Get Wild! 5 Steps for Habitat Certification

Want to do your part to help the planet? Turn your backyard or business lot into a certified wildlife habitat that helps protect and promote native plants and species.

According to a United Nations report, one million species may be “pushed to extinction” in the next few years due to human impact. As the Center for Biological Diversity explains, while extinction typically occurs at rates of one to five species per year, we’re currently losing double that on a daily basis. It’s easy to feel hopeless in the face of environmental crisis, but there’s at least one way you can make a major difference – by creating wildlife habitats everywhere you can! By providing the five main criteria wildlife need to thrive, you can help save your area’s local flora and fauna, especially pollinators on which our food supply so critically depends. Can you imagine if most yards and business grounds were turned into wildlife habitats? Whether you have a postage stamp lawn, a country home acreage, a balcony in an apartment complex, or a business property with a strip of shrubs, you can easily convert this area into a certified wildlife habitat. Here’s what you’ll need.

Number 1: Wildlife Need Food

Perhaps it goes without saying, but no life can survive without food – yet we often forget to supply simple sustenance for our non-human neighbors. Plants and supplemental feeders serve as easy and effective ways to provide something for wildlife to eat.

Natives: The first key here is to use species indigenous to your area and a variety of them. What flowers, shrubs, and trees are native to your region? A combination of them will provide seeds, nuts, berries, insects, and nectar to attract wildlife, birds, and pollinators. Of course, this provides the added advantage of protecting local flora as well. And by choosing these native plants over non-native species, you help preserve the overall ecosystem.

Natural Elements: After planting, let nature run its course. Skimp on the fall clean up. Flowers that have not been deadheaded provide sculptural beauty and winter interest as well as seeds for wildlife. Fallen leaves not only serve as compost to nourish the soil but also offer shelter for the insects and grubs that small critters feed on.

Feeders: Throughout your yard, provide species-specific feeders to attract local birds. In my area of the West, thistle seeds will draw Goldfinches, suet will attract woodpeckers, and dried berries will attract Waxwings. We added a hummingbird feeder in the warm months and never cease to be in awe of these small, brilliantly colored, hovering acrobats. Install a variety of feeder types to accommodate various beak sizes and seed preferences.

Butterfly feeders are also fun – check out to make your own! Providing birdseed and suet in the winter is critical – in those months, many birds come to depend on the food supplied by humans. Running out can put them at risk if your winter is cold enough. Added bonus? Installing feeders in view of windows provides an excellent way to connect with nature during the colder months, and feeders in all seasons are a wonderful way for children to learn to recognize bird species.

Safe Food: Ask yourself if what you’re providing is actually healthy. Some birdseed blends and suet include artificially colored additives. It’s pretty easy to find bird foods free of the artificial stuff; just take a few moments to read the label. Similarly, skip the artificially red hummingbird food in favor of whipping up your own. Just mix sugar to water in a 1:4 ratio, boil, let cool completely and fill your feeder.

For Certification: In order to meet certification criteria for food, you’ll need to provide three items from the following list: seeds from a plant, berries, nectar, foliage or twigs, nuts, fruits, sap, pollen, suet, bird feeder, squirrel feeder, hummingbird feeder, or butterfly feeder. Remember, some creatures will need different foods at varying stages of life. Butterflies not only need nectar plants but also appropriate foliage for the caterpillar stage. Amphibians will feed on water insects in earlier stages and ground/air insects in later sages.

Number 2: Wildlife Need Water

And just like us, wildlife needs a source of water for survival. If you have an adjacent pond, river, creek, or other bodies of water in sight, you can check water off the list. If not, you’ll need a fountain, a simple birdbath, or a handmade pond.

Birdbath: This is the simplest solution, but before you purchase or make your own, consider these requirements: Birds prefer a pool that’s no more than three inches deep with some texture or gravel for sure footing. A deeper birdbath will attract more visitors if it contains a small layer of gravel or stone on the bottom. In the summer months, clean your birdbath twice a week to keep algae, bird droppings, and mosquitos out. In winter, keep water from freezing via a birdbath heater or regular refills. Place the birdbath within easy access to a shelter so birds and other wildlife looking for a drink can duck into safe hiding as needed.

