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.


  1. For certification, do you need to elinate ALL native plants and grasses and ALL pesticides and chemical fertalizers? If so, it does not strike me as an easy thing to do.

    1. Hi Kathy, good question. Thankfully, I believe the intent of the Sustainability category is to have you start making positive changes in those areas in your yard, rather than only qualifying when you’ve eliminated every non-native or every use of pesticide. I think if you are introducing more native plants, removing invasive plants where you can, and limiting use of pesticides by switching to more natural forms of pest control, then you are absolutely operating within the intent of the program and can claim those efforts when you register!

  2. I had my yard certified years ago , I have no signs anymore, will the certification carry through out time and will this protect yards from heavy industrial parks being built near my property? Meaning can I use my certification as a point of reference in a dispute too prevent or deter my concerns to our county commissioners, over water and earth contamination surrounding and or seeping into the creeks and earth. My yard is 90% organic .
    I hope I made this comment understandable

    1. Hi Stacy, I’m no lawyer, but my guess is that since the NWF yard certification program is based on an “honors system” of self-declaring that you meet their criteria, I’m not sure it would carry much weight in a legal dispute. However, a yard that is 90% organic and a habitat for wildlife is certainly something to be proud of and fight for. Best of luck!

  3. I think our U.S.A. President should sign a new law making backyard registered home monarch or wildlife gardens or wildlife home prairies a legal part of our U.S.A. …. another words they are private home planted wildlife helpers and should be treated as if they are real not fake , and the law would ask people to not disturb, interrupt or damage any personal gardens or decor or areas set forth for wildlife or even flowers, as these areas are helping to feed and home wildlife, birds and pollinators while in your property or if passing through your property! Also do not disturb anyone out working in gardens or with motorized or sharp tools because they could be just as dangerous as any gun that hunter would use!
    What home gardeners or habitat builders( We help wildlife) do, is the opposite to hunting and if it is a registered program for wildlife or pollinators that wildlife work should be treated with the same respect as hunters get! Every garden adds up to one more area that those wildlife have to live and survive and is a simple and effective way to help wildlife of every kind and is very healthful for those owners also!

    1. Hunting is the absolute best practice to curb the explosion of many NATIVE animals around the country. White tail deer are overpopulated and this is tremendously harmful to the long term health of the species. They spread diseases, cause accidents, animals are reproducing that would not normally be viable candidates for the gene pool. There are more deer than at any other time in history.

  4. Eight years ago, I stopped using store-bought mulch, started incorporating wild flowers with cultivated, never used pesticides. I use only the debris from my yard for mulching. My yard has come alive with so many different birds, butterflies, bumbles, chipmunks, squirrels. Unfortunately, my neighbor across the street has Tick Ranger spraying poison all over the place. Can I still apply for a sign?

  5. Hi Haeley, our neighbor got his “certification” but his front and backyard is only overgrown grass and weeds. Others in our neighborhood have beautiful gardens with flowering plants to attract birds, bees, butterflies, etc, and are still aesthetically pleasing. Is there any type of guidelines or requirements on overgrown weeds?

    1. Hi Terri, that’s a good question. As far as I know, there are no guidelines from the National Wildlife Federation on this. I think everyone has different preferences for how they create their habitats and what they consider natural. Like you, I prefer a more maintained native landscape. However the more I learn about native plants that I used to consider “weeds”, the more I appreciate them! I know insects do too. Hopefully your neighbor is controlling for any non-native invasive species that are cropping up… Best of luck with your efforts in your own yard to create a wonderful wildlife habitat!

      1. Invasive weeds have become the #1 issue I see for native plants and yards. Just in the past 5 years the situation has become so bad we are left with few options for controlling these weeds. They love a yard with thin grass, I guess you could call some natural areas, but in the bad situations a herbicide is the only option. Especially some of the woody weeds like bitter chamber. You can’t pull these weeds either as they grow through rhizomes. And hand pulling just shakes off a few hundred seeds for future fun! I see the DIY person loading their yard all season with many types of the box under strength expensive herbicides. when a professional application, 1 or 2 times, will usually do the job and you actually end up using less chemicals over the season. Most of the weeds are at one time considered ornamentals from Asian countries. Our fault for wanting a cool looking ivy and not researching its long term potential impact. Hire a responsible company, there are herbicides better than others, but there is no all natural products to battle the tougher weeds. Go for Zoysia too in Southern climates. It needs little nitrogen and that is my number 1 issue with garden/lawn care. Over use of Nitrogen. This kills the soil. The Microbes in soils are the building blocks for everything else. Without them no life happens!!!

  6. I have so many birds (upwards of 100 at peak hours) that I feed them on the ground. The problem is their droppings all over the trees and other plants. I spend a good hour every day or two hosing off the leaves, otherwise the acid in the bird droppings will burn them. So far no problem, I enjoy my role as rain giver. But if/when the drought comes back to Southern California, limits will be placed on how much water I can use and on what days I can water my plants (last time it was twice a week). Can having a Wildlife Habitat Certificate provide the excuse I need for requesting exemption from drought laws?

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