manicured
Of these four components, you can most influence water, food and shelter.
Water sources should be clean and accessible. A birdbath will benefit a variety of wildlife from birds to butterflies to amphibians.
A pond can provide a home to small fish, diving beetles, frogs and other amphibians, and provide them a place to breed.
Adequate food resources should enable a bird or animal to survive year around, but especially when energy demands are greatest – in spring when reproduction requires more food and during the winter when adequate food enables birds and animals to keep up their body heat.
Appropriate shelter should provide protection from the elements and escape from predators, as well as a place to rest and raise young.
Space for your wildlife habitat should ideally be adequate for seeking a mate, breeding and feeding and rearing offspring.
Think about wildlife survival through the seasons. For instance, what would a bird do for cover in your yard on a windy day when the temperature falls below zero?
Plants and trees naturally provide most of these needs – mast, seeds, fruit, foliage, twigs and branches for resting and nesting.
Unless they pose a threat to buildings or fences, don’t be in a hurry to remove dead trees, which are called snags.
Snags are a boon to birds and small mammals.
They are a great source of insect food and nesting opportunities.
Woodpeckers will excavate a hole in the snag to find insects.
Other cavity nesters, like tree swallows, will then use the hole for nesting.
Where cavities aren’t available, build a nest box designed for the species you want to encourage.
The tendency for birch trees to die young and decay quickly is an advantage for cavity-nesting birds like nuthatches and titmice.
Grass may be popular for most of our yards, but, except for the weeds – like dandelions – that it often hosts, it offers few benefits to wildlife.
Consider replacing part of your lawn with plants or shrubs and perhaps let some of your yard return to its wild state.
You can always mow edges and paths for a groomed look.
Because native trees and plants naturally do well in our soil types and weather, they are low maintenance.
There are many plants in all shapes, sizes, color and features to choose from when looking to add native species to your landscape. The Wild Yards program guide lists dozens of them.
Combine evergreen and native deciduous trees and shrubs with vines, ground cover and perennials, for a variety of food-producing sources and natural cover.
Include flowering, fruit or nut-bearing plants and trees as food sources for the all four seasons.
Look for nectar- producing flowers and vines to support butterflies and hummingbirds.
Choose plants that produce flowers or seeds at different times of the year.
Plant shade trees where they can grow into maturity without interfering with wires, buildings or sidewalks.
Imitate the variety of vertical layers found in local natural areas where the canopy is formed by the tallest trees, the understory established with smaller trees and a shrub layer, and the ground layers of grasses, ferns, wildflowers and moss.
Planting various layers promotes biodiversity – the greater the number of vertical layers that are present and the more diverse the plant life, the wider array of animal life that can be supported in the area.
Coniferous evergreens, like spruce trees protect overwintering animals from snow, ice, rain and wind.
They become important nesting places for birds in the spring.
Butterflies will seek shelter on vines and the undersides of leaves.
Amphibians like salamanders and toads require the cool, damp shelter of leaf litter and rotting logs.
Small mammals such as squirrels, rabbits and chipmunks can escape predation by hawks and foxes in stone walls, berry thickets and evergreen cover.
“There are many benefits to welcoming wildlife to your property,” Fregonara said.
People who hunt and fish understand the important and often delicate balance between nature and mankind.
They know the lasting joy of appreciating wildlife and are often very keen on creating a welcoming environment for them at home.
At a time when children spend less time outdoors than any other time in human history, gardening, designed to welcome wildlife to our backyards, is a way we can encourage our children to connect with nature and spend more time outdoors.
“Teaching your children and grandchildren to understand the needs of wildlife and to value their presence can make for so many happy memories for a family.
“Helping your youngsters learn about wildlife can instill in them a lifelong appreciation for nature,” Fregonara adds.
“Kids are crazy about hummingbirds and butterflies and birdwatching. Nature and kids is just a natural combination.”
Fregonara advises to support butterflies, birds and all wildlife, use pesticides sparingly and follow the label instructions carefully – always target specific pests or diseases when using chemicals and be conservative in your use of poisons.
Remember that birds and pollinators like butterflies may be the unintended recipient of some of the chemicals you use in your garden and on your lawn and flower beds.
Helping pollinators is extremely important – by planting things like milkweed, which is especially helpful to Monarch Butterflies (our state butterfly), we can ensure that we keep our butterflies, bees and birds of the threatened and endangered lists.
“We’d rather keep ‘common species’ common and not have to involve federal regulations by placing them on the threatened or endangered list,” Fregonara explains.
Adding more native plants, shrubs and trees, and reducing fertilizer and pesticide use isn’t just good for the bird and animal visitors to our property, but it’s good for us, too.
And it can add great appeal and actual value to your property.
“Properties designated as ‘Wild Yards’ are known to experience a three-to-ten percent increase in property value,” Fregonara said.
And that is with an investment of, as little as, $200.
“It’s just an extension of being a responsible land owner.”
The Wild Yard program was started in 1997 and the first yard was certified in 1998.
But many West Virginians don’t know anything about it.
“To date there have only been about three hundred West Virginia properties certified as ‘Wild Yards,”’ Fregonara said.
“The DNR is in the process of updating some of the aspects of the Wild Yard program, and the agency hopes a little more publicity will encourage more West Virginians to take advantage of it.”
They also hope to incorporate site visits to the application process in the future.
Start the process of having your yard or farm certified by submitting a “Wild Yard” application to the DNR.
You will receive an information package and an application when you make a request to the DNR.
You may include a sketch or sketches of the habitat-targeted areas of your yard and maybe even some pictures with your application, as they will give the DNR more information about your environment.
These photos and sketches will remain part of your DNR Wild Yard file and will not be returned to you.
Unless you request that they not be used, photographs of you and/or your family working in your wildlife habitat area might be used in presentations about the Wild Yards program so others may benefit from your management experiences.
If the DNR should publish your photographs in any future Wild Yards materials, you will be given photo credit as the photographer.
When answering the questions about the number of plants/trees on your property, you may use estimates rather than exact figures.
After an application is received and the property has been accepted into the program, the property owner will receive a certificate and an attractive, decorative metal sign which may be posted on the property.
“If people have any questions about the program, they should feel free to email or call me. I’m happy to help,” Fregonara said.
Send your request for a Wild Yard application package to Jim Fregonara at the Elkins office of the DNR. You may write to him at West Virginia Division of Natural Resources, P.O. Box 67, Elkins, WV 26241, email him at Jim.firstname.lastname@example.org or telephone him at 304-637-0245.