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Backyard habitat builders enjoy 'gardening for wildlife'

| Saturday, April 23, 2005

Sometimes all it takes is a bird feeder to introduce a nature lover to the world of backyard habitats.

That's how it happened for Marie Clark, of Bethel Park. When she was growing up in McDonald, Washington County, she says she learned a respect for nature from her father, who always fed the birds. Today, Clark's property in the South Hills is one of 2,670 backyard and schoolyard habitats in Pennsylvania certified by the National Wildlife Federation.

"It's a progression, an evolutionary process, and it's not something you do once and let go," Clark says of her backyard habitat. "It's a lifestyle choice."

Creating such a habitat can be as simple as following certain guidelines, such as providing feeders and a water source for birds and small animals, planting native plants and not using chemical pesticides, she says.

Since 1973, the program has helped to teach the importance of environmental stewardship by providing guidelines for making landscapes more hospitable to wildlife.

Today, as more developments spring up and replace natural wildlife areas, it is increasingly important to learn the rewards of "gardening for wildlife," says Mary Burnette, spokeswoman for the Backyard Wildlife Habitat program of the National Wildlife Federation, based in Reston, Va.

"Backyard habitats conserve our natural resources by reducing or eliminating the need for fertilizers, pesticides or irrigation water which protects the air, soil and water throughout our communities," she says.

Clark's garden includes a mix of conifers that provide cover and nesting places for wildlife, deciduous trees such as red oaks to provide acorns, and crabapple and pear trees for food. Other shrubs and native perennials are planted to attract beneficial insects and butterflies.

Another gardener and nature lover, Pat Arndt of Swissvale, earned her backyard habitat certificate last fall. She also credits her father for teaching her about wildlife in her childhood home in Swisshelm Park.

"We always had bird feeders," she says. "He knew all the bird calls and could identify them all."

Arndt maintains two bird feeders and a special feeder for squirrels, with a mix of peanuts, corn, sunflower seeds and dried berries. She says her biggest expense in maintaining the habitat is the $40 she spends every other week for 100 pounds of birdseed.

She regularly is visited by cardinals, woodpeckers, sparrows, blue jays, rabbits, a groundhog, garter snakes, toads, and several pigeons.

"I also have a hawk, who helps keep the pigeon population down," she says.

In Westmoreland County, Karen Battiston of North Huntingdon says she has had no problem attracting creatures to her backyard.

"The wildlife is here. It just needs a little help from us to bring it to view," says Battiston, who received her certification last month.

Her pond has brought a variety of animals, birds and insects to her yard, even dragonflies. She says she recently saw a blue heron in the backyard pond.

Of course, in Western Pennsylvania, deer often wander into backyards. Deer can destroy a backyard habitat when they come into the yard to graze, says Bob Masarik of Natrona Heights, who earned his certification about 10 years ago. He says a special plastic mesh can be wrapped around tree trunks to protect the bark from being eaten.

Masarik says his hobby is enjoyable and feels "this is all part of our habitation on this planet -- to co-exist with these guys."

Bare essentials

Five elements required for Backyard Wildlife Habitat certification:

Food: Native vegetation such as shrubs, trees and other plants that produce acorns, berries and other seeds is needed to supply food for wildlife. For birds, feeders can supplement natural food sources.

Water: A constant, reliable source of water must be provided with a birdbath, pond or shallow dish.

Cover: Create a protective cover for wildlife with densely branched shrubs, hollow logs, rock piles, brush piles, stone walls, evergreens, meadow grasses and deep water. This will protect wildlife against the elements and predators.

Places to raise young: Mature trees can provide den sites for squirrels and nesting places for birds. Host plants for caterpillars will ensure the presence of butterflies. Salamanders, frogs and toads will thrive in a pond or water garden.

Sustainable gardening practices: Planting native species, reducing chemicals and building healthy soil are just some of the ways to help wildlife and conserve natural resources.

For more information, log onto www.nwf.org/backyardwildlifehabitat or call (703) 438-6000.

Source: National Wildlife Federation

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