Wild: untamed, uncultivated, in a natural state, possibly from the Proto-Indo-European root wold, meaning woodland. It can also mean crazy, and exciting. These are exactly the types of adjectives we want you to apply to your yards. As one of America’s most beloved naturalists and essayists Henry David Thoreau said, “All good things are wild and free”. We think it’s fair to say he knew what he was talking about.
Wild ≠ Terrible
One of the main challenges people face when they think about creating the perfect wild environment for animals like birds, insects and small mammals, is their own ego. No one wants to be that crazy person on the street who lives in a dilapidated tumbledown scary house complete with a jungle for a yard, the Boo Radleys, the Miss Havishams. The neighbors will talk, the authorities will intervene, the family will carry the mark of shame for eternity etc. We’re not asking you to go that far (although, heck, if that’s your niche, go for it). But we do want you to know there is a welcome growing paradigm shift away from those manicured, sterile and symmetrical grass lawns so beloved in the 1950s and beyond. What many are now realizing is that nature abhors a vacuum, and cannot function in the correct way in those environments. No matter how small you may think your contribution is to conservation, having a wild yard is a huge step in the right direction. If you’re worried about what the neighbors will think, try flipping that on its head and think about how worried you can make the neighbors by having the best nature-friendly yard around! But don’t gloat – invite them over and share your knowledge so everyone can follow your lead.
Let it grow
Allowing a plant to just do its thing is arguably the best advice there is. Sure, we need to prune some plants back to encourage growth spurts, or if they become dangerous overhead, so follow the cultivation advice for any plant, but don’t be afraid to let things go a little footloose and fancy free. Let fallen leaves and broken branches lie where they fall; leave the old tree stump or the occasional log lying around. Decomposers like woodlice and centipedes need these damp, musty places to do their thing, nourishing the ground with precious minerals, and other stuff. Healthy soil for more plants comes from decaying ones – always respect the dead.
Mix it up
Take a look at the countryside where you live – is it all one height, color, shape? Nope – funny that. The best way to plan your outside space is to just look at how the natural world forms. Different layers or strata of plants and habitats cater for different beasties. Trees for woodpeckers, owls, jays, nuthatches. Shrubs for sparrows, warblers, robins. Flowers for hummingbirds, honeycreepers, bluebirds, titmice. Grasses for finches, wrens, pigeons. It’s not just about feeding the birds directly, either - all of these layers will attract a huge range of insects, caterpillars, spiders and invertebrates that many species of bird can feast on. Also remember, many species can find just as safe a harbor in grasses as well as voluminous trees.
Also be mindful to include space – as in nature, there are avenues and passageways created by animals and different species of plant that permit access and sunlight to lower areas. Cutting back the grass in narrow paths but maintaining a blooming border ensures this high and low arrangement. Avoid geometrics – who’s ever seen a rectangle in nature? Undulating edges replicate that aesthetic. Throw in a wildflower meadow for good measure.
Millions of years of evolution have created some eternal partnerships: birds and plants are one such example. Plants serve the life of a bird in entirety, providing food, shelter from the elements, nesting material, and a place to hide from mortal danger. But not just any plant will do; for the past few decades more has become known about some pretty bad choices over the past few hundreds of years, when folks have followed the latest trend and introduced plants that should never be there in the first place. Invasive species of plants in practically all countries on the planet have caused untold damage, so while others try and rectify that, you can help things along and make sure you only use those native to your region. Native plants serve their purpose better than non-natives as they have evolved within that particular ecosystem to best serve the other organisms that share it. It can be tricky finding which ones you should plant out, but good research and asking professionals always helps.
You don’t have to be a botanist to become familiar with just a handful of everyday plants that are simply perfect for supporting your birdlife. Take a look at seven plants birds will love you for:
The oil-rich seeds in these best-loved blooms provide energy for all activities birds carry out, from flying to breeding to breathing. Insects love them too. As the name implies, they need sun to flourish, so keep them out of the shade.
There are 120 species of this conifer in the world, and their spiky needles provide a perfect thick canopy as well as excellent nesting material when dry, and they attract over 200 species of butterfly. Their cones harbor seeds and insects, and there’s a species for every kind of environment.
Grows everywhere except the world extremes, and the berries from the female plants feed thousands of creatures, birds among them. As the fruit ripens in the autumn, it's perfect for migrants packing in the energy for the long flight ahead. Loves well-drained soil and plenty of sun, but with over 480 species, many are tolerant of any ground-type and shady conditions.
Flood-tolerant and prolific, you can grow a willow branch in a glass of water in the winter and transplant it outside come the spring. Be careful as the most famous one, weeping willow, is non-native to many places even though widespread, but there are plenty of native types. The catkins provide supremely soft nesting material and attract a huge array of 6-legged winged things to dine on.
Variegated leaves and tendrils a-go-go make this plant a perfect place to hide out unseen among the camouflage. Insects absolutely adore ivy, and in the winter, small black berries provide much needed energy for cold, hungry birds. Can grow just about anywhere, and loves the shade.
Everyone loves an evergreen. These shrubs and small trees with their thick juicy leaves are found all across the world, save for the really icy cold ones. Densely-packed foliage provides perfect nesting sites, predator-free zones, and a veritable maze packed full of insects, mammals and any creature that can squeeze in.
These climbers like well-drained soil but otherwise they grow beautifully unchaperoned, often found climbing trees in forests. There are several non-natives so watch out, but a huge range of birds get the benefit of these beautiful blooms – hummingbirds for the nectar, orioles for the flowers, finches and thrushes for the berries. A superb plant to have hanging around.
Where the wild things can be
A wild yard will entice just the right sort of creatures to make it an absolute haven for birds of all sizes and hues. Strength in diversity has never been more relevant and necessary than now. And remember, you don’t need to have a yard! Any outdoor space like a terrace or a balcony that can fit even a plant or two is contributing to the great life cycle on earth that we call nature. Don’t worry too much about outside appearances, because if the natural beauty is there, only a fool would scorn it. Be wild, be free, let everything be as happy as can be.