Small Pond: A handmade pond is a bit more complicated and might range from a large backhoe-dug swimming hole to a small container pond. For the latter, look for a plastic or ceramic pot that’s two feet deep, and do a quick internet search for directions on planting a water garden inside {type “pond in a pot” in the search bar and you’ll have your pick of how-to videos}. Amphibians, squirrels, birds, deer, and many more will appreciate your efforts. As always, be sure to use native species in your water garden. The popular water hyacinth, for example, is an invasive species. The National Wildlife Foundation’s Wildlife Habitat page {} includes more details on creating a water garden, including sustainable ways to keep mosquitos away. Safety note: If you have small children on the property, you may want to opt for a simple birdbath, and/or provide fences and close supervision. Children can drown in less than six centimeters of water.

For Certification: You will need at least one of the following water sources: birdbath, lake, stream, a seasonal pool of water, ocean, water garden/pond, river, butterfly puddling area, rain garden, or a spring.

Number 3: Wildlife Need Cover

Animals will come for food and water, but if you want them to stay, they need shelter for safety from predators and protection from weather extremes.

Natural Elements: Once again, native plant species have got you – and your local critters – covered. Thorny berry bushes offer small creatures a great place to hide from large predators. A hollow log or dead tree, rock walls or piles of stones, trees, meadow grasses, and even a water garden or pond all provide shelter under which prey can hide. Create a brush hedge of downed branches, raked leaves, deadheaded flowers, and so on at the edge of your property or behind taller garden plants to offer a tidy row of shelter for many small creatures.

Kid Creations: Enlist your children to help! Clay pots propped up on the edge of a rock or with the drainage hole accessible make great toad homes in the garden, and kids love to paint them. They might also enjoy making an artistic stone pile in which small creatures can hide.

For Certification:  You’ll need to provide wildlife with at least two of the following: wooded area, a bramble patch, ground cover, rock pile or wall, cave, roosting box, dense shrubs or thicket, evergreens, brush or log pile, burrow, meadow or prairie grass.

Number 4: Wildlife Need To Raise Their Young

So far, you’ve supplied wildlife with food and water along with welcoming spots to perch, hide, hunt, and find shelter from the elements. But to support the species population, we need to offer spaces for them to reproduce and raise their young.

Housing: Bluebird boxes, bat houses, and other nesting boxes invite a variety of species to take up residence on your land.

Beehouses: You don’t need to take up beekeeping {unless you want to} – you can easily purchase a house for mason bees. These small boxes feature narrow tubes that provide a place for mason bees to reproduce and gather pollen and nectar for their young. Do a little research as to what species of bees live in your area and how you can welcome them.

Natural Elements: Those plants mentioned here that offer food and shelter also provide places for bees to build their homes.

For Certification: You’ll need at least two of the following: mature trees, meadow or prairie land, a nesting box, wetland, cave, host plants for caterpillars, dead trees or snags, dense shrubs or thickets, water garden or pond, or burrow.

Number 5: Wildlife Need Sustainable Practices

In 2017, a study in the journal Science discovered that 75 percent of honey worldwide was contaminated with traces of pesticides that act as nerve agents on bees, and 34 percent of honey samples contained neonicotinoids, a class of pesticides known to be harmful to pollinators. As of 2019, the herbicide Dicamba has destroyed “millions of dollars” worth of non-genetically modified soybeans and specialty crops, such as tomatoes and wine grapes,” according to a report in Wired, and this has had an enormous impact on agriculture: honey bees pollinate over $15 billion of crops each year, according to the USDA.

Outside of large-scale agriculture, home garden herbicides like RoundUp contain glyphosate, which a study from the University of Texas at Austin suggests destroys healthy gut bacteria in bees, making them more susceptible to infection and death.

Avoid harmful chemicals: Several safer alternatives exist for combating weeds and hungry insect pests. Target fleas and ticks with beneficial nematodes, and change standing water at least twice a week to prevent mosquitos. For large bodies of water, look into purchasing Mosquito Dunks, which use a natural insecticide bacterium called Bti that kills mosquito larvae but is safe for all other wildlife and plants. For stubborn weeds in walkways, try spraying vinegar full force in the hot sun, – they should die pretty quickly. Also, look for sustainably sourced nontoxic mulches. Some wood mulch comes from wood treated with arsenic or chromate copper arsenate {CCA for short}. Look for bags with the Mulch & Soil Council Certified product stamp on them. When bringing in municipal compost, make sure it has been tested and it’s free of pesticides and other toxins.

