- April 27, 2017
Installing habitat features can be fun. Each addition to your yard or community is an open invitation to wildlife to use the space as a sanctuary. When you add more features you increase your chances of seeing a new bird, butterfly, mammal, amphibian, reptile, etc. As you have invited those creatures to move in, searching for food, water, and cover, you have a responsibility to protect them. In this article we provide general, common-sense guidelines to follow, as well as specific recommendations for habitat features.
Habitat Network has written about many habitat features on our Learn pages; bird feeders, nestbox, bird baths (water), bee house, logs, coverboards, hibernaculum, bat house, nesting materials, ponds, sun perches , snags, brush pile , bare earth, mud, rocks , pollinator gardenand native plants, stormwater management (Rain garden, bioswale). While there isn’t a ton of research to support best practices for habitat-feature placement (that is one reason we collect data at Habitat Network–so we can build our understanding of what works where), there are some basic ideas about safety to guide our decisions about placement.
General Guidelines for Placing Habitat Features
1. Use Caution Near Roads and Busy Sidewalks. Vehicles and groups of people can be hazardous to many kinds of wildlife. Many features mentioned here are better installed in quieter places away from traffic that might injure them.
2. Pesticide-Free Areas. Some wildlife are sensitive to synthetic herbicides, insecticides, or fungicides used by gardeners or municipalities dealing with disease, weeds, and other pests. Avoid installing habitat features in places where wildlife will frequently come into contact with pesticides.
3. Cover, cover, cover. Provide some version of cover (shrubs, trees, or brush piles) near habitat features, or only install habitat features near areas with existing cover. The cover should be light enough that it cannot support predators, such as outdoor cats, and dense enough that wildlife can quickly scurry into or under it for protection.
4. Close to Other Related Habitat Features. Having food, water, and shelter in one general location will help your wildlife access what they need without having to travel far to find it. Depending on where you live, this may be best accomplished by organizing with neighbors. For example, maybe you provide the birdbath and your neighbor leaves a snag for nesting habitat. It is also important to take-on the perspective of any wildlife you are supporting when locating a feature. Imagine yourself using one resource, say a feeder, and then traveling to your nearest water source. Is that path free of hazards? Do you have to cross a road? How far away is it?
5. Avoid Areas with Outdoor Cats. A 2016 study in the Journal of Wildlife Management documented cats as the cause of death or injury to 84 different species of birds and mammals.open_in_new If outdoor cats are nearby think strategically about how to protect any wildlife that may end up as prey.
The last thing we want to do is place habitat features in ways that may inadvertently act as ecological traps rather than as an ecological benefit. Following the guidelines below will help you be successful at safely inviting animals to visit your yard. Some habitat features, however, have specific recommendations, we attempt to provide more detailed information for those habitat features below.
Habitat Features Table of Contents
(Click on the Habitat Feature below you would like to skip to and it will take you directly to that section of this article)
Stormwater Management (Raingarden, Bioswale)
Project FeederWatch, another citizen-science project at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, is an excellent resource if you have questions regarding bird feeders; but here are some general tidbits to get you started:
- Provide the right type of food for the birds you are trying to feed, such as this Red-bellied Woodpecker caught in the act of eating husked sunflower seeds. This tool from FeederWatch makes that easy.open_in_new
- Place feeders between one to three feet from windows or buildings to minimize the risk of birds being killed.open_in_new If collisions are an issue with your feeders, consider installing these devices on your windows.
- Predator guards can be used on feeders to discourage both predation and unwelcome visitors.open_in_new
- Placing feeders 10 feet away from trees that squirrels (or cats) can jump from will minimize how many squirrels you are feeding and limit the likelihood that a cat will jump onto an unsuspecting bird.open_in_new
Different birds have different ideal nesting conditions. Use NestWatch’s Right Bird, Right House feature to quickly identify the right size house to provide for the birds you are attempting to attract.
- Use NestWatch as the resource for questions regarding your nestbox, including placement and for ways to prevent unwanted birds from using the nest box.
- In general boxes should be placed on a pole, not nailed onto a tree or fence post–these structures are easily scaled by predators. The wood should be untreated or painted. Set-up nest boxes by February in the south and late March in northern latitudes.
- Predator guards may be one of the most important features to install on your nestbox. Without guards, nests of defenseless birds are more likely to be invaded by predators.
Birds love fresh, moving water for bathing and drinking. Proper placement can make providing this feature easier for you and safer for birds.
- Place about 15 feet away from fencing, shrubs, or trees that could be strong enough to support the weight of a predator. You can install a predator guard to discourage cats and others from hunting from below.
- Right next to the house isn’t a bad idea as it will to help prevent collisions from startled birds and enhance viewing.
- Birdbaths do better in the shade during the hot part of the day keeping the water cooler slowing the growth of bacteria and algae.
- Place the bath near to the hose or other water source so you remember to keep it clean and full of fresh water.
