An Urban Wildlife Habitat
by Jerry Miller
Kentucky Department for Libraries and Archives, Ekstrom Library
In October, 1991, my wife Jennifer and I bought a plastic bird feeder ($2.49), and a five pound bag of mixed bird seed ($1.29). I loaded the feeder and hung it from a low branch of a tree in our back yard. That started us on the way to what the National Wildlife Federation has designated as Backyard Wildlife Habitat #13018.
The first major project was a 10'x14' fish pond that has a capacity of about 2000 gallons. Since it is 36" at the deep end, fish can live in it all year round. The depth keeps it below the freeze line. When the pond sprang a leak about two months after installation, we had to buy a 5' diameter children’s swimming pool to house the fish while I installed a new pond liner. After the pond was repaired, the children’s pool was sunk into the southwest corner of the yard, near a large boulder. This became a reflecting pool and water source for wildlife. That pool was followed by another pool midway along the east side of the yard. To this we added plenty of zinnias, coneflowers, nicotiana, lilies, trumpet vine, and bushes to provide cover. We now have a lot of furry and feathered critters who have come to live with us. Things just sort of snowballed.
The single feeder has been expanded to eight feeding stations, plus about twenty-five linear feet of deck rail. Of course, the deck floor itself is used for peanuts, raisins, and bread crumbs. We have recorded 42 varieties of birds. Mammals have included squirrel, chipmunk, ‘possum, raccoon, skunk, rabbit, deer, fox, vole, and groundhog. All of this is in an area that is roughly 90'x60'. It really doesn’t take much space for a habitat. A tree line along the south, and up the west side, provides plenty of housing and cover.
Jennifer and I do not refer to “dumb animals” or “birdbrains” any more. With sunflower hearts, peanuts, and raisins being kept out all day, plus the feeders always loaded, the birds stay well fed. Raccoons and ‘possums get rice, dog food, and table scraps at night. These birds and animals have us well trained! If there isn’t enough food out, we hear about it. Indignant blue jays and mockingbirds can raise quite a fuss. There’s nothing “dumb” or “birdbrained” in the way they let us know what they want or need.
Of course, we tend to like the more forward and inquisitive animals. Our favorite bird is a male mockingbird we named Mookie. Mookie came around one day after a heavy snow that was followed by a hard freeze. With forage next to nonexistent, he was forced to take his food where he could. He quickly became accustomed to suet and raisins. When none is on the deck rail he will stand in front of the sliding glass door to the deck and look in, sometimes squawking like a parrot. If Jennifer is putting food on the rail, and a lot of other birds are around as competition, he has been known to light on either her shoulder, or her head. This gives him first shot at anything that goes out. Each year he brings one or more mates around and goes through an introduction and feeding ritual. This is a way to show the mate that he has a secure food source, and thus,he is a good breeding prospect.This summer, he has been a very busy bird. He’s on his fourth nest with two mates. Since both male and female mockingbirds care for their young, Mookie works long hours. He directs the young birds to the front porch for flight school. We now leave a few raisins there. Two of the fledglings greeted me this morning when I opened the door to get the newspaper. One of them gave a “feed me” chirp when I opened the door. I’m well trained enough that I put out some raisins before I picked up the paper. Although there are robins, blue jays, and tufted titmice that are comfortable with close human contact, this mockingbird is the most friendly of the lot. Sometimes he just comes for a visit. He will land and just look at me and flip his tail feathers, or maybe do a short song. If he is trying to communicate, he squawks, and flashes the white spots under his wings.
Then there are the mammals. There are always squirrels to amuse me simply by doing squirrel things. Sometimes I get a look that seems to say, “OK, I am being cute, where are the peanuts?” But the animals I like best are the nocturnal creatures. There is a double spotlight with a motion sensor at the ground level back entrance. That’s where the food bowl sits. When something comes to feed, it activates the lights. We get a variety of animals, but most numerous are the raccoons and ‘possums. My favorite is a female raccoon named Rosie. She was the first animal to take a cookie from me. She was only a few months old, and looked like a stuffed toy. She was the smallest and smartest of a litter of three. Rosie learned that if she came alone around dusk, she got as many cookies as she wanted, as well as a few meat treats. Later on, she would come back with the rest of the family for the regular feeding. Last year she brought back her own young; a litter of two. This year there are four young.
I have never been able to develop any sort of rapport with a ‘possum. There was one male who would sometimes come and stare through the sliding glass door if the food had not been set out for the night. And there was the tiny baby ‘possum who had gotten separated from the rest of his family. He was so small, that in order to eat, he had to climb into the food bowl. Without including the tail, he was about six inches long. Once an adult ‘possum came around sniffing at the food. The little one went into an attack mode, baring his teeth and lunging forward, only to fall out of the bowl. We named him Killer.
I get a lot of enjoyment out of my back yard, even with a steadily rising food bill for my “pets.”