Compost: If you have a yard, setting up an area for a compost pile is easy enough. Compost tumblers also come in a range of sizes and take up less space. Take the extra step and house worm bins under the sink or in another warm location to provide extensive compost for the garden. Not into worms? You can buy a countertop bin to store your scraps to add to your compost pile later. Some municipalities also have compost services. For example, Troy Zero Waste {in New York State} collects residential compost at the local farmer’s market. In the Greater Boston area, Bootstrap Compost collects your compost and donates a portion of its fee to community gardening projects around the city. Which brings us to our next sustainable practice…

Create Healthy Soil: Regenerative agriculture is a relatively new term that refers to gardening and agricultural practices that “increase biodiversity, enrich the soil, improve watersheds, and enhances ecosystems.” {Check out for more info.} Rather than tilling, which disrupts soil layers, bacteria, and earthworms, the soil gets built up from the top down or from a trench containing decaying wood debris and other compostable plant material {a method called hugelkulture}. You can see how these values of biodiversity and ecosystem support fit right in with the values of certified wildlife habitat.

Herbs For Your Habitat

Certified wildlife habitats work well with permaculture or “food forest” landscaping. Defined simply, permaculture food forests create “gardens” in the style of nature, with multiple layers: a canopy of large trees, a lower tree layer, a shrub layer, an herbaceous layer, rhizosphere or root crops, surface crops, and finally climbers. Here are a few ideas to get you thinking about where you might add some layers into your habitat that will provide for both humans and wildlife.

Canopy: Identify edibles native to your area or plant species that have adapted over time for hardiness. Consider beech, oak, walnut {not black walnut, which will hinder gardens}, almond, and other nut trees. Add fruit trees like apple, crab apple, pear, kiwi, citrus, and so on.

Low Tree Layer: Depending on what USDA zone you live in, vitex {zones 6-9} or hawthorn {zones 8-10} supply berries for birds and nectar-rich flowers for other pollinators. Branches will provide shelter and a place to raise young. Smaller fruit trees can grow in this layer as well – elderberry bushes {zones 3-8} and serviceberry bushes {zones 4-8} offer food and medicine for people, blossoms and berries as food for animals, shelter from predators and the elements, and potentially even a place to raise young if the bush grows large enough.

Shrub Layer: A smaller elderberry or serviceberry might work here, or you can opt for slightly smaller varieties of shrubs, such as blackberries, raspberries, currants, and so on. Not only do you meet the need for food, but brambles also give shelter for small creatures.

Herbaceous Layer: Bee balm {Monarda, zones 3-9} provides potent medicine for people and a much-loved source of nectar for bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds. Milkweed {zones 4-9} is especially valuable to Monarch butterfly caterpillars, which feed exclusively on this plant. Unfortunately, the plant has become increasingly rare, putting Monarchs up for potential endangerment status.

Jewelweed {zones 1-2} will provide nectar for hummingbirds and butterflies and shelter for small ground creatures. Since water droplets collect on the leaves, it can enhance water provisions in your habitat, even if it’s not enough alone to qualify for certification. Add to this comfrey, lavender, and all of your other beloved favorites to complete this herb-filled layer.

Root Crops Layer: Roots provide food for humans, top greens for animals, and hopefully not too many snacks for rodents – though we know that some of these beets we’ve planted will still get nibbled.

Surface Plants: These include small plants like strawberries and ground covers like mints. Birds, pollinators, and small creatures all benefit from these species.

Climbing Plants and Vines:  These make up the seventh layer of a food forest. Consider peas, pole beans, gapes, chayote squash, jasmine, rose, hops, and more.

Display Your Certification

Whether you have a large piece of land to create a food forest or a small slice of ground outside your workplace, the above ideas should provide plenty of inspiration for meeting the five certified wildlife habitat criteria: food, water, shelter, cover, and sustainability. Finally, don’t forget to get your certification and put up your sign! You can do both at the National Wildlife Federation {}. Mountain Rose Herbs {} also sells a “Pesticide-Free Area” sign, with 25 percent of the proceeds going to the Pesticide Action Network. By proudly displaying your sign, you encourage others in your neighborhood to do the same. Create a movement with your actions!