Habitat at Home

Habitat at Home, formerly known as the Backyard Wildlife Sanctuary Program, is the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife's (WDFW) effort to encourage Washingtonians to connect with nature where they live. We hope these resources will help you discover fun and effective ways you can help support wildlife, regardless of your expertise, how much space you have, or where you live.

Girl prepares plants for garden
Get kids involved in wildlife conservation!

By creating habitat for wildlife at home, you are helping to offset the acres of habitat that are lost to housing and urban development each year in Washington. Every little bit can help decrease habitat fragmentation, especially in highly urbanized areas. 

What makes a habitat?

A habitat is a combination of four elements:

  • Food
  • Water
  • Shelter
  • Space to raise young and survive

If your garden or outdoor space provides these elements and you participate in sustainable practices, such as using native plants or reducing pesticide use, apply for a yard sign to recognize your Habitat at Home. 

If you can't provide all of the elements of a habitat - it's ok! Providing one or any combination of these elements can still benefit habitat and wildlife conservation. 

Did you know? Wildlife habitat doesn't just benefit wildlife, it can benefit you, too. Native plants are adapted to the natural rainfall in your area, and thus require less maintenance. Plants also help reduce storm runoff and can decrease the heat island effect on your home. 

Questions about wildlife around your home? Visit our Living with Wildlife page.

 

Contact staff about Habitat at Home

Apply for a Habitat at Home yard sign

Download a printable yard sign application

Elements of a habitat

habitat at home yard sign
Apply for a yard sign! Woodland Park Zoo

Food 

Plants are the best food source for wildlife. In addition to providing food, plants can also attract insect populations that can benefit wildlife. In lieu of plants, feeders can be used to supplement as well. Some bird food examples include seeds, nuts, berries, suet cakes, or pollen.

Consider a variety of plants or food sources that can provide food year round for wildlife. Pay attention to what your backyard wildlife are eating and adjust accordingly!

Water 

A birdbath or garden pond is the perfect place for animals to bathe and drink water. Be sure to check that your bath is accessible to wildlife and is kept clean. For example, the edges of decorative bird baths can be too slippery for birds to hold a grip. Rough surfaces work better!

Pro tip: Flower-pot trays are great makeshift bird baths! Learn how to create your own birdbath or amphibian pond.

Shelter

Wildlife need a place to rest and escape from the weather and predators. Some examples of good shelter include dense shrubs, a log pile, evergreens, or snags.

  • Leave dead trees: Known as snags, dead trees are valuable to wildlife, including bats and birds. Leave them if they pose no safety hazard.
  • Add bird houses: A bird house can substitute for snags.
  • Secure your house: Seal off any openings around your house. House sparrows and starlings may nest in openings, and these non-native birds are undesirable competitors for food and nesting cavities. Bird houses and feeders should be designed and managed to reduce use by sparrows and starlings.

Space to raise young 

A source of cover can often double as a place to raise young wildlife. Birdhouses, small trees, shrubs, or plants for pollinators are all good examples. You can also provide nesting materials such as yarn, pet hair, dried grass, and straw. Check out some ways you can make your own sources of cover below, in our Do-It-Yourself backyard wildlife resources section.

Sustainable practices

There are many simple ways to practice resource conservation in your Habitat at Home!

1. Compost

Learn how you can reduce waste and enrich your soil. Follow this easy guide from the Environmental Protection Agency. 

2. Create a raingarden

A rain garden is a garden of native flowers, shrubs, and other plants that are planted in a shallow depression, designed to collect rain water from places like driveways, roads, roofs, and lawns that are not effective at absorbing water. When rain flows down these areas, it collects everything humans have left behind - harmful chemicals, fertilizer, garbage, oil, and more. We call this water stormwater runoff. Rain gardens effectively filter and retain this water, reducing the amount of water that actually reaches the sewer system. Eventually, this water makes its way to the Puget Sound where it comes into contact with marine life like salmon and orcas. Washington State University tested the effectiveness of rain garden soil mixes and found that waters that were filtered by rain gardens were less lethal to fish.

Help reduce pollutants in stormwater runoff and benefit all sorts of wildlife, including salmon and orcas! Find out why they're so important, and check out these helpful classes to get you started. Refer to the Western WA Guidebook, plant chart page 70.

3. Keep cats indoors

Visit the American Bird Conservancy website for information on their "Cats Indoors!" program for ideas on how to keep your cats and wildlife safe.

4. Reduce or eliminate chemical use

Some animals, like owls, can be poisoned from eating prey that has eaten chemicals or poison. Use chemical-free options whenever possible.

5. Use pesticide-free plants

Look for plants that have not been treated with neonicotinoid pesticides. Neonicotinoids are present throughout the entire plant that has been treated with it. This includes floral nectar and pollen. Even low levels can have an impact on pollinators. Check with your nursery to verify this information if you can't find it on the label that comes with your plant. Neonicotinoids can go by many names, including but not limited to imidacloprid and clothianidin.

6. Recognize your habitat

Apply for a yard sign to recognize your backyard as a wildlife habitat through our Habitat at Home Program. For a national certification, check out the National Wildlife Federation's Certified Wildlife Habitat Program.

Do-it-yourself habitat

Birds

Shelter

Food

Safety

Looking for plants for birds? See our 'food' section above.

Pollinators

Shelter

Looking for plants for pollinators? See our 'food' section above.

Bats

Curious or unsure about bats on your property? Learn more about bats and why they're important!

Shelter

Reptiles and amphibians

Shelter

Bird feeder best practices

Bird feeders are a great way to observe the private lives of birds up close. Research shows that with responsible use, bird feeders can help birds survive and reproduce. However, they can also be a breeding ground for disease. Past outbreaks caution us to take extra care to help prevent the spread of disease at bird feeders. Additionally, they can be hotspots for other wildlife interactions that you may not want to encourage.

