Create a Backyard Habitat
Worried the kids spend too much time indoors? Summer is the perfect time to get everyone outside with a commitment to going green and making your property wildlife friendly.
The best way for youngsters to get some fresh-air fun - along with an introduction to the natural sciences - is by participating in the National Wildlife Federation's Certified Habitat Program. Founded in 1994 to plant the seeds of environmental awareness across the country, the program gives families the opportunity to make exciting, natural discoveries in their own backyards by helping wild creatures find food, water, cover and places to raise their young.
Here are some simple tips using those four elements that will ensure hours of outdoor enjoyment and exercise for the entire family.
Feed the birds
Sure, birds and other creatures in the Southeast usually can find their own food, but what fun is that? Help your children choose or create bird feeders to place in a spot convenient to see from a window. (Not too near a window, though, or the birds likely will fly into it.) Sunflower seeds are the best feeding choice, because all birds, including woodpeckers, love them, and the seeds that are dropped aren't likely to turn into troublesome weeds in your yard.
Make sure to keep your feeder, and the ground under it, as clean as possible to prevent feathered friends from becoming sick. Also, a cone-shaped baffle is recommended to keep pesky squirrels and opossums from stealing your birds' dinner. Place your feeder on a post with the baffle positioned under it.
Provide clean water
Believe it or not, you can attract more wild friends with water than food. Why? Think of how difficult it can be for songbirds and other small critters to find a clean, shallow area for bathing and drinking. The saucer of a clay plant pot (1 to 3 inches deep) placed on the ground works just fine as a bath for birds, rabbits, frogs and toads.
And don't forget to change the water every two to three days. Adding a mister or other movement to your birdbath will attract even more birds. Hummingbirds especially enjoy flying through a mist.
Cover for critters
Also known as shelter, cover applies to trees, shrubs, woodpiles, brush piles and leaf piles. Here's where the kids can get creative and even messy! After all, wild critters dislike pristine, manicured lawns. So replace some of your lawn grass with natural areas using native plants that will require less maintenance. An expert at a local plant center will be able to talk with you about plants native to this area.
Youngsters enjoy choosing and installing their own plants. Watching them grow will create lifelong memories. And if the trees and shrubs produce berries, nuts and other types of seeds enjoyed by wildlife, you have both the food and the shelter categories covered.
Places to raise young
Here's where scout troops come in handy. Young hands eager to fulfill badge requirements can craft nesting boxes for cavity-nesting birds - from bluebirds to woodpeckers. When placed in appropriate areas, the nesting boxes then become an ongoing science project for your family, or even the entire neighborhood.
A rock garden or a pond provides habitat for young frogs, salamanders, turtles and other creatures, which not only entertain but also perform valuable insect control for your yard. And providing your friends with appropriate ground cover will help them feel safe from predators.
Finally, sustainable gardening is an important element to creating a Certified Habitat. This includes avoiding the use of pesticides, herbicides and other dangerous chemicals in your yard. It also benefits your growing children and makes your property a healthier part of the planet.
When birds, bats, lizards and frogs feel at home in your yard, they will take care of the insect population for you. And when native trees and plants feel at home in your yard, they will free up more of your time for family fun.
To start your family on the road to a Certified Habitat, visit the National Wildlife Federation at www.nwf.org/backyard and let the fun begin.
Julie Higgie is the mother of two young men raised on organic veggies and healthy outdoor pursuits. A habitat steward with the North Carolina Wildlife Federation, she enjoys connecting people with nature through her job as a naturalist/educator.