Let the Animals Decide: Wildlife Habitat with Audubon at Home

Pam McMillie’s journey into habitat gardening began when she accidentally ran over a frog with her lawn mower. The incident horrified her but also motivated her to take a different approach to managing her property.

“The look of agony on its face rendered me speechless,” she recalls. “At that moment I vowed to reduce the amount of grass in my yard and to make a safe place for wildlife.”

Bumblebee in