- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Lesley and Tom Mack take notes on the birds they see visiting their 3-acre yard in Luray, Va., most of which is a garden. Ms. Mack, a Master Gardener in Page County, likes to listen to the songbirds, including gold and purple finches, thrush, towhee and cardinals, and watch them at the bird feeders.

“We don’t have any kids of our own,” she says, adding that the birds, along with the plants, frogs and goldfish, are their “unrelated extended family.”

“As we walk around, we think, ‘Gosh, this is the prettiest garden we’ve ever seen.’ We really enjoy our garden,” Ms. Mack says.

Her garden is among the more than 65,000 wildlife habitats certified by the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), including 3,511 habitats in Virginia, 1,585 in Maryland and 80 in the District. NWF, a wildlife conservation organization in Reston, aims to have 70,000 habitats certified by the end of 2006 to help celebrate its 70th anniversary.

“By making your back yard wildlife-friendly, you’re providing a place for wildlife to call home, perhaps because the forested area they called home yesterday is a strip mall,” says Mary Burnette, spokeswoman for the Backyard Wildlife Habitat program.

A wildlife-friendly yard or garden can attract songbirds, butterflies, small animals and amphibians and can be designed with certain plants and landscaping features to bring in desired species.

“A healthy environment is one that includes wildlife, and by that I mean both plant and animal wildlife. In order to have that, you have to have a place where wildlife can thrive,” Ms. Burnette says.

Backyard Wildlife Habitats provide the four basic elements wildlife needs for survival: food, water, shelter and a place to raise young. The habitats engage sustainable gardening practices to conserve natural resources and reduce the use of chemicals, such as pesticides and fertilizers, improving air, water and soil quality, as described on NWF’s Web site, www.nwf.org.

“It simply means that you’re working a little more in harmony with what’s more natural,” says David Clement, regional specialist and director of the Home and Garden Information Center of the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension in Clarksville. “You’re not putting in a lot of extra things that will disrupt the balance of things.”

NWF certified 10,000 new habitats in 2004 and another 10,000 in 2005. The certification program, in existence since 1973, certifies residences, businesses, schools, churches, public buildings and parks, listing them in the National Registry of Backyard Wildlife Habitats. About a dozen communities are certified through the Community Wildlife Habitat program, awarded based on wildlife conservation efforts and the number of certified back yards and locations throughout the community. Communities that have been certified in the metro area include Reston, South Riding and Arlington.

The Great Falls Citizens Association hopes to become certified within two years and so far has 50 properties certified of the required 100, says Great Falls resident Robin Rentsch, who has had her yard certified for about 10 years and also is co-chairman of the association’s Committee for Parks, Trails and the Environment.

Robin and Sam Rentsch’s garden is filled with native berry-producing plants and flowers such as daisies, phlox and echinacea, which attract butterflies and herons, wrens, barn swallows and dozens of other varieties of birds. The garden leads to a 400-square-foot pond, home of native bluegill fish and an 18-year-old Israeli carp named Jonah.

“We do it all ourselves, but it’s a labor of love,” Mrs. Rentsch says.

The Rentsches replaced much of the lawn in their yard with native flowers, which, along with wild grasses, provide wildlife with a food source and shelter.

“While a wildlife habitat may look different than a manicured landscape, it can be more beautiful,” Ms. Burnette says. “Lawns really don’t provide anything for wildlife.”

Nor do shrubs and trees that are pruned or garden beds with tight edges, says Charlie Nardozzi, horticulturalist for the National Gardening Association in South Burlington, Vt.

“A diversity of plants in the yard will create a mini-ecosystem,” Mr. Nardozzi says. He recommends making food and water sources available on a year-round basis because wildlife can become dependent on them.

Native trees, shrubs, grasses and flowers provide berries, fruits, grains, acorns, nectar and seeds that wildlife can use to feed, says Wanda MacLachlan, an educator in residential landscape management for the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension.

Songbirds, for example, are attracted to fruit-bearing trees, Ms. MacLachlan says. Brown thrashers, cardinals, orioles, robins and woodpeckers prefer summer-fruiting plants like the chokecherry, elderberry, honeysuckle and mulberry, she says. Birds that feed on seeds, such as chickadees and cardinals, can resort to bird feeders as a supplemental food source, she adds.

A birdhouse placed in an open area will attract bluebirds, says Steve Dubik, horticulture consultant for the Montgomery County Extension Office in Derwood and professor of landscape technology at Montgomery College in Germantown.

“When they go out of their box, they prefer a big, open area,” Mr. Dubik says. “The size of the entrance hole tends to regulate the type of bird you get.”

In addition to a food source, a wildlife habitat includes a water source for wildlife to drink and bathe, such as a pond, a birdbath, water garden or a molded plastic tub kit that is buried in the ground.

The water should be moving or changed on a regular basis, says Mr. Clement of the Clarksville information center, who holds a doctorate in plant pathology.

“You don’t want stagnant water, because that breeds mosquitoes,” he says.

As for cover, rock or brush piles, stone walls, densely branched shrubs, evergreens and meadow grasses are a few suggestions provided by the NWF to provide wildlife protection against the elements and predators. Mature trees provide a den for squirrels and a place to nest for birds.

“People are interested in nurturing the wildlife in their community, and this is a way they can do that without having to go farther than their back door,” Ms. Burnette says.

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