It’s that time of year again. Those of us at a greater distance from the equator (I’m north of the 49th parallel, myself) are starting to see our hibernating squirrels and migratory birds return to our towns, cities, and, most importantly, backyards. It’s spring, and while my arms and chest are still smarting from the several hundred cubic feet of snow I shoveled last week, I’ve doggedly started wearing my spring jacket, and am heartened today, finally, by the sounds of dripping snow-melt and chirping sparrows.
It’s kind of amazing that you can live all your life surrounded by concrete, steel and glass, and still see around you a thriving ecosystem. In broad terms, the natural world is incredibly versatile. And I think we all take a certain joy in observing and interacting with it. So how do you encourage some of your favourite species to visit your own patch of green (or even not so green) space more frequently? Here are a few simple tips.
1) Food: City-dwelling species always have their eye out for food sources, and the easiest and safest animals to attract are birds. Put out a bird feeder or simply spread seed on your balcony, ledge, or lawn. If you do it at the same time each day, word will get around and it will become a regular hotspot. An apartment building near my workplace downtown has a kind of natural courtyard, a tiny patch of grass, walk-in closet-sized, which is enclosed by bushes and a depression in the building itself. Somebody spreads seeds there every morning and it’s absolutely filled with little brown wrens or chickadees (my ornithology is a bit hazy). I love walking by that spot, and the birds, visible but safely partitioned behind the leafless tangle of bushes, have learned to ignore the constant foot traffic, allowing us to enjoy the show.
In England, it’s not uncommon for citizens in rural areas to feed foxes, natural omnivores, but though I see the odd fox near my home at the city outskirts, I wouldn’t leave food out for one. I worry that attracting more foxes to the area would just lead to them being run over.
Rabbits will be attracted by lettuce, carrots, and such. Make sure there’s an easy way in and out of your garden if you have dogs or cats, and don’t want them to corner your lupine friends.
Don’t forget nectar for hummingbird feeders. A recipe is here, but make sure you use real sugar. Recently I heard about somebody using artificial sweetener and the hummingbirds were starving to death.
2) Making them feel at home: If you have land that you are free to cultivate, trees are a long-term project that will bring you squirrels and chipmunks (which are also a species of squirrel). My dogs can’t stand the rodents, but I love watching them, and I love the sounds they make (the sound of mocking, according to Maya and Maxwell). If you want them to actually move in to your neighborhood, you need to plant as diverse as possible a mix of mast-producing trees and shrubs, i.e., producers of nuts, berries, et cetera. Oak (which produces acorns) is the most important for the squirrel family.
What about insects? You’ll have insects (and arachnids, and gastropods) almost no matter what, but you can also attract specific kinds. Create a waystation for monarch butterflies by planting milkweed, by itself or as part of a more diverse butterfly garden. Monarchs migrate between Mexico and Canada each year, which is an amazing journey to be a part of.
Berry-producing shrubs are great for attracting bird life. They’ll grow faster than a tree, and unlike a seed-feeder, require no refilling or active maintenance on your part (besides occasional pruning). Pick anything, and there’s sure to be a bird that eats it (as long as it doesn’t have highly-toxic berries or happen to be an introduced species). Even out of season, small birds love to perch on the matrix of twiggy branches. I’ve seen finches and chickadees by the dozens in such open bird cages, happily socializing and hopping around, with no apparent food source to attract them.
Birdhouses are great (and we’ve mentioned food), but you can also attract birds during the day by providing a bird bath. Any concave surface that can hold an inch or two of water will do just fine. Take a few moments to wash it out and replenish with clean water each day if you can. You can provide this on a balcony or even a window ledge if you don’t have access to ground-level green space. In fact, birds may prefer it to something located near the ground, where cats may hunt.
Oh, and the hummingbirds again (also a migratory bird which means they’re found all over)? These are the flowers you can plant. Locate them in a safe place that also gives you a good angle for viewing them either from indoors or out.
3) Create a safe zone: Avoid loud machines or toxic emissions. Don’t use a lot of pesticides or heribicides in your yard. Consider whether you want to actively attract wildlife while simultaneously giving your killer cat free reign of the neighborhood. Don’t use a bug-zapper, or, if you must, make sure it won’t kill small birds or rodents. The last thing you want to do is attract wildlife only to find their small corpses littered about your property.
On that oddly macabre note, happy species-spotting!
Photo credit: Thinkstock.