How to turn your yard into a year-round wildlife haven

Variety is key, but if you plant it, they will come

|  Story by Meghan McMahon |


Looking out your kitchen or bedroom window and seeing and hearing birds chirping, insects fluttering and small creatures scurrying is just the sort of idyllic scene many people envision, but the reality is most yards aren’t exactly designed to attract a variety of wildlife.

If you want your yard to be an inviting destination for everything from insects to mammals, you have to plan — and plant — accordingly. The idea of turning your yard into an inviting habitat for all sorts of animals is called wildlife gardening. A wildlife garden needs to include all the elements animals need for survival: food, water and shelter, according to the National Wildlife Federation. The shelter in a wildlife garden has to provide both places for wildlife to take cover and also engage in courtship, mating and raising offspring. 

The old saying that “variety is the spice of life” is certainly true if you want to attract all sorts of animals to your yard. Having many different kinds of plants — of all sizes, types, colors and even blooming seasons — creates a varied habitat and offers the food and shelter animals big and small need for survival.

When planting anything in your yard, remember native plants are best. These are the plants that grow naturally in a region and are well adapted to the soil and climate. Native plants are meant to grow here, and historically they have been part of the natural landscape. The National Audubon Society maintains a comprehensive Native Plants Database that is searchable by ZIP code and can be filtered based on the types of plants you are interested in planting. The National Wildlife Federation also maintains a Native Plant Finder that is searchable by ZIP code.


The best choices for plantings in your yard are native plants that are free of pesticides and other chemicals. Consider buying your plants from a local nursery where you can ask questions about whether plants are native, if chemicals have been used to treat them and the best options and practices for transplanting them to your yard. Native plants naturally require less fertilizers and insecticides, and purchasing plants that have not been chemically treated creates a healthier wildlife habitat in your own yard, according to the National Wildlife Federation

Here’s a few more things to keep in mind, courtesy of the National Wildlife Federation, if you are planning your yard and landscape design with attracting wildlife in mind. 

  • Observe the sun and shade in your yard at different times of the day and year and plan accordingly. More than six hours of sun is suitable for full sun plants. 
  • Think about the texture and structure different types of plants will provide. Use bigger, taller plants to frame smaller or more delicate plants, for example.
  • Plant similar species of plants together in groupings. This will provide good color and texture, but also lessen the need for mulching while helping to prevent weeds.
  • Create definition to prevent your yard from looking wild or untamed. You can do this with paths, borders, hedges and other landscape features.

Here’s a look at the different kinds of plants to consider adding to your landscape to make it an all-seasons wonderland for wildlife.


Close-up of a crabapple tree.

Crabapple tree (Photo by Chad Merda)

Flowers add color and interest to your yard or landscape, but trees are the real backbone of a varied wildlife habitat in your yard. Trees provide both food and shelter for a variety of species, so they are vital in a healthy backyard wildlife habitat, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Birds, especially, will flock to trees in your yard, using them for shelter and nesting and as a food source. If you want to see birds in your yard all year long, plant trees with all seasons in mind, Morton Arboretum advises. Fruits trees’ produce ripen at different points in the year, so consider planting trees that bear ripe fruit in different seasons. Good choices for spring fruit include cherry, mulberry and serviceberry trees, while dogwood, magnolia, spicebush and sassafras are good fall options. 

And don’t forget winter. While trees native to northern Illinois don’t bear ripe fruit in winter, many trees produce fruits that will last into the coldest parts of the year. Sumac, hawthorn and crabapple trees all produce fruits that will stick around into winter, providing a nutritious food source for birds that winter here, according to the arboretum. 

Evergreen trees, and even shrubs and bushes, also prove beneficial to animals, including birds and small mammals, in the winter. Because they remain green and full all year, evergreens offer good shelter — from weather and predators — for wildlife in your yard, so don’t forget to include them in your landscape.


Purple coneflowers in a field.

Purple coneflower (Photo by Chad Merda)

Native annual and perennial flowers both offer a good food source during their bloom season, providing a steady supply of nectar and pollen for all manner of insects and birds. You can ensure your yard is packed full of nutrition by choosing to plant native flowers with various bloom times, from spring through fall. 

Many common and popular wildflowers are native to northern Illinois, from black-eyed Susan to purple coneflower, according to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. These are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg, however. Dozens of wildflowers are native to our region, so anyone can find the perfect flowers for their yard no matter the aesthetic they are trying to achieve.

Adding pockets of native flowers to your yard and garden or adding borders of perennial flowers around your lawn is a good way to provide areas of good wildlife habitat throughout your yard, the Penn State University Extension advises. If you are looking to remove invasive and non-native plants from your yard, native wildflowers are a good choice because they will become established in just a couple of years.


A sparrow in bif bluestem.

Sparrow in big bluestem (Photo via Shutterstock)

Your yard probably already has plenty of grass in the form of the lawn you have to mow regularly throughout spring and summer and into fall, but that grass doesn’t offer much in terms of food for local wildlife. In fact, our lawns are basically food deserts for wildlife, offering very little benefit in the form or food or shelter, according to the National Wildlife Federation. Even worse, we use a lot of water, chemicals and fossil fuels on our lawns to keep them in tip-top shape, and that has a negative effect on the ecosystem and environment.

While ripping out the turf grass that makes up your lawn isn’t a viable option for many people, you can add pockets of native grasses to your landscape to offer a more varied habitat. These grasses will add visual interest to your yard, and they also require little to no maintenance once they are established. 

Native grasses don’t just add to the visual aesthetic of your yard. They will help prevent soil erosion and also provide good cover and shelter for wildlife like birds and small mammals, the wildlife federation reports. And because they aren’t mowed like the grass in your lawn, they create seed heads that birds and other animals will eat. Some good choices for native grasses to incorporate into your yard include switch grass, little bluestem, Indian grass and big bluestem. 

Bushes and shrubs 

A cedar waxwing eating berries.

 Cedar waxwing (Photo via Shutterstock)

Many of the bushes and shrubs that are native to northern Illinois produce fruits and seeds that are an important food source, particularly in late fall and winter. A variety of birds consume a diet rich in insects in the warmer months and then turn to fruits like berries in late fall and winter, when insects are scarce. That’s not the only environmental role for these fruit-bearing bushes and shrubs. In the summer, the blooms on these trees also offer a good source of nectar for insects and birds.

Shrubs and bushes aren’t just a good food source; they provide good shelter and cover too. Some birds, like cardinals and gray catbirds, prefer to nest in shrubs. They also provide a good place to hide away for birds that spend a lot of time on the ground, such as sparrows, according to The Spruce. Other wildlife, including small mammals, will also use shrubs and bushes as a place of shelter, whether from the weather or predators. 


A blue jay in a bird bath.

(Photo via Shutterstock)

Having the right mix of plants in your yard is crucial for attracting a variety of wildlife because they provide both food and shelter, but animals need water for survival too. If your home is adjacent to a lake, pond, river or stream, you have adequate water supply nearby, but if you don’t you may want to  consider adding a water source.

Water sources don’t have to be elaborate ponds or rain gardens, although if you have the space and the desire those would be welcome additions for many wildlife. Even something as simple as a birdbath or leaving out a shallow dish of water will do the trick, especially in a small yard, the wildlife federation reports. You can also consider adding a container water garden, which is like a small above-ground pond that includes both water and vegetation like aquatic grasses and bog plants.

Including water in your landscape offers many animals a place to drink from, but birds will also use it to bathe and it can even become a habitat of its own. Insects and some amphibians may take up residence in a permanent water source.

Let your yard be in the fall

Fallen autumn leaves on a log.

(Photo via Shutterstock)

If you’ve ever wanted a reason to skip your annual fall yard work, here it is. Leaving your yard in its natural state each fall is better for wildlife. That’s right — leaving the leaves where they fall is beneficial to wildlife. Animals big and small — everything from insects to birds to reptiles and amphibians to mammals — use leaf litter for their benefit, according to the National Wildlife Federation. For some it’s a place to hide out for winter. Others use it as a food source, and for some it’s a good choice for nesting material. Letting the leaves remain in your yard also creates a natural mulch to help prevent weeds and fertilize your soil as they break down.

And don’t stop at leaving the leaves be. When your wildflowers die back in the autumn, resist the temptation to pull or cut them to tidy up your flower beds, the National Audubon Society suggests. Birds and other wildlife will use the seed heads from native plants like purple coneflower and black-eyed Susan and native grasses as a food source throughout the winter, when food is more scarce.


(Lead image via Shutterstock)


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