Proper feeder care is something you'll need to maintain if you plan to include a bird feeder in your habitat.

Selecting food for your feeder

Steller's jay dominates a peanut feeder in a backyard
Steller's jay dominates a peanut wreath Douglas Edmiston

Preventing disease at your feeders starts with the type of food you are providing. One way to help keep your feeder clean is to avoid using seed mixes, as it can encourage overcrowding and food waste. Mixes are good at attracting birds that enjoy both large and smaller seeds, but unless both types of birds visit your feeder on a regular basis, the leftover seeds that often are pushed to the ground can be a recipe for mold and attracting rats, mice, coyotes, bears, skunks, racoons, and other wildlife. This can lead to wildlife that become habituated to being fed and can pose future problems. For this reason, it is also best to only put out one day’s worth of food in your feeder so that it won’t spoil before it’s eaten.

If you plan to offer suet, consider putting it out only during winter months, as it spoils quickly. Winter is also the safest season to put out your bird feeders, as bears are hibernating and less likely to stumble upon your tasty birdseed buffet. For this reason, we encourage limited bird feeder use through the spring, summer, and fall, especially in areas that bears frequent.

Using seeds that have already been hulled can also prevent waste, as hulls will be dropped to the ground anyways when birds are feeding. Start with smaller quantities and add more as needed. If you’d still like to offer a variety of seeds, opt for several bird feeders that are well-spaced from one another that each hold their own type of seed. If using a platform feeder, be sure to clean it daily with new seed put out. These feeders get particularly messy and can pose a greater risk to keeping birds healthy.

Key takeaways
  • Avoid seed mixes
  • Add a day's worth of food at a time to avoid spoilage
  • Use seeds with hulls already removed
  • Space feeders apart from one another
  • Clean your feeder regularly

Additional resources

Feeling crafty? Make your own bird feeder and food!

Cleaning your bird feeder

Finches at a tube feeder
Finches eat at a tube feeder

Cleaning your feeders is critical to keeping your birds happy and healthy. We recommend cleaning feeders daily by first rinsing well with warm, soapy water. Then, soak in a solution of nine parts water to one part bleach for 10 minutes. Alternatively, you can spray the surfaces with this solution if that’s easier and leave on for 10 minutes. Rinse well with cool water and let dry for at least 10 minutes to air out any fumes.

If you also provide a birdbath, this cleaning regimen works for that too.  It’s equally important for birds to have access to clean drinking water! Just be sure to either remove or cover the birdbath while it is soaking in bleach to avoid pets, children, or animals from encountering the bleach.

It’s also important that the areas below and around your feeder be kept free of seed and feces that can create unsanitary conditions. Placing feeders above surfaces that are easy to clean like decks or concrete will make the cleanup much quicker and easier. You can also opt to place a mesh screen or mat beneath feeders. Additionally, you can opt to attract birds that are less messy eaters, like chickadees and nuthatches.

Key takeaways

  • Rinse with warm, soapy water
  • Soak for 10 minutes in solution of 9 parts water, 1 part bleach
  • Rinse with cool water
  • Dry for 10+ minutes
  • Place your feeder above an easy-to-clean surface

Preventing bird-window collisions

Birds face many challenges in the modern world, especially in urban environments. Unfortunately, window collisions are one of the leading causes of bird mortality. Bird feeders encourage birds to spend their time flying close to homes and buildings, increasing their chances of colliding with a window. Consider placing your bird feeder (and bird bath) either over 30 feet from windows or within three feet of windows. Additionally, adding window clings or another collision-reducing product can break up the solid patter of shiny window surfaces and reduce strikes.

Additional resources

Feeling crafty? Try this with kids!

 

Intro to native plant gardening

Gardening with native plants benefits both you and your local wildlife! A native plant is one that occurs naturally in a specific geographic region or habitat and was not brought there by humans. These plants have evolved alongside native wildlife and are adapted to local environmental conditions. Native plants are low maintenance, decrease pollution, and benefit wildlife and the environment. 

Native plants are low maintenance

Native plants are adapted to the local rainfall and other environmental conditions. They also tend to be hardier than non-native landscaping plants and will thrive without the use of pesticides or fertilizers. And, native plants are better at combatting weeds than non-native plants! Their minimal care and maintenance make them a great addition to any garden. If you struggle to keep plants alive, you should give native gardening a try!

Native plants decrease pollution

Native plants are more efficient at removing carbon dioxide from the air than non-native plants due to their deep root systems which allow them to store more carbon. Additionally, those deep roots increase the soil's capacity to store water and stabilize the soil. Using native plants to slow and prevent erosion is also commonly used in habitat restoration to protect areas that are important to local wildlife.

The roots of native plants also help to reduce stormwater runoff and flooding, helping to keep harmful chemicals out of our waterways. Grass lawns are ineffective at absorbing and filtering water and create almost as much runoff as asphalt. A great example of how native plants are used to address these challenges is a rain garden! Learn more in our 'Sustainable Practices' section.

Native plants benefit wildlife and environment

Native plants are best suited to support the native wildlife they evolved alongside. They support a greater number of species and life cycles than non-native plants. Research shows that native plants are four times more attractive to pollinators than non-natives. Another study indicates that native oaks support more than 550 different species of butterflies and moths alone, while some non-native species support just five, and other studies show similar patterns. By providing local wildlife with plants that are better suited to support their habitat needs, we are increasing their chances of survival against the many challenges they face.

Where to find native plants

You can find native plants at many nurseries and retailers, but it can be difficult to know what to look for if you're not prepared before you go. Most county conservation districts offer native plant sales in early spring and can help you decide what to look for based on your needs. Here are some resources to get you started.