Attracting Wildlife to Texas Gardens

February 12, 2012  |  Share

I've had a renewed interest in attracting wildlife to my yard and the yards I design. I live in an urban area, so am mainly talking about butterflies and birds. Many of the gardens I design, however, are in areas home to deer, fox, coyotes, rabbits, feral hogs, bats, snakes, lizards, and frogs, so I have been reading up on the native plants that might coax these animals into, or near the edge (if fenced), of these gardens. Water is essential for many of these animals, of course, so providing a constant water source will go a long way in inviting wildlife onto your property. A simple birdbath can do wonders.

Deer, of course, are widely considered a nuisance in many gardens in Austin and the Hill Country. They can damage the bark of young, unprotected trees and agaves, strip shrubs and flowers beds down to their woody stems, and even trample plants they don't eat by walking through them or nesting among them. Still, I remember the joy of seeing deer on our property in Wisconsin (where I grew up) and, despite the problems they would inevitably create, we wanted them around and looked forward to their sightings. I still do. Attracting wildlife makes nature and joy present in our lives and, during the long food-scarce winters we used to have in Wisconsin, I learned that deer and other animals have as much right to life and land as we think we do.

In Austin, for some reason, I seem to have an overabundance of squirrels in my yard at all times. They are also considered a nuisance, particularly to bird lovers, but I enjoy them all the same. I have often marveled at how they scurry and leap from the vast network of live oaks that have been planted a bit over-thickly, I think, in my South Austin neighborhood. It's as if they could travel through whole neighborhoods without ever having to touch the ground, leaping from tree branch to tree branch. In my yard, they are mostly busy gathering and burying acorns and the fallen pecans from my neighbor's tree. I find the various nuts regularly in my potted plants and vegetable garden beds. One time, I even found a dozen pecans buried in a half bag of potting soil I had left out in the carport.

My real intention of attracting wildlife, though, is to see and enjoy more birds in the garden. Luckily, the house we recently rented has been visited this winter by a pair of bluejays, several pairs of cardinals, grackles, doves, and various other songbirds. I will probably never see a Golden-cheeked Warbler here, but last week a whole flock of Cedar Waxwings landed in the grass outside our kitchen window and stayed for a good 10 minutes or so. I thought, at first, they were after the seeds from last summer's basil plants, but it's more likely they were feeding on small insects in the grass. My backyard has one medium-sized oak, a small redbud tree and several ornamental trees and shrubs, which offer nesting habitats and protection from predators. This is important, I've learned, as my previous home offered very little protection and was largely devoid of songbirds (I hung up a birdfeeder and not one bird came to it). I would like to plant several small, fruit-bearing shrubs (agarita, fig), a few additional ornamental trees (viburnum, sumac, magnolia, hawthorne) and perhaps some vines (grape, blackberry) along the fence in the future, my gift to the future residents.

One of the books I ordered on the subject, "Texas Wildscapes: Gardening for Wildlife" by Kelly Conrad Bender, is an invaluable resource. Not only does Bender include a comprehensive list of Texas native and adapted plants favored by hummingbirds (which I found to be among the best of its kind), she also has a chapter on Mammals, Reptiles and Amphibians. Also, she has put together a wonderful chart on the Nest Box Requirements (dimensions, height above ground, etc.) for many birds that visit or stay year-round in our area. I also found an older book called simply "The Bird Garden" (by The National Audobon Society) to be very helpful. It covers much of the same topics and also includes some nice blueprints for several home-made birdhouses, including a purple martin house.

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