female cardinal feeding her young in a nest

Northern Cardinals feed their nestlings insects.

Updated: February 22, 2023

Your backyard can become a miniature wildlife refuge, attracting many different kinds of birds and wild animals.  To be a haven for wildlife, your yard must provide the basic needs of the animals: cover, water, and food throughout all four seasons.  The key to success is providing all of the elements in a suitable arrangement.  Below are ways to improve existing areas on your property such as gardens, lawns, and natural areas. Contact our horticulture consultants at Ask Extension for additional suggestions.

Plant native plants – They provide natural food sources and cover for birds, small mammals, butterflies, and beneficial insects. Native plants offer ornamental value and adapt to our local environment. Once established they require less water, maintenance, and fewer chemicals. Include a variety of evergreen and deciduous trees, shrubs, groundcovers, vines, grasses, and herbaceous perennials in your garden. Some good choices include American holly, serviceberry, persimmon and oak species. 

Consider replacing some of your lawn (Lawn Alternatives) – Lawns provide little support for wildlife. Plant islands (clusters) of native vegetation.  Connect islands of plants near each other to reduce open space that animals have to cross to feed or rest. Include a mix of evergreen and deciduous trees of various heights, surrounded by shrubs, groundcovers, and perennials. Plant diversity attracts a variety of wildlife. Consider native plants first but it is okay to mix in non-invasive plants.

Provide water – Backyard ponds or streams provide water for wildlife and encourage amphibian breeding. Provide birdbaths and shallow containers of water on the ground in shade. Birds benefit, as well as, toads, frogs, turtles, spiders and beneficial insects. Stones placed in the bottom of containers provide sure footing and allow insects to drink without drowning. Change water frequently to discourage mosquitoes.

Create natural areas – Plant a wildflower meadow or a pollinator garden to provide food (nectar, seed) and shelter for birds, butterflies, and beneficial insects.

Add a trail in a wooded area or a path in your garden to view wildlife.

Leave a border of your lawn unmowed. Insects are attracted to weedy areas that provide food for birds and other wildlife.

Build a brush pile to provide protection for ground-dwelling birds and small mammals. Pile prunings from your yard near the edge of a wooded area.

Leave a dead tree (snag) standing in a wooded area unless it is a hazard. The old tree can provide a home for woodpeckers and cavity-nesting birds. Insects in the wood provide food.

Create vertical habitat – Plant vines on arbors and fences. The native trumpet honeysuckle and annual climbers such as scarlet runner bean and cardinal climber are nectar sources for hummingbirds.

Remove non-native invasive plants – Invasives outcompete the native vegetation that wildlife depends on for food and shelter.

Small spaces – Plant window boxes and containers on decks and balconies with a mix of shrubs, annuals, perennials, and herbs to attract butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds.

Plant a butterfly garden – Butterflies add beauty and help pollinate flowering plants. A variety of nectar plants for adult butterflies and host plants (food) for the caterpillars will attract them. Milkweed species is a popular nectar and host plant for the Monarch butterfly. For more information on butterfly gardening, a selection of nectar and host plants, and a local butterfly list see the Washington Area Butterfly Club.

Attract pollinators and beneficial insects – Many beneficial insects such as flower flies and parasitic wasps prey on garden pests.  Grow plants that offer food and shelter.

Plant a wide variety of flowering annuals and perennials that will bloom over the entire growing season. Good choices are plants in the following families: daisy (marigold, daisies, asters, mums), carrot (dill, fennel, anise, yarrow, parsley), and mint (all mints and thymes). 

Provide food for bees – Due to insects and diseases honeybee populations have declined and native bees such as bumble bees, mining bees, and sweat bees help provide pollination. Bees gather pollen and drink nectar. Plant native trees, shrubs, and flowers that bloom throughout the season to support the bees. Some plants that attract bees include Blackeyed Susan, goldenrod, New England aster, buttonbush, blueberry, milkweed, black gum, and serviceberry. Many of the above plants provide seed and nesting sites that are attractive to birds and other wildlife.

Install a Bat House – Bats eat many different insect pests including mosquitoes. Bats prefer open areas and a nearby water source such as a pond, river, or stream.  The Maryland Department of Natural Resources provides information on bat habitats and building a bat house. 

Reduce Pesticide Use – Pesticides can harm beneficial insects, wildlife, and the insects they eat.

Birds - To attract birds to your backyard try to recreate the layers of native vegetation found in a woodland setting. Plant tall trees, understory trees, shrubs, and groundcovers in clusters. Include a variety of deciduous and evergreen species. Evergreens planted in groups offer protection from the wind during the winter. The diverse plant layers offer food and habitat for a variety of birds and wildlife.

Plant food for birds. Select a variety of native trees, shrubs, vines, grasses, and perennials that produce edible fruits, seeds, and nuts throughout the year. Some good choices include: Evergreen trees such as spruce, eastern red cedar, and American holly; summer fruiting plants such as serviceberry, blueberry, elderberry, raspberry, and choke cherry; fall fruiting plants such as winterberry, and persimmon; and winter persistent fruits such as crabapple, sumac, and American cranberry bush viburnum. Oaks produce acorns and perennials and grasses provide seeds that are eaten by many birds. 

Insects make their homes in native plants and provide food for birds. Rake some leaf litter under your shrubs and trees to provide homes for insects and food for ground feeding birds.

Provide a water source for birds. You can use birdbaths, saucers, shallow basins, and trashcan lids on the ground under large plants. Place a few stones in the containers, if they are plastic, for sure footing. Keep clean and filled with fresh water,  Change frequently to discourage mosquitoes.

Put up a birdhouse (nest box) in your yard to encourage nesting. You can watch birds raise their young. Make sure your yard provides the right habitat. Some bird species that use birdhouses (nest boxes) are Bluebirds, Purple Martins, Tree swallows, and wrens.

Clean out and inspect existing birdhouses in your yard to make sure they are in good condition for the breeding season.

Feeding birds – Supplement birds natural diet with purchased seed, suet, etc. Winter through early spring are popular times to feed when natural food sources are less available. Birds can be fed year round. It is okay to stop feeding for short periods or permanently. Birds have evolved to adapt to different types of food sources. Cornell Lab of Ornithology is an excellent resource on feeding birds.  Wild bird stores are also good sources of information and for feeders and seed. Make sure to keep all feeders clean.

Hummingbirds – The Ruby-throated hummingbird is the only hummingbird species found in Maryland. Their diet consists of small insects, spiders, tree sap, and nectar. Many plants are pollinated by hummingbirds. Plant a variety of trees, shrubs, vines, and flowers that bloom from mid-April throughout the summer season to lure hummers. They like tubular flowers that are orange, red, and pink. Some good nectar sources are: azaleas, coralberry, rose of Sharon, bee balm, columbine, cardinal flower, trumpet creeper, and tulip poplar.

Put up a nectar feed to supplement the hummingbird’s natural diet. Place your feeder in a shady spot to delay spoiling of the nectar on hot summer days. To make nectar add one part sugar to four parts boiling water and stir. Let cool. You may need to change the nectar every 3-4 days and more frequently during the summer. Fermented liquids can harm hummers. Clean feeders before refilling.