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CULTIVATING A WILDLIFE WINTER WONDERLAND

by Kathryn Wells


Neatly manicured gardens appear aesthetically pleasing, but on closer inspection, something is often missing from the carefully clipped landscape: life! Even within suburban properties, a whole wildlife world exists—or has the potential to live if the right conditions prevail.


Three necessities: water, food, & shelter

Wildlife requires the same three fundamental needs as humans: water, food, and shelter. Species ranging from butterflies to bobcats co-exist in suburban landscapes, and while you may not want to invite coyotes for dinner, wouldn’t you delight in hearing a songbird at breakfast?


Water is the first essential element in supporting wildlife habitation, and receptacles can be as large and elaborate as a constructed pond or as small and simple as a shallow pan. Because, like humans, wildlife comes in all shapes and sizes, one size does not fit all. So, for example, plan to supplement a birdbath with something low to the ground—perhaps a plant saucer with a few large pebbles, so the smaller organisms aren’t stranded. To prevent disease and discourage mosquitoes, keep the water source receptacles clean and freshly filled.


Food becomes scarce in the winter, and the very best way to help our feathered (and non-feathered) friends is to go native—native plants, that is. Incorporating a diverse selection of natives in your landscape provides a varietal food source in the form of berries, fruits, nectar, and seeds. Consider each plant’s blooming and fruiting season, and plan for diversification to ensure that something is always in maturity. Keep in mind that Texas is a big state with many types of ecoregions. Denton County is mostly Blackland Prairie with a strip of Cross Timbers (Oak Woods) running through the center. A plant indigenous to the west Texas Trans Peco ecoregion is not the best choice for our area. The plants native to north central Texas will withstand our particular temperature and rainfall extremes, thrive in mostly alkaline clay (or sandy) soils and resist diseases. And, importantly, they nurture wildlife that is also native to our eco-region, keeping the circle of life in check.


Shelter is the last—but not least—factor in the triad of wildlife requirements, and it's often the biggest void in most suburban landscapes. Immaculate maintenance strips the habitat of important cover for nesting and protection. In winter, when deciduous shrubs and trees have shed their leaves, and most plants are dead or dormant, cultural practice usually includes cutting back stems to the ground. However, such conventional maintenance leaves a gaping habitat hole as dry plant stems provide predator protection for small wildlife and nesting habitat for native bees. Consider your landscape vertically from the ground up: bird species such as sparrows dwell in grasses while others—mockingbirds, for instance—prefer understory trees, and high-flyers like swallows seek the tallest canopies.


Living on the edge

Areas where prairies and forests meet support the greatest variety of wildlife—a convergence known as the "edge effect.” Since Denton County supports both prairies and forests, we have the great pleasure and privilege of saving, shaping, and stewarding habitat for those living on (and in!) the edge. As you’re planning, planting, and pruning your winter landscape, resist monoculture and reduce maintenance by including native wildflowers, grasses, shrubs, and trees with ranging heights and revolving maturities. Evergreens are an important consideration, especially fruiting species, which will provide year-round food and shelter for wildlife.


Texas Parks and Wildlife offers a helpful and informative fact sheet for urban wildlife commonly found in our area (see Resources). This winter, give our native wildlife the edge by helping to protect their water, food, and shelter sources. It'll be a beautiful sight; you'll be happy each night (to see wildlife) walking (and flying) in a winter wonderland.


To learn more about urban wildscapes, click on this link:

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