Couple Extends Hearty Welcome To Wildlife

STAFFORD, VA–Pam Sheely and her husband, Alan, sit on the deck of their Stafford County home, they can see a variety of birds, squirrels, groundhogs, turtles, frogs, hawks and perhaps a deer. Raccoons and opossums join the backyard menagerie after dark.

With that view, you might expect to find the Sheely home somewhere on the county’s frontier. Actually, the couple reside in Shadow Woods, a subdivision next to Interstate 95 in busy North Stafford.

It’s more than just coincidence, however, that so many critters have found their way to their property. You see, the Sheelys’ half-acre is recognized as an official wildlife habitat . Pam Sheely is a science teacher at A.G. Wright Middle School. And when she learned about backyard wildlife habitat programs two years ago, she thought it would be a good project for some of her students. However, since there was an expansion project planned at the school site, Sheely decided to implement the program at home with her husband’s help.

“We just wanted to improve our little plot of the world and help people and animals co-exist,” she said. “We worked hard, but we enjoyed it. The work isn’t different than what you would normally do to maintain your yard.”

The Sheely property has neighboring homes on both sides and a line of trees at the far edge of the backyard. The first step was to stop using any fertilizers or chemicals that could be harmful to the environment.

“We started using organic-based natural fertilizers,” Pam Sheely said. “Then we added bird feeders and squirrel feeders, and we started putting corn in the yard. Next, we planted some berry-bearing bushes that provided both food and nesting places for birds. We also created a small pond that sort of fit into the natural landscape.”

I asked if the project was expensive.

“Not really,” Sheely replied. “You can make it as expensive as your resources allow.

“We started buying commercial birdhouses. But then my husband decided we could build our own. So, we got scrap timber and screen material and that worked fine.”

The couple’s efforts quickly won the approval of local wildlife.

“We’ve counted 116 squirrels during the past two years,” she said. “I’m sure we’ve counted some more than once, but we’re using binoculars and getting better at looking for individual markings.”

Sheely said a family of Groundhogs moved in next to the pile of grass clippings near the tree line. A big Bullfrog, now nicknamed “Jabba the Hutt,” took a liking to the pond. And at least one squirrel became so tame that it would sit on the deck railing and accept food by hand.

I found that surprising considering the dogs. Oh, I didn’t mention the dogs?
Yes, the Sheelys have four pit bulls.

“They’re house dogs mostly,” Sheely explained. “And they’re well-trained. Actually, over time, it seems like the dogs and the animals communicated the rules to each other. We always announce our presence when we take the dogs outside at night. And if the dogs are in the yard at other times, the animals tend to fade into the trees and then come back later.”

But while the dogs have abided by the “rules,” Sheely said the two Cooper’s Hawks that have taken residence in a nearby pine tree have not. “They’re meat-eaters,” she said. “And our dove population went down when they arrived. But we accepted that it’s all just part of the cycle of life. These animals are not pets and we’re providing for all of them.”

In order to receive official certification, the Sheelys had to submit a portfolio that included photographs and a design of the property that detailed each tree, bush and water source. A certified property must provide the four basic elements that all wildlife need: food, water, cover and places to raise a family. It also must employ sustainable gardening practices. The more variety you have in your landscaping, the more variety you’ll have in the wildlife you attract.

Sheely stressed that it’s possible to take part in the wildlife habitat program without letting your property become a wilderness. “It’s easy to incorporate with normal landscaping,” she said. “Our yard is neat and well-landscaped around the house, but then is less pristine as you move to areas that could shelter wildlife.”

For tips on how to garden for wildlife, check out the WindStar Wildlife Institute website at