Where the Wild Things Are

EDITOR’S NOTE: Improving wildlife habitat is a worldwide issue as shown in this article.  Jackie French is the author of The Secret World of Wombats (Angus and Robertson/Harper Collins). The Amazing World of Wallabies and Roos will be out early next year. See how similar and different her habitat is with yours.

By Jackie French
ATTRACTING birds and animals to a suburban garden is a matter of providing a few basics, writes Jackie French.

I’m writing this with a Wombat sitting on my foot (his name is Feisty) and a Lyrebird digging up the potato patch outside the window. In other words, I live in the bush in Australia.  In fact, at times the bush lives in my house, too.

However, most of us assume the bush is the best–and only–place for wildlife. But with a bit of dedication city gardens can have even more wildlife than the bush–a few afternoons’ work a year will provide wildlife with a lot more food and shelter than nature ever managed.

Why bother attracting native animals to your garden?
Partly because of the sheer joy of living in a complex world with more than humans for company. Partly because wild animals deserve a share of the planet–not just our pets, and those animals we find useful.

But also because many of us these days have little contact with the natural world and perhaps– just perhaps–working out how to bring wildlife back to our cities might help us understand our roles in ecology. Maybe a bit of micromanagement at home might lead to better macro management of the planet–especially for our children.

Backyard wildlife may also be the answer if you’re looking for a pet that feeds itself even when you’re on holiday. Watching birds or opossums feeding in your garden can be magic for a child. Many lizards will become used to humans quite quickly, especially if you’re willing to sit still for long periods with small amounts of food on a rock beside you. But always tell children that these animals are wild–no touching or petting. Teach children they’re the animals’ protectors, not their owners.

What animals?
You’re unlikely to get Wombats or Kangaroos in a suburban garden (except one near the bush), no matter how wildlife-friendly your garden.

But you can encourage Ringtail Opossums, Brush-tailed Opossums, an extraordinary range of reptiles such as Blue-tongue Lizards (which can become quite tame), Skinks and Geckos, small insect-eating bats, flying foxes, butterflies and dozens–if not more than 100–different bird species.

And putting out the welcome mat for an extraordinary diversity of wildlife is as simple as following the following steps.

Provide water
All birds and animals need water and there’s often not much around when they need it. Many springs and soaks have been drained and trees, with their water-filled hollows, have been cut down.

Be wary of bird baths, though. Birds and animals may start to rely on your bird bath for their water, then when you go away no one will fill it up. Instead, use a device consisting of a big container suspended on a drinking dish that you fill every week or two. (Such devices are often used for chooks.) Or leave a single dripper slowly refreshing the bird bath while you are away.

Whatever method you choose, ensure the water is constant, in the shade, clean and fresh and in the same place every day–most birds and animals are creatures of habit. Also ensure there’s a spot for birds to perch and preferably a spot where they can observe and wait their turn.

Provide year-round fruit, nuts, seeds and flowers
Flowers attract insects, which are food for insect-eating bats, birds and lizards, and provide nectar for honeyeaters and other birds. And the fruit and nuts will be food for birds, possums, fruit bats and even some lizards (our blue-tongues love a nibble of ripe avocado).

If you don’t want to make the effort of pruning, feeding and preventing fruit fly, try the following: plant one crab-apple, especially “gorgeous” or another with good-size fruit; a cherry guava; male and female kiwifruit vines, or one of the small “wild” varieties that don’t need male and female; two avocados (Currawongs love avocados, and once they’ve pecked a hole in them small birds eat them too); a lilly pilly; a calamondin (often mislabelled as cumquat); an olive; and a tamarillo. Smaller native figs, such as the sandpaper fig, are great if you have room. Add a few lomandra or poa tussocks for seeds.

To ensure you have flowers year-round try a patch of winter-blooming red hot pokers and a mix of long-flowering varieties of salvia. Don’t cut out mistletoe–several species of butterfly need mistletoe and if your tree is healthy mistletoe won’t harm it.

For real five-star wildlife tucker, add a wattle, one of the smaller eucalypts, a bursaria bush, two thryptomene, two leptospermums and melaleucas; the birds, bats, possums and butterflies will be ecstatic.

Provide shelter
Everything needs a safe place to live. Low-growing and thorny or prickly shrubs with lots of litter underneath offer excellent protection for lizards and frogs and bigger thickets are great places for small birds to nest. Mossy rocks or rock walls (not the concreted variety) and terraces with sleepers or small rock walls are great places for lizards to bask or shelter. Even paling fences are pretty good.

To create a nice thicket, cover your fences with rambling roses and plant a group of three or more of the pricklier grevilleas, such as G. rosmarinifolia or G. juniperina and their hybrids. The taller, shrubbier salvias also make great habitats for small birds and lizards. All of these plants are very drought tolerant and easy to look after.

Finally, add at least one tall tree with strong branches for birds to perch on.

10 hints for wilder suburbs
? Keep cats and dogs indoors after dusk.

? Ensure trees and roosting spots are safe from cats–put wide collars around tree trunks and large tree branches to stop cats encroaching while bats are feeding or sleeping.

? Allow some of your lawn to go to seed for seed-eating birds. Long grass doesn’t look messy as long as it’s much the same height.

? Leave spiders’ webs on your eaves for birds to use in their nests.

? A small, solar-powered garden light will attract insects for night-flying birds and bats – and for frogs, too, if it’s near a pond.

? Use mulch. Mulch feeds worms and other small creatures, and they’ll feed birds and lizards. Mulch is also a great shelter for all sorts of things. It’s good for gardens, too.

? Don’t scrape lichen off trees–it not only provides nest material but harbours a wide range of insects, many of which are beneficial to trees and can be food for wildlife.

? Paperbarks and other trees with loose bark also provide nesting material. No paperbarks? Leave the castings from your brush or comb near the bird feeder and they’ll probably be foraged instead.

? Cover chimney tops with chicken wire to stop opossums falling in.

? Avoid pesticides and herbicides. When birds, bats, lizards and other creatures eat the insects killed by pesticides, they may die, too, or it may affect their breeding. Herbicides may also kill frogs and tadpoles. –Sidney Morning Herald