Landscaping for Wildlife – Part 2

December 6, 2013

This is Part Two of our 4-Part article on Landscaping for Wildlife.  In addition to supplying food to supplement any natural sources on your property you also need to provide clean water.  Water will be used for drinking, bathing and for reproduction.  Even in cold weather birds will want to splash around a bit in shallow water.

Of course the easiest way to supply clean water is to set out a bird bath.  This is great for, well….birds.  And squirrels.  The water does need to be kept fresh, so you should change it out every 2-3 days in warm weather.  The animals will be using it more often in the warmer weather and algae will tend to grow in the bird bath unless it is changed regularly.  In the depths of winter be prepared to haul out some hot water in the mornings to thaw out the bath so whoever is using it can access something besides ice.

squirrel at a birdbath

bird bath

While a bird bath is great for birds and squirrels keep in mind that there are other animals living within your new wildlife habitat.  In Part One we mentioned some of these other residents – frogs, toads and insects.  Reptiles may also become part of the garden and lizards and snakes will be looking for a drink of water too.

A backyard pond is easy to design and create and will help to provide a great diversity of life to your new habitat as well as both some entertainment and education for the whole family.  When planned for and built correctly you should end up with a balanced pond ecosystem that will not create a mosquito haven while attracting more beneficial insects to the garden.  You do this by designing a water feature with a variety of plants and animals that work together to create and maintain this healthy ecosystem environment.

So, here are a few tips to help you design your water feature properly.  There are many different ways to actually construct the pond – whatever the size may be.  For our purposes we’ll look at smaller backyard ponds or water features that you as a homeowner could build yourself.  Using flexible pond liners is the easiest way to build a feature that won’t leak.  If you have very stony ground or lots of roots consider installing an underlayment first.  This can be a soft, cushioning material – almost like a heavy felt – to protect the rubber liner or you may even pour a skin of concrete to lay the liner over.  Either way, you want to be sure that nothing can poke a hole in the liner – leaks are tough to locate!

Don’t have your pond just drop off with a cliff-like edge.  A shallow entry leading to deeper water gives visitors the means to enter and exit the water easily.  It can double as an area for butterflies to “puddle” and can also be an area to set shallow-water aquatic plants.  Birds will appreciate the shallow water too – a perfect place to bath and splash about.   If you’re going to place rocks or boulders be sure to have them on top of the liner and give them a solid, stable surface or ledge to rest on so they don’t tumble into the water and possibly tear the liner.

If you’re going to incorporate a flowing stream-bed into your water feature then design it so that boulders and plants hide the “source”.  This way it will appear more natural (how often do you see where the stream bubbles out of the ground when hiking?) and limit the variety of plants along the stream edge.  When you view creeks in nature you’ll see a gradual transition of plants from close to the water where the soil is saturated up onto higher and drier ground.  Mimic this idea with your stream and you’ll add to the natural feel you’re going for.streambed

Over time you’ll get a variety of wildlife inhabiting your pond and stream and some of this variety will depend on how much sun and shade it receives.  Watch the sun and shade patterns  of your property and position your water feature where it will receive direct sun though parts of the day but will also get some cooling shade.  This will make the stream and pond more enjoyable to watch as you’ll see the light and shadows play on the water.

So, what else do you need to maintain the stream/pond in a healthy condition?  Having a pump and filtration system will help keep the water moving and aerated.  Birds are attracted to moving water, hummingbirds will dart to waterfalls to get a drink (I’m not talking Niagara Falls here – keep everything in proportion!) and the movement will work to prevent mosquito larvae from becoming a problem.hummingbird 2

Gravel and small cobbles on the bottom of the stream-bed will create a natural filtration and give aquatic insects a place to live and hunt and hide.  Amphibians like a gravelly bottom with larger rocks or a log or two to hide under or bask on.  Pour a bucket of water from a natural pond or lake in your new feature and it will introduce thousands or even millions of organisms that will help to keep everything in balance.

The depth of the pond can be determined by where you live.  The colder your climate the more likely the pond will freeze to the bottom – not good for plants or aquatic wildlife.  In cold climes you’ll need a deeper pond and by keeping a pump running then freezing shouldn’t be a problem.  Minimum depth should be around 24 inches.  The more sun and the shallower the pond the harder it will be to keep algae from growing, even with a re-circulating pump running.

Other beneficial insects that require water are dragonflies and damselflies.  The nymphs of both species rely on water and will live underwater for months and sometimes years before they mature into adults.   The adults typically hunt over water (although I’ve watched them hover and grab emerging flying ants far from any water source) and they’ll lay their eggs either in the water or on plants close by.  Create the proper conditions and you’ll attract these insects to your wildlife habitat.  If you already live near a lake, pond or stream then dragonflies and damselflies probably live close by, so they’ll find your water even faster. damselfly


As I mentioned above, the depth should be 24 inches minimum.  This will give the dragonfly nymphs more room to hide from predators like birds or raccoons.  Always vary the depth of the pond, keeping that shallow beach-entry at the edges and dipping into deeper water.  The different depths will give you the opportunity to have some different plants within the pond as well.  Nymphs will use the plants to rest on, hide within and as a launching point when hunting for food.  Plants that emerge above the surface will give nymphs that are turning into maturing dragonflies something to crawl out of the water on as they transform from a water environment to flying adults. The plants also provide a perch that adult dragonflies and damselflies can rest on while hunting for their food.  Keep sedges and rushes growing along the edge of the pond – that will give the adults additional perching spots and even some small shrubs will be appreciated.  dragonfly nymph

These insects do like to warm themselves in the sun – by setting some large flat stones near the water they’ll be able to light and refresh themselves.  Regarding fish – be careful with what you introduce.  Small mosquito fish are probably okay, but gold fish or something larger will eat the eggs and young of many insects, frogs and toads.

Even a small pond can be a fair amount of work and a walk through the phone book will lead you to landscape contractors or specialty businesses that can design and then build water features professionally for you.

Whatever the size of your landscape a water feature – whether it be a simple bird bath or a more involved and complex stream and pond – will provide the clean, fresh water visiting wildlife requires and it’s the second ingredient when it comes to landscaping for wildlife.




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