We often imagine wildlife as exotic creatures fronm faraway lands. After all, what could be more ecciting than African lions, polar bears, and birds of paradise? Those of use who live in urban and suburban areas nay even forget that our very own Texas has any wildlife at all. Where we now have tracts of single family dwellings, sprawling malls, and concrete parking lots, wildlife such as kitfoxes, meadowlarks, whiptail lizards, and bobcats once roamed. Where we now have seas of St. Augustine, pansies, and begonias, there were once waves of Indiangrass, Gulf Coast muhly, purple asters, butterfly-weed, and winecups. Wildscapes is a program that can help us restore our private lands to these native plants and animals. By creating a Wildscape, we can produce a well-balanced habitat which invites native wildlife into our own backyards.
Why Wildscaping is Necessary
Texas is blessed with nearly 170 million acres of mostly rural countryside from the Chihuahuan Desert to pine forests. As a public land steward, Texas Parks and Wildlife has been engaged in habitat restoration on wildlife management areas, state parks, and state natural areas totaling over one million acres. The remaining land, over 97% of the total acreage, is managed by private landowners. In order to sustain habitat for all species, both game and nongame, we must also address areas of land held by the private landowners. Private land stewardship insures the perpetuation of wildlife habitat through sustainable agricultural and wildlife management practices.
Changes in wildlife populations today are a reflection of progressive alteration and loss of habitat over time. As grasslands are converted to shrub lands and forests to pasture, wetlands are drained, and bottomland hardwoods are lost, dramatic changes in wildlife populations have also occurred. The physical structure of a habitat reflects the function of that habitat and the types of species that will find a home there. As a habitat changes, either due to natural factors such as flood or fire, or by the hand of man, so will the wildlife populations that depend on that habitat.
Ecologists today frequently use the term "habitat fragmentation." Habitat fragmentation occurs where discontinuous land use creates irregular patches of habitats across the landscape, breaking up large blocks of pristine habitat such as forests, grasslands and marshes. Today, habitat fragmentation is occurring rapidly in suburban fringe areas as development expands into former farm and ranch operations. Large land holdings are being increasingly subdivided. Roads, boundary fences, and utility easements are being constructed. If habitats become fragmented enough, the survival of many organisms will be threatened. Many exotic plants initially intended for backyard landscapes can also escape into the wild, with a devastating effect on both native plant and wildlife populations. Seemingly harmless exotic landscaping plants such as Chinese tallow have been known to completely replace native plant species, for instance; while introduced insects such as the red imported fire ant have altered entire ecosystems by preying on native insects, as well as the eggs and young of small reptiles, birds, and mammals.
More than three quarters of the population of Texas is located in six cities: Austin, Dallas, El Paso, Fort Worth, Houston, and San Antonio. As these urban areas have grown, the land has changed from forests, prairies, and agricultural areas to suburban development. This transformation has resulted in extensive habitat fragmentation, creating land that is rendered nearly unusable to native wildlife because of the lack of connecting corridors. As Texas' human population continues to soar, more and more space is consumed to suit our needs. As a consequence, wildlife has been progressively squeezed out of the habitat they need to survive. Happily, private residences and other developed properties hold a great potential for restoring quality, quantity, and richness of the wildlife habitat that has been displaced. Wildscapes can provide the bridges, corridors, and buffers to link privately owned lands to natural areas, parks, and green belts. Wildscaping translates into a total increase in healthy wildlife habitat and natural beauty.
Benefits of Wildscaping
There are educational, environmental, economic, and aesthetic benefits to creating backyard habitat to attract wildlife. To realize the educational benefits of Wildscapes, simply observe young children encountering nature in the backyard for the first time. A wildlife garden can become the setting for learning about the life histories of birds, small mammals, insects, plants, and other creatures. By observing first-hand migration, hibernation, reproduction, and predation, children will likely learn more about the workings of nature than they could glean from books. By discovering the intricate balances in the natural world, Texans of all ages become better able to make informed decisions concerning the future of our community and the world. We can better understand important local environmental issues and how they impact our lives.
By maintaining a healthy wildlife habitat, we create healthier living for people. Plants in richly vegetated open spaces in urban and suburban areas absorb carbon dioxide and give off oxygen, thus renewing our air supply. Plant foliage captures dust and other pollutants, thus purifying the air we breathe. Vegetated areas aid in erosion control and the conservation of soils. Plant roots hold soils in place while plant parts above ground impede water runoff. A diverse landscape containing many species of native plants not only supports an abundance of wildlife, it also is less prone to largescale devastation from insect pests or diseases. Planting coniferous and deciduous trees, shrubs, and especially native grasses is an excellent erosion control measure, while also providing much needed cover and nesting sites for resident birds.