Mason bees and leafcutter bees are a just couple of the solitary, cavity-nesting bees you can provide habitat for.
- Placing your bee house 1-6 feet off the ground in a tucked away part of the garden, on the corner of the shed, a fence post or pole, will provide some preferred seclusion as these bees go about laying eggs.
- Ideally, the bee house should be placed within 300 feet of pollen sources that bloom year-round.
- There should also be a source of smooth, clean mud within 50 feet.
- Place the bee house in the sun, facing south or southeast to catch the earliest morning heat, as spring mason bees require morning light to warm up and get going and summer leafcutter bees need high temperatures for incubation.
- The house should be easy to access as you will need to harvest cocoons in the summer and fall for overwintering
When a tree falls in the forest, the fallen log supports various wildlife–like the Pileated Woodpecker above. In our built environments it is not always possible to let trees stay where they fall, though.
- When you move logs to a resting place, try to pick a location where it can stay throughout the whole decomposition process. Moving logs after they have been in a location for a while can disrupt ecological services that the logs are providing, such as mycorrhizal relationships with surrounding plants.
- Place logs in ponds, vernal pools, or wetland areas for turtles and other wildlife perches.
- Use in gardens as borders or to add contrast and structure.
- Logs are a flexible habitat feature that can be placed almost anywhere for structural or aesthetic purposes, including as a nice resting place after laboring in the garden.
Amphibians, reptiles, and ground insects are the most common visitors under a coverboard. Most of these animals are also incredibly private.
- Placing a coverboard in the back of a property, or in a quiet space may attract more interest from these elusive animals.
- Reptiles and amphibians need slightly different coverboard conditions, so having a couple of placement options–moist/cool (amphibians) and dry/warm (reptiles)–will increase your chances of supporting more animals.
- If possible, place your board for amphibians near a creek or pond, they will not need to travel far to find a water source, which is a required feature in their life-cycle.
- Be particularly conscious of providing a “clean” habitat, free from pollutants and pesticides, to keep coverboard critters healthy. (Amphibians are sensitive to environmental changes, whether that be pollutants in their environment or climate change.)
As the name implies, animals often use hibernacula to hibernate in, or at least to take refuge.
- Create this structure in a corner of the property that is infrequently used and protected.
- In wet areas be mindful of the water table. Make sure the area where your hibernaculum is created drains quickly to avoid inadvertently flooding out the resident wildlife.
- If drainage is required, install piping during the construction.
- Use surrounding or local rocks, logs, and other natural materials to create the supportive structure of the “cave”. We recommend blending-in the hibernaculum to the surrounding habitat.
Bats, like birds, generally prefer quiet, “protected” areas for nesting.
- In colder climates, mount in areas that get 6-8 hours of sunlight (facing either East or South) and in warmer climates, mount facing north or west to avoid direct sun.
- Place bat houses on the side of a building or on a pole (trees are not recommended) at least 15 feet high–the higher the house the greater the chance of attracting bats.
- If mounting your bat house on a pole, consider using a predator guard to discourage predation.
- Be mindful of sound. Bats use echolocation to find and catch prey. If you live near a large, noisy facility, like a compressor station, consider the effect this could have on bats.open_in_new
- Place your bat house near a pond, stream, or lake to provide water and attract flying bugs for food.
- Plant natives in your yard to attract the prey sources–namely mothsopen_in_new–that bats eat. Use our Local Resource Guide for lists of plants based on your ecoregion.
Suet cages provide an excellent way to display nesting materials.
- Cram your loose hair, wool, feathers, sticks, moss, lichen, or grass etc. into a small cage and hang it in an area of your yard where you frequently see birds. If you have a hook already set-up for a feeder, that would be an excellent location.
- Avoid hanging the materials on a tree as that would be an easy place for a predator to attack an unsuspecting bird.
- No suet cage? Piling or stacking materials where birds can easily access them will suffice.
Ponds require maintenance so it is smart to locate a pond somewhere you will interact with it frequently and where you can enjoy views from your yard and patio.
Consider installing wire fencing (4” mesh), painted flat black (to make it nearly invisible to the human eye), around the area of the pond that birds prefer to bathe. It doesn’t need to surround the water feature, just create a enough of a barrier to give birds a moment to escape if startled by a predator.”Tom Chase, Director of Conservation Strategies at TNC, Massachusetts
- Avoid placing too near to overhead trees that may shade the water and inhibit aquatic plant growth and will be a nightmare for leaf litter.
- Pick a higher ground location. Low lying spots can lead to flooding and pollution, especially downstream from heavily irrigated locations.
- Predators may hunt amphibians and fish in your pond if it isn’t deep, or doesn’t provide cover. Dealing with them depends on your comfort level, but a part of creating habitat means encouraging natural life-cycles.
- If possible, install a pump to keep the water moving. This is feature is a favorite of birds and will help to minimize algal growth.
