How to Make Your Yard a Certified Wildlife Habitat

Did you know your yard can be so much more than a yard? It can be a certified wildlife habitat! Just a few thoughtful additions can make your yard the most popular place on the block for birds, pollinators and the insects we critically need to sustain life!

How to certify your yard as a wildlife habitat with the National Wildlife Federation
You can create a Certified Wildlife Habitat in your own yard!

I recently registered my yard as a certified wildlife habitat with the National Wildlife Federation (NWF). I’m sharing my tips for getting your own yard registered. You even get a sign to make it official!

What is a Certified Wildlife Habitat?

The National Wildlife Federation has listed the following key components of a certified wildlife habitat:

  • Water – provide at least once source of water
  • Food – provide at least two food sources
  • Shelter – provide at least two sources of cover
  • Places to Raise Young – provide at least two places to mate and raise young
  • Sustainable Practices – engage in at least two categories of sustainable practices

Take a look around your yard and you likely have several areas on the list already covered. I’m going to help you easily add a few others.

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What are the benefits of a Certified Wildlife Habitat?

Having all the elements in place in your yard to qualify means:

  • You are providing much needed wildlife habitat that has been lost to the suburbs.
  • Your yard is more than just inhospitable grass. It provides water, food and shelter to wildlife.
  • By officially certifying you can educate and encourage other neighbors to make improvements to their yards as well.

Who knows how big of an impact you could have by being the first one to register in your neighborhood!

How do you become an NWF Certified Wildlife Habitat?

Once you have the required components in your yard, the process to become certified takes minutes:

  1. Make sure your yard meets the criteria for each of the five components (see list below).
  2. Head to the NWF website and fill out the quick certification form. The form is honor based. There is no need to provide photos or other proof that you meet the criteria.
  3. Pay the $20 application fee and you are good to go. These funds go towards helping NWF’s efforts.
  4. Once you are officially certified you’ll have the option to purchase a sign to display in your yard.

Components Required for Backyard Habitat Certification

I’m going to break each of the five components required for a Certified Wildlife Habitat through the NWF with some tips based on what I added to my yard. The NWF habitat program also provides a helpful checklist that you can download.

1. Provide a water source

A) Add a bird bath

The first thing that comes to mind is a bird bath! I love the bird bath in my backyard. It is the focal point of our landscaped bed with native plants. You can find a 24 inch birdbath at Lowes for under $20. Here are some of my other favorite bird baths:

  1. Stone pedestal bird bath
  2. Modern concrete bird bath
  3. Turquoise bird bath
Top bird baths for a bird friendly yard

Bird bath tips

  • Changing the water regularly is key – both for the birds and to discourage mosquito larvae. I change mine daily during the summer.
  • Birds don’t immediately recognize standing water by sight. They recognize the sound of moving water. Adding a bubbler like this makes a big difference!
Stone fountain used as a bird bath
The fountain birdbath in our backyard. I try to change the water daily.

B) Make a puddling dish

Never heard of a puddling dish? Neither had I until recently. It is such a simple addition you can make to provide water to butterflies and other insects. Fill a dish (like a drainage saucer for a flower pot) with water. Add a few small rocks for the insects to perch on. Change the water regularly similar to the bird bath.

C) Other water sources you may have

Other water sources that you may be lucky enough to have in your yard also qualify for the certified wildlife habitat include a river, lake, or rain garden.

2. Provide three food sources

When we think of food for a backyard wildlife habitat, the first thing that probably comes to mind is a bird feeder. But that is actually a distant second in importance to plants! Birds need vast quantities of insects to survive, and without the right plants in your yard there will be few insects.

A) Plant native plants

Your yard is begging for plants that local insects can eat and lay their eggs on. What type of plants? Native plants of course! Native plants have evolved in your local area along with the insects and wildlife. Insects often aren’t able to eat non-native plants imported from other countries.

Create a habitat garden with native plants. Especially adding woody native plants to your yard such as native trees and shrubs can have a big impact. These plants:

  • Serve as host plants for the caterpillars that birds need to eat
  • Offer nectar for pollinators
  • Offer seeds, nuts, berries or other fruit for wildlife
Native plants for a Certified Wildlife Habitat
Native plants can serve as host plants, provide nectar for pollinators, and berries for wildlife!

Native plant tips

  • For a true wildlife garden, aim for upwards of 70% native plants in your yard. If you don’t know what plants you have in your yard, check out my tips for identifying plants with an app!
  • Certain native plants are considered “keystone species” because they serve as host plants for a large number of butterflies and moths. Prioritize these plants in your wildlife gardening – you can find a list here.
  • Want some ideas of native plants to incorporate? Check out my top 15 Texas native plants:

B) Add a bird feeder

A bird feeder is a great addition to a native plant filled yard. It can be any type of feeder that offers seed or suet. I use this bird feeder with a cage that keeps the squirrels at bay. Although they need to eat too! They like to gather any seeds that fall to the ground.

Bird feeder tips

  • Bird feeders should be cleaned a couple times a month with a bleach solution to prevent disease.
  • Different mixes of seeds attract different birds. I like a songbird birdseed mix to attract chickadees and titmice.
Bird feeder for a Certified Wildlife Habitat
My bird feeder is frequented daily by chickadees and titmice among others.

C) Incorporate other food sources

The NWF lists these other items that can count towards one of your three food sources:

  1. Squirrel feeder
  2. Hummingbird feeder
  3. Butterfly feeder
Different types of wildlife feeders for a backyard habitat

3. Create two areas for wildlife shelter

You also need to provide at least two areas that give cover to wildlife from harsh weather and predators. Once again, it’s not necessarily a bird house. It’s plants!

A) Incorporate plants that provide cover

Types of plants can include:

  • Evergreens
  • A wooded area
  • Dense shrubs
  • Tall grasses like a meadow
  • Ground cover (other than turf grass!)
Turk's Cap
Tall native shrubs such as Turk’s Cap can provide cover for wildlife.

B) Create natural shelter areas in your yard

You can create shelter such as:

  • Rock pile
  • Brush or log pile
  • Roosting box

4. Provide at least two places to support young

Birds, squirrels, amphibians and other wildflife need safe places to raise their babies. Their top choice is often native trees and plants. If you have a large tree and native host plants for butterflies and moths you can check this off your list!

A) Provide natural areas to support young

The NWF lists these as options for natural areas that qualify:

  • Large trees (ideally native!)
  • Wetland area
  • Meadow area
  • Cave
  • Burrow
  • Native host plants for caterpillars
A female Ashe Juniper (Mountain Cedar) tree
Native trees like this Ashe Juniper provide important nesting spots.

B) Add a nesting box

  1. Blue bird box
  2. Wren home
  3. Screech owl nesting box
Top bird houses and nesting boxes

5. Engage in sustainable practices

Lastly, having a certified wildlife habitat means you are doing your part to help manage your habitat in a sustainable way. The NWF asks that you participate in at least two of the three categories below:

A) Soil and water conservation

Limiting your use of water through at least one of the following:

  • Xeriscaping
  • Capturing rain in a rain barrel, etc.
  • Using mulch
  • Using drip irrigation

B) Controlling exotic species

Preventing the spread of invasive, non-native species by:

  • Removing non-native plants
  • Using native plants
  • Reducing non-native turf grass

C) Organic practices

  • Composting (I use this tumbler composter in my backyard!)
  • Eliminating pesticides
  • Eliminating chemical fertilizers

Products for Sustainable Practices

  1. Rain barrel
  2. Tumbler composter
Top rain barrel and tumbler composter

Display your Certified Wildlife Habitat Sign!

Make sure to display your NWF Certified Wildlife Habitat sign. Not only can you pat yourself on the back for the work you’ve done to help wildlife from your own yard, you can help spread the word to neighbors and encourage them to do the same.

Yard by yard, we can have a huge impact on helping our environment and sustaining our species.

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