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Jun 09, 2022

Creating a Backyard Wildlife Sanctuary

By Lori Draz

Darting chipmunks, fireflies, ladybugs on your finger and the songs of birds and frogs – it’s all part of summer. Everyone loves to look at butterflies, cardinals or a tiny hummingbird zipping by, but wildlife populations have substantially declined. Bees and other essential pollinators are being wiped out. However, there are simple things you can easily do to turn your backyard or neighborhood into a natural sanctuary.

Nature follows a pattern as the tender leaves provide food for caterpillars and nesting birds feast on insects and nectar – it all works in balance. But non-native plants interrupt this cycle. Though lovely, non-native landscaping plants like ornamental trees, shrubs and flowers may not even be recognized by animals and bugs. Without enough native plants for food and cover, the insects can’t survive, so neither will the birds, pollinators and other wildlife in the cycle. 

Jody Sackett, of the Rumson Environmental Commission, is a passionate advocate of eco-friendly practices. She shares some valuable advice on creating your own backyard wildlife sanctuary. 

“The catastrophic reduction in wildlife populations is due to especially habitat loss, decreased biodiversity and increased use of pesticides and herbicides,” she said. “Cutting down trees and substituting lawns for natural meadow growth drastically reduces available habitats, diversity and food sources. Spraying for bugs also kills a lot of necessary insects which are critical food for wildlife and pollinators. Herbicides control not only crabgrass and weeds, but also kill non-target plants, and the chemicals will remain in the environmental for a long time.”

But everyone can conserve nature in their own backyards. Here are a few tips:

Go Native

Native plants are hardier, better suited to our local climate and soils and require a lot less care and water to thrive – no need to baby them with fertilizers or pesticides. There are dozens of beautiful choices for shade, sun or any soil conditions. Visit RumsonNJ.gov/env/native-plants.html to learn more and see photos of the gorgeous flowers. 

Feed the Birds

Wintering birds love seeds, but many summer meals are insects. A momma chickadee needs up to 9,000 caterpillars to feed her nestlings. Native plants and flowers attract those insects, so give the birds a break by planting natives.

Create a Backyard Sanctuary or a Pocket Park

A backyard wildlife sanctuary filled with native trees, shrubs, flowers and grasses also provides shelter. In larger lawns, create a miniature wildlife corridor. Don’t mow the strip, just let the grass grow wild. Wildflowers and animals will soon find their way there. No big lawn? Create a “pocket park.” Let a small area “re-wild;” or add a rain garden. Learn more about these at RumsonNJ.gov/env/ask-an-ec.html. Even plants in pots, shrubs, piles of sticks, bird houses and bug hotels encourage wildlife. Add bat boxes, caterpillar-friendly plants and a bird bath for flying friends to take a drink. No matter the size, you can even have your backyard sanctuary officially designated as a Certified Wildlife Habitat at nwf.org/CERTIFY. Spread the word and ask your neighbors to add wildlife spaces in their yards too.  

Plogging Along

Adopt the Swedish custom of picking up discarded plastics and trash while you walk around. A plastic bottle cap takes 25 years to decompose or that plastic water bottle takes 400 years to decompose. If you even pick up just two items on your walk, you’ve improved the environment for local wildlife.

Plant a Native Tree

A single adult native oak tree can provide food, protection, shelter for reproduction and cover for more than 4,000 species, according to Dr. Doug Tallamy, but a non-native can host only a dozen species. It’s okay if the tree doesn’t survive; dead trees are excellent habitats for wildlife.

Reduce or Eliminate Pesticides and Herbicide Use

Let the birds, ladybugs and bats to gobble up your bugs or use organic pest controls like eucalyptus and citrus essential oils. Weeds whither under vinegar or boiling hot water; but keep a few around to entice wildlife.

Bye Bye, Night Lights

Bright lights are blinding to nocturnal animals and migrating birds who collide with buildings or become too disoriented to continue migration. Turn off exterior house lights at night, or at least add a motion sensor. While you’re at it, replace regular white light bulbs with yellow LEDs, which are less attractive to insects and more energy efficient.

Make Seed Bombs

Mix equal parts potting soil and clay together with native seeds like milkweed and toss them onto those barren patches of dirt. The clay in these bombs absorbs the water to promote germination, the soil adds nutrients, and the seeds do the rest. 

Visit the OFL Seed Exchange

Get started with a free package of natives by visiting the Rumson Environmental Commission’s Seed Exchange at the Oceanic Free Library. Plant them in your garden or just a pot. There’s a variety to choose from, including taller shrub seeds like New Jersey Tea Plant, or common pretty flowers like Purple Coneflowers. More horticultural details about the Seed Exchange are available at RumsonNJ.gov/env/native-plants.html.