Creating conditions for a variety of creatures to raise their young is an important way to make your yard more hospitable to wildlife. Birds, butterflies and other insects and creatures can mate and care for their offspring on your own property.
Installing nest boxes for birds that are cavity nesters is a good place to begin. House Wrens, Carolina Chickadees, and Tufted Titmice will readily use birdhouses in most yards. The popular American Bluebird, however, will only nest on a property with a large open area near scattered trees. Don’t be tempted to buy a cute, generic birdhouse at a gift shop and expect success. Each bird has its own requirements for size of the opening, dimensions of the interior, as well as preferred location. Depending on the habitats in your yard, you may also be able to attract Tree Swallows, White-breasted Nuthatches, Wood Ducks, Screech Owls, or Purple Martins. The Complete Birdhouse Book by Donald and Lillian Stokes provides information on which birds use houses and how to purchase or build, place, and maintain them.
Other cavity-nesting birds such as woodpeckers are able to excavate their own holes with their sharp, heavy bills. Suitable dead wood is not easy to find in the typical, well-maintained yard. If you can resist the urge to prune out large dead branches, or even a whole tree where it is not a danger to your house and car, you will likely host breeding woodpeckers. In one of our yards (Edie’s) we had a pair of Hairy Woodpeckers nest in a partly dead American Beech. We spotted the hole in early spring but were amazed at how difficult it was to see after the branch in front leafed out. However, by positioning ourselves and interested friends just so, we could see the adults bring insects to the young and later observe the nestlings themselves.
American Robins, Northern Cardinals, Gray Catbirds, Mourning Doves, Song Sparrows and other common suburban birds will build cup nests in suitable vegetation in your yard as well. Groupings of dense, native shrubs and trees of various sizes, both evergreen and deciduous, offer the best nesting sites. American Holly, White Pine, Canada Hemlock, Red Cedar, Sassafras, Sweetgum, and various native dogwoods, hawthorns, oaks, maples, birches, cherries, roses, grapes, and brambles are excellent choices.
Breeding butterflies also benefit from certain plants. Many nature lovers already attract adult butterflies with flowers that provide nectar, but you can do more to conserve a wider variety of butterflies by considering the requirements of butterfly larvae. In most cases the host food for butterfly caterpillars is quite specific. For example, Monarchs require milkweed plants such as Butterfly Weed, Swamp Milkweed, and Common Milkweed. Not surprisingly, you can plant Common Hackberry for Hackberry Emperors and Spicebush for Spicebush Swallowtails. Members of the North American Butterfly Association are planting Dutchman’s Pipe to increase the abundance of the Pipevine Swallowtail during the years when it migrates north. Other good host plants are Wild Black Cherry, Sassafras, Tulip Tree, Pearly Everlasting, and various willows, violets, nettles, clovers, and grasses. Keep in mind that pesticides kill caterpillars, so it’s best not to use these chemicals.
A brush pile is a place where many different kinds of creatures can breed and raise their young. Simply make a pile of the woody debris and cuttings that you would normally send to the dump. Leave it alone and a bird like a Carolina Wren may build its nest there. In fact many different types of animals can breed and raise their young ones in the pile such as spiders, ants and other insects, and maybe a harmless garter snake. Some people feel a brush pile looks untidy and prefer to locate it in an inconspicuous place. A rock or woodpile can provide a similar habitat and may be considered more attractive.
If you wish to make your property a hospitable place for animals of many kinds to breed and raise their young, you must think of the health and safety of the babies. Predators are a danger to young creatures anywhere, but especially in back yards. There’s not much you can do about jays, hawks, and raccoons except to provide plenty of dense plantings where the young can hide. You can also install predator guards on the poles where your nest boxes are mounted. Your own cat, even a well-fed one, is a predator, too, and should be kept indoors. On the other hand, insects should be encouraged to live on your property. They are the primary food source of the young creatures, especially the birds, that you are hoping will thrive in your yard. Again, pesticides should be used sparingly, preferably not at all.
What could be more satisfying than having a variety of creatures mate and raise their offspring in your own backyard? You will be able to observe and learn about courtship behavior, incubation, and the feeding and nurturing of the young. What fun to show newly born babies of all kinds to your children, grandchildren, or just the nature-oriented neighbors. You will have the satisfaction, too, of knowing that you have created a habitat conducive to reproduction, the most important goal for every living thing.