Shelter is an often-overlooked necessity for all types of species to live comfortably in a habitat that has been heavily modified by people. Predators like raccoons, possums, squirrels, cats, hawks, crows and blue jays are always a threat. Severe weather conditions with wind, rain, or snow are challenging as well. For example, a yard that has birdfeeders, a birdbath, and a birdhouse or two in the midst of an expanse of grass will not be particularly welcoming to even songbirds and certainly not to other wildlife.
Put simply, the way to provide shelter is to plant trees, shrubs, perennials, grasses, and ferns—preferably locally native and as many as possible. As a start, if your birdfeeders and birdbath or pond seem too exposed and birds seem reluctant to use them, put in small woody plants and perennials nearby. Consider adding additional plants around any isolated ornamental trees or shrubs as well. Most yards, even small ones, can usually accommodate a border of trees and shrubs on up to three sides of the backyard. If at all possible, group the plants in your yard, especially the woody plants, in such a way that the birds and other wildlife can travel unseen along an unbroken corridor of vegetation. Keep filling in plants throughout the yard as quickly as time and money will allow. Of course, you’ll probably want to save an open area of lawn–as large as you need–around your deck, patio, porch or back door.
There is a wide variety of handsome native trees, shrubs and perennials available. You’ll want both evergreens and deciduous woody plants including large trees (if you have room for them), small trees, and shrubs. These layers of woody plants provide maximum shelter, especially when combined with ferns and woodland plants as ground cover. Vines such as Virginia Creeper, American Bittersweet, Virgin’s Bower, and Trumpet Honeysuckle, all attractive, noninvasive natives, offer especially dense cover. In a sunny area of your yard, you may wish to convert some of your lawn to a meadow densely planted with clump-forming grasses and tall perennials. Or you can create a garden for hummingbirds and butterflies by closely grouping colorful, nectar producing perennials. In any case when choosing plant material, consider whether the planned location is sunny or shady, dry or wet. And don’t forget, if you choose them wisely, your plants will not only provide cover, they can also offer fruits, seeds, nectar, and places to raise young.
Besides incorporating more plants in your yard, there are other ways of providing shelter. A brush or rock pile will provide protection for birds, chipmunks, toads, and a variety of insects such as an overwintering butterfly like the Mourning Cloak. In secluded corners of your yard, instead of raking in the fall, you can leave some leaf litter. The dead plant material provides protection for the cocoons of moths, the chrysalises of certain butterflies, and the larvae of various other insects. For instance, one of our largest and most beautiful moths, the Luna, spins its cocoon in fallen leaves and is in significant decline because of our propensity for excessive tidiness.
Man-made structures can also provide needed shelter for various animals. Toads, enthusiastic consumers of slugs and insects, may make their home in something as simple as an overturned flowerpot. Bats, although undeservedly unpopular with many people, are voracious predators of mosquitoes and other flying insects (as many as 600 an hour), but are not a human pest. They can be attracted to your yard by mounting a bat house at least 10-15 feet above ground in a place that gets at least six hours of morning sun. Birds, sometimes as many as a dozen huddled together, will use birdhouses for shelter in cold weather. You can also build or buy specially designed roosting boxes that have short wooden dowels installed inside on which the sleeping birds can perch.
Your yard offers opportunities to observe what various animal species do to keep comfortable and safe. Insects hide in the leaf litter hoping to avoid the notice of an Eastern Towhee scratching about for food. The towhee and all the other birds escape into shrubbery and vines whenever a Sharp-shinned Hawk swoops in hoping for a songbird meal. Even the hawk tries to camouflage itself in the thickets hoping to be unseen by its prey. And we humans, too, certainly appreciate the need for shelter and go to quite elaborate efforts to protect ourselves from the wildness outside. All up and down the food chain creatures need shelter.