The economic benefits of creating a backyard habitat are also significant. Maintaining expansive manicured lawns, clipped hedges, and water-guzzling exotic plants can be many times more expensive than caring for native vegetation. Once established, native plant species require only minimal attention from the home gardener. This translates into a reduction of extensive soil amendments, less watering, and a reduced need for chemical pest control, chemical fertilizers, and pampering. Not only that, properly placed trees and shrubs can save home heating and cooling costs. Planted on the west or southwest side of a home, large deciduous shade trees will shelter the home from the onslaught of the hot summer sun. In the winter, the trees lose their leaves and allow the sun's rays to warm the house. Finally, planting or preserving vegetated slopes with cover for wildlife will also slow water and wind movement, decrease soil erosion, help replenish ground water reserves, reduce runoff, and decrease stream flow fluctuation. Conserving soils and safeguarding water quality improves overall ecosystem stability and saves money in the long run.
One has only to watch hummingbirds flying anxiously from flower to flower, chickadees and titmice snatching seeds from a feeder, or dazzling butterflies tilting lazily from blossom to blossom to understand that wildlife habitat is not only functional, but also aesthetically pleasing. People yearn to get back to nature. They have a compelling need for contact with the natural world. A Wildscape gives us a sense of place, keeps us in touch with the passing seasons, and affords an avenue of escape from the chaos of everyday life.
The Trouble with Lawns
To observe the wonders of wildlife, we need to entice their presence. Unfortunately, expansive, well-manicured yards with clipped turf and only tall trees do not support a great diversity of wildlife. Despite the allure of a rich carpet of plushness under your feet, the truth is that a neatly manicured lawn extending from property line to property line will be nearly as devoid of wildlife as a parking lot. Unfortunately, the only species which particularly benefit from oceans of closely cropped turf are those "weedy," undesirable species such as grackles, starlings, and house sparrows. The greater the habitat diversity your property provides, the more types of wildlife will choose to visit your yard. A primary method to increase habitat diversity is to replace expansive lawns with a selection of native wildflowers, shrubs, and trees in a well thought-out arrangement.
A multilayered landscape containing many species of native plants not only supports an abundance of wildlife, it also provides insurance against the depredation of insect pests. Landscapes that contain single species (monocultures) are impoverished systems and are highly vulnerable to diseases which can sweep in and wipe out everything.
Planting a variety of coniferous and deciduous trees, shrubs, and especially native grasses is an excellent way to diversify your habitat. It will also provide much needed cover and nesting sites to resident birds and other wildlife. Flowering plants in the legume family (those plants which produce a dry fruit, such as bean plants) provide nectar for bees and butterflies, while grasses offer larval food sources to several species of butterflies, particularly skippers. Both legumes and grasses also protect soils from erosion and excessive leaching.
Another good reason for growing less lawn is that fertilizers and lawn chemicals invariably make their way into ponds and streams. Excess fertilizers foul our waters by increasing nutrient levels and encouraging heavy algal blooms. Finally, watering lawns accounts for 40-60% of residential water consumption, making lawn maintenance not only a chore but also a drain on the pocketbook and the water supply.
Consider reducing the size of your lawn areas and replacing them with natural ground covers, native grasses, trees, shrubs, vines, and wildflowers. If you desire to have areas of turf grass, try grasses that are appropriate for your soil and climate. Buffalograss (Buchloe dactyloides), for example, is an excellent choice. It is native to many areas of Texas and is quite drought-tolerant. Mow any turf at a higher blade setting (no shorter than three inches) to reduce water use, and resist the urge to bag the clippings. Allow the clippings to remain in the turf to return nutrients to the soils. Less lawn means less water and chemical application, and less mowing. Who can argue with that?
For more information on caring for lawns, see A Green Guide to Yard Care, an informative brochure produced by the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission, and the "Don't Bag It" program sponsored by the Texas Agricultural Extension Service.
Texas Wildscapes Backyard Habitat Certification Program
As you watch your Wildscape habitat develop, let the world (or at least your neighborhood) know about your efforts. Texas Parks and Wildlife is awarding official Texas Wildscape certifications to sites that fulfill the minimum requirements of providing food, water, and shelter to wildlife. Simply fill out the Texas Wildscapes Certification Application explaining how you provided habitat for wildlife and return it to Texas Parks and Wildlife. Once your application is approved, you will receive a personalized certificate and weather-resistant backyard sign that identifies your property as an officially certified Texas Wildscape. [The application can be downloaded at http://www.tpwd.state.tx.us/nature/wildscapes/wldscapp.htm.]
For more information, call:
Texas Wildscapes Coordinator
Wildlife Diversity Program