Some people will take a mirror out and use it to simulate a future pond in various locations around a site. This helps identify not only the view, but also potential for unwanted and annoying sunlight reflections. Wouldn’t it be terrible to build a pond only to discover that light reflects right into your eyes in the evening while standing at your kitchen window doing the dishes?
Sun perches can either be anchored to the shore or can emerge above the water from the center of the pond.
- Place the log in a way that allows animals to quickly get into the water, or vegetation if unexpectedly startled.
- Plant wetland greenery around sun perches as a way to make your habitat feature even more attractive, while providing cover to wildlife that may benefit from using the sun perch.
Leaving dead trees (snags) standing is a wonderful habitat feature that encourages primary and secondary nesting birds, provides foraging area for insect eaters, and creates excellent perching for many animals.
- Assess whether a dying or newly dead tree is a threat to buildings or people.
- If the tree could pose a threat, consider topping it to about 6-8 feet.
- If the entire tree must be brought down use the trunk as logs, which are another great habitat feature.
- Having one to three snags per acre of land is recommended by many foresters.
Brush piles are excellent protective features for birds, small mammals, amphibians, and reptiles.
- Place piles in quieter areas
- Create piles approximately ten feet from bird baths and bird feeders to provide cover for birds or other animals that may become startled. They also provide excellent perching while birds crack-open delicious sunflower seeds.
- To minimize predators jumping on the brushpile, make the top layer of branches small and light so they cannot support standing or jumping weight.
Several species of bees benefit from having bare earth (soil or light sand) for nesting burrows.
- Mulches like straw, wood chips, or grass clippings don’t count as “bare earth”–clear areas down to the top of the soil
- Encouraging bare earth patches near gardens benefits pollinators and gardeners.
- Create bare patches within several feet of pollen sources to minimize the travel distance of the nesting bees to their food.
- Do not create bare earth patches near busy walkways as some people are fearful of bees, regardless of whether or not they sting. Native bees rarely do sting, but some species can if they are agitated enough.
Many insects such as bees and butterflies, such as the Eastern tiger swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) pictured above, and several birds, can benefit from muddy areas.
- Place muddy spots near gardens that benefit from pollination services.
- Making or encouraging mud is a messy business, so put puddles in places that will not be walked on. Walking on mud compacts the soil making it less usable.
- Pick a corner of the garden that is already wet or an area close to the hose for your pollinator mud pool.
- Make some mud in a open-topped container and place it out in a low traffic area.
Rocks and rock walls are a flexible habitat feature that can be placed almost anywhere for structural or aesthetic purposes.
- Pick a location where the rocks will not be moved. This is because mosses and lichens will grow on them and disturbing the rocks will interrupt growth. Likewise the organisms that have made their home under the rocks will be stressed and displaced if rocks get moved.
- Use rocks along edges and borders to provide habitat for spiders and other predatory insects in the garden.
- Place rocks in and around the shores of wetland areas, vernal pools and ponds for perches and habitat.
Pollinators, like this monarch on meadow blazing star (Liatris ligulistylis), are essential to vibrant, biodiverse ecosystems, and they are declining in our communities. Planting a pollinator garden is a great habitat feature to support insects such as bees, butterflies, moths, and animals like hummingbirds and bats that all act as pollinators.
- Plant pollinator gardeners anywhere you can find room.
- Make sure to use native flowers to your ecoregion.
- Be sure that you have flowers blooming through the growing season. Use this guide we created to help you as you plan your “pollinator garden palette”.
Stormwater Management (rain garden, bioswale, bioretention cell)
This habitat feature is an exception to the first placement guideline as managing water is often required along roads, sidewalks, or buildings. These features often help to filter water contaminated with sediments, pesticides, and other residues found in our built environment.
- Place these features in areas that intercept runoff while also keeping in mind the safety of the wildlife that may visit them.
- Use native plants.
- Engage the local community in helping to create these habitat features, they are a great team-building experience.
- Place them ANYWHERE. Unlike some habitat features, we encourage the placement of native plants any place you can find room for them–while still considering the safety of wildlife.
- To encourage the most diversity of native plants make sure to have low-growing flowers, mid-level shrubs, and tall, mature trees to maximize the property’s structure.
If you live in a densely populated community, one of the best things you can do for wildlife is work with your neighbors. Fragmented landscapes are increasingly creating stress on organisms that need access to land, resources, and space.open_in_new When we create a haven for wildlife in our yards, that haven becomes more likely to be used if we connect and coordinate with others across the landscape. Working with neighbors, business, schools, parks, etc, will help create better connectivity through stepping stones, corridors and patches for wildlife. We write extensively about this issue here and here.
Thank you for all you are doing for your resident (and soon to be resident) wildlife. The smallest actions can and do add up. Your site is one of almost 25,000 sites, to date, using Habitat Network to document installed habitat features. Welcome to the movement.