Whether you live between acres of sprawling land or overlook part of the city's sidewalk, if you pay close enough attention, you need to see wildlife right outside your door. Familiarize yourself with your non-human neighbors with these 10 tips for observing wildlife in the backyard. After all, the animals are there – whether you notice them or not.
1. Get curious.
Wildlife watching is a great way to meet the other people in your yard. "You can hike and walk to find something, but it's really valuable to sit quietly in a room and see what's coming," said Brian Hess, wildlife biologist at the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection . tells Mental Floss. Charismatic creatures like deer and bear are exciting, but you don't have to wait for something big to stroll around the area. If you look between the branches of a shrub, you may find a bird nest in the green. If you move a stone, you will likely spot worms that writhe in the damp earth. Also try to vary your routine as different animals become more active depending on the time of day.
2. Don't disturb the wildlife.
Treat wildlife viewing as if you were shopping in a store with things you can't afford: look basically, but don't touch. "My general rule of thumb when observing wildlife is that if they change their behavior due to my presence, it probably means that I am too close and should withdraw," says Hess.
If you keep your distance, it will help you both and the wildlife will stay safe ̵
Also avoid feeding wild animals (birdhouses are fine – more on that later). Don't throw your dog's uneaten nibbles or your dinner out of the back door, as teaching wildlife to rely on humans for food can lead to undesirable learning behavior and conflict between humans and animals.
3. Make your garden animal friendly.
One of the best ways to attract wildlife is to add native plants to your garden. "You can put an oak tree in your garden, watch life, and help rebuild your local ecosystem," said Doug Tallamy, a professor of entomology at the University of Delaware, Mental Floss. A perfectly cared for grass stain or an exotic shrub may look beautiful, but it does not create a suitable habitat for many animals. Most insects are specialized feeds, which means that they have evolved over millions of years to eat certain plants. Basically, if you want to see more monarchs, you should plant some milkweed.
Little space in the yard? Urban residents can put pots of indigenous plants in window boxes. Adding just a small piece of green helps urban animals, who may not be able to access as many resources as their rural colleagues.
Finding native plants is pretty easy. Organizations like the National Wildlife Federation and the Audubon Society (and if you're in California, the California Native Plant Society) have online databases that you can search.
And if you attract birds, avoid turning your garden into a stage for commercial windex crashes. If your glass is flawless, stick some decals or tempera paint on your windows to avoid bird collisions.
4. Take care of your bird feeder.
Although native plants are a great way to attract wildlife, you can add various birdhouses to your farm's offerings [PDF]. Make sure that you clean your automatic feeders regularly so that the seeds do not get wet and form mold. You should also remove any trays that are scattered on the floor and that can collect harmful bacteria. If you live in an area with bears, check with your state's wildlife agency for seasonal best practices for bird feeders because Ursines like to eat high-fat, high-protein seeds.
5. Provide water.
A tub of water in a shady place outside your home helps your residents and thirsty people. If you can, put a large stone or brick in the water bowl and fill the pool so that only part of the object is submerged. This gives insects and other animals an extra seat to land on, as it may be difficult for them to drink water from a steep dog bowl. The rock also gives small creatures an additional escape if they accidentally fall into the tub and swim unplanned. Make sure you clean the water bowl regularly – standing water can quickly become a mixture of dirt, guano and mosquito eggs.
6. Look forward to insects!
Put the insecticide away and hug your resident creepers instead. You can have fun identifying the beetles and butterflies that populate your garden. And about 90 percent of flowering plants are dependent on pollinators. This bee hopping around in your garden is not only cute, but also plays an important role in your local ecosystem.
While insects are intrinsically fascinating, you can also consider them as food for larger creatures. They are a nutritious meal for animals such as birds, lizards, frogs, squirrels, bats, possums and much more. Caterpillars in particular are a great source of maggots for native and migratory bird populations. "If you want chickadees to breed in your garden, you must have 6000 to 9000 caterpillars, otherwise the chickadees cannot raise their young," Tallamy told Mental Floss.
7. Use your senses when looking for wildlife.
There is a reason why avid bird watchers get to know their birdsong. "Listening to wildlife is a great way to pay attention," John Rowden, senior director for bird-friendly communities at the Audubon Society, told Mental Floss. "Learn the sounds and it will help you identify the animals." And if your garden suddenly bursts out with a cacophony of squirrel alarms, there's a good chance that some kind of predator is lurking nearby. If you recognize the noises of nocturnal animals such as owls and raccoons, you can see who came after dark.
You may also be able to smell some animals. Skunks release a notoriously smelly spray when they ward off threats; Foxes and mountain lions mark their territory with their own funky scents; and desert dwellers claim they can often smell spears before they see them.
8. Look for characters that have visited animals.
You do not have to see the animals yourself to find evidence of their presence. A fallen feather, a muddy imprint, an easy path that is engraved in the dirt, and a pile of droppings are all indications of who shared your garden.
9. Get technological.
Sure, watching wildlife is a good excuse to pull the plug, but incorporating tools and technology can help improve your experience. Binoculars transform this blurry spot in the sky into a clearly identifiable bird. A back camera takes pictures of everything going through your garden when you're not looking. Apps like iNaturalist can help you identify different ways and share your results with other members of the community.
10. Document your wildlife viewing.
Keep a record of the creatures that visit your garden. This helps you to get an idea of their routines and to better identify individual animals. You can keep your logs simple – a quick diary entry or a series of photos is a great way to document the wildlife that lives there. As a bonus, your observations can also be helpful in civil science projects such as the Monarch Joint Venture or Audubon's Hummingbirds at Home project.