"I live at the base of Mount Sentinel in Missoula, and as a result frequently have all sorts of wildlife wandering through my yard. I’ve spotted deer, squirrel, and even occasional coyote or fox tracks in the mud pit that will, come spring, morph into a garden. Seeing those tracks, I started to wonder what other wildlife calls my backyard “home.”
The word “wildlife” often calls to mind larger mammals: deer, elk, coyotes, bears, squirrels, and mountain lions, animals you typically don’t want to see on your back patio. But wildlife also includes pollinators and songbirds and all kinds of animals that we relish seeing around our homes. In Montana, we’re lucky to have plenty of urban-friendly wildlife. Located along several major migration routes, Missoula attracts a wonderful variety of bird species: woodpeckers, warblers, swallows, owls, hawks, and eagles are just a few of the types of birds you might see in your backyard.
Look closely and you’ll also find remarkable insect diversity. Over 130 butterfly species call western Montana home, as well as several species of wild bees, hundreds of beetle species, and countless other kinds of insects. And while some people might deem them “creepy-crawlies,” these incredible creatures help make Missoula the wonderfully wild city it is. They pollinate our plants; serve as food for fish, birds, and mammals; and play a vital role in nutrient recycling.
With wildlife playing such important ecological roles, I started to wonder what I could do for them around my house. After all, the birds and bugs were already present, but I thought there must be ways I could make them more welcome. And it turns out there are! Home gardens are a fantastic way to provide much-needed habitat for birds and pollinators. An ideal habitat area has food, water, cover, and places to raise young.
One of the easiest ways to provide those elements is to look at what you have in your garden. Many yards already have many of the necessary components of a good wildlife habitat. Any kind of flowering plant, whether vegetable or wildflower, native or non-native, provides some food or shelter. But by planting a few more native species, you can provide food and shelter that has evolved with our local wildlife. As a bonus, those native plants are generally well-adapted to the area, decreasing the need for watering and pesticide or herbicide usage. If you have dense shrubs or trees, don’t thin them all—the thick cover is a prime spot to build nests because it makes animals feel safe. You can also create good cover by building small piles of brush or wood around your yard. And finally, adding something as simple as a birdbath gives birds and other animals alike an easily accessible water source.
So with a little work and a bit of knowledge, it is absolutely possible for humans and wildlife to live together in harmony, with all of us a little richer for it. Next time you’re in your backyard, take a moment to think about and look for all the other creatures who call that space home."
(Darcy McKinley Lester is an AmeriCorps member serving with the National Wildlife Federation in their Missoula office. She is working on getting Missoula recognized as the very first certified Community Wildlife Habitat in Montana.)