As winter settles into the Moab Valley in January, there are still lots of great options for observing nature outside. A trip along the river will turn up waterfowl – geese and ducks – unless, of course, the river is frozen. Backyard birders might see brown creepers, white-breasted nuthatches, American goldfinches or a rare varied thrush at their feeders. When snow carpets the ground, it is fun to track mule deer, bighorn sheep, long-tailed weasels or other charismatic fauna over the canyons and through the woods. But when the weather turns bitter, January is also a good month to start in on a backyard habitat plan.
The National Wildlife Federation (www.nwf.org) offers simple solutions to turn your backyard into a haven for wildlife. You can even be one of the thousands of Americans who have certified their habitat creations through their Backyard Wildlife Habitat program. To guide your activities, draw up a simple plan that includes elements of food, water, cover and nest sites.
Food. Probably the first thing that comes to mind is a bird feeder, which is an excellent option. There are many seed and feeder selections available; a mix of feeder types will attract a wider range of species than just throwing some breadcrumbs out on the ground. There are suet feeders that take a brick of suet and these will attract woodpeckers, flickers, chickadees, bushtits, and nuthatches. Made of seeds, insects and rendered beef fat, these high-energy cakes are great winter treats, but tend to be a bit nasty during the hot summer months.
In addition to the suet, there are seed mixes that will attract particular birds like doves, goldfinches, chickadees, towhees, sparrows, and jays. But don’t limit yourself to just feeders, think about planting nectar-producing flowers for hummingbirds or plants that produce seeds or berries.
Water. A birdbath probably comes to mind, but try placing the birdbath on the ground, surrounded by some rocks. Birds need to bath to keep their feathers clean, but remember to place the birdbath in a location that predators (neighborhood cats) can’t lurk near. Another idea is to install a small artificial pond that is fed by your watering system. Don’t forget to add a mosquito-larvae killing product like Bt cakes (made of a bacteria) which kill the larvae but don’t harm the other species. Be responsible for mosquito control, because they too will come to these habitats.
Cover. A sterile environment like a lawn might attract the occasional robin, but they provide very little habitat for wildlife. Consider reducing your lawn size by installing native shrubs, trees, perennials, rocks, brush, or other items that provide hiding places for wildlife. For those of you in love with your lawns, here is my advice: rip, rip, rip. Sure keep a piece for the kids to play on or for those backyard barbecues, but most of it could go. Not only will you save on water, fertilizer, mowing, and worrying because your lawn doesn’t look lush enough, but you’ll be significantly increasing your backyard habitat. I don’t know if there is a National Rip Out Your Lawn Day, but that would be a true celebration.
Nest sites. There are many birds besides woodpeckers that use nest boxes. Screech owls, bluebirds, nuthatches, and swallows are a few that come to mind. You’ll have to monitor these nest boxes for starlings and house sparrows, two non-native species that “bully” their way into the ‘hood. There are ways to discourage these species from using a nest box, but you’ll have to be vigilant. There are even swallow cups that you can install under your eaves to attract barn or cliff swallows – excellent insect predators. But don’t forget about some of the birds that build their own cup-shaped nests in trees or shrubs. Robins, hummingbirds, orioles, kingbirds, and chickadees are species that will utilize your yard for nesting.
So take a little time this January to work on your backyard habitat plan. You’ll find both a lot of enjoyment in the planning process, as well as in the rewards of seeing wildlife in your yard come spring.