8 Tips for Creating a Wildlife Sanctuary in Your Backyard

Alison Kasch
Written by Alison Kasch
Updated March 1, 2022
Birds playing and bathing in backyard garden water fountain
Photo: ChristinLola / iStock / Getty Images Plus / Getty Images

Create an outdoor haven for all creatures great and small

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From tiny chipmunks to brightly colored butterflies and songbirds, wildlife has a way of making your outdoor space magical. Providing a safe space for these creatures helps support the natural ecosystems in your area, so the benefits stretch beyond the beautiful (or downright adorable) views. Here’s how to create a wildlife sanctuary in your backyard.

1. Build Your Wildlife Garden From the Ground Up

Planning is necessary to create a thriving wildlife habitat. When creating a landscape plan, consider the fact that you have both a horizontal area to work with (the expanse of your lot), as well as a vertical area that stretches from your soil to the treetops. 

Different wildlife species live in each of these zones, so there are numerous opportunities to create potential habitats.

2. Attract Bees, Butterflies, and Native Bird Species With Plants

When creating a wildlife sanctuary in your backyard, research native plants that feed and attract pollinators such as the birds, butterflies, and bees around your home. In turn, they will pollinate your plants and those in the surrounding areas. It’s the perfect definition of a win-win.

Here’s a list of trees, shrubs, and nectar plants you’ll want in your habitat:

  • American beech (Fagus grandifolia)

  • American holly (Ilex opaca)

  • Azalea (Rhododendron spp.)

  • Balsam fir (Abies balsamea)

  • Bee balm (Monarda spp.)

  • Black cherry (Prunus serotina)

  • Black gum (Nyssa sylvatica)

  • Butterfly weed and other milkweeds (Asclepias spp.)

  • Common juniper (Juniperus communis)

  • Crabapple (Malus spp.)

  • Flowering dogwood (Cornus florida)

  • Hawthorns (Crataegus spp.)

  • Oaks (Quercus spp.)

  • Spicebush (Lindera benzoin)

  • Strawberry (Fragaria spp.)

  • Sumacs (Rhus spp.)

  • Trumpet honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens and related spp.)

  • Wax myrtle (Myrica cerifera)

  • Wild grape (Vitis spp.)

  • Zinnia (Zinnia spp.)

3. Create Backyard Habitats for Raising Young

Food, water, and shelter can support individual animals, but areas for reproduction and raising young are necessary for carrying on the wildlife species. 

According to the National Wildlife Federation, a wildlife habitat needs at least two places for mating, engaging in courtship behavior, and bearing and raising young. 

These can include:

  • Nesting boxes

  • Mature trees

  • Meadows or prairies

  • Caves

  • Wetlands

  • Caterpillar host plants

  • Dead trees

  • Dense shrubs or thickets

  • Burrows

  • Ponds or water gardens

4. Add Water Sources to Your Wildlife Sanctuary

Water is as important to wildlife as it is to us, so it’s an essential part of any backyard wildlife habitat. Some animals will drink, while others will enjoy a refreshing bath. Certain insects, aquatic creatures, and amphibians also need water to reproduce. Birdbaths, fountains, and ponds are all great water features to consider.

5. Create a Winter Wildlife Backyard Habitat

Beautiful birds eating seeds
Photo: Suma Hegde / 500px / Getty Images

Winter can be a trying time for the critters around your home. Keep them fed, sheltered, and loved by creating a winter wildlife habitat. Add feeders, birdhouses, and nesting boxes for your feathered friends. Plant evergreen shrubs to create a safe haven when other plants are bare. Also, leave out a fresh supply of water to keep everyone hydrated.

6. Avoid Chemical Pesticides

Using chemical pesticides can have devastating side effects on the wildlife in your area. Not only are they poisonous for whoever decides to graze or munch, but they can also contaminate soil and pollen—potentially killing pollinators. Rather than resorting to these harmful chemicals, choose physical barriers and organic pest control methods to prevent unwanted guests.

7. Use Non-Harmful Pest-Deterrent Methods

While we share our outdoor space with the critters in the area, conflicts of interest are often unavoidable—especially when trying to maintain a healthy lawn or grow a bountiful vegetable harvest. In any case, the best method of pest control is preventative maintenance.

If the local deer won’t stop ravaging your crops, build a barrier to keep them out. Keep your outside trash in sealed containers to keep out prying raccoon paws. Along with that, perform regular inspections of your home’s exterior to pinpoint gaps, rotting wood, and other rodent entry points. 

8. Obtain a Wildlife Sanctuary Certification

Once you’ve put in the work, why not make it official? The National Wildlife Federation offers a Certified Wildlife Habitat program to officially recognize your property if it checks off all the boxes. Here are the requirements:

  • A minimum of three food sources (e.g., berries, nuts, fruits, nectar)

  • At least one water source

  • Two or more sources of cover (e.g., brush pile, wooded area, dense shrub or thicket, rock pile)

  • At least two places to raise young (e.g., birdhouse, small tree, host plants)

Your small application fee goes directly towards the NWF’s programs to support wildlife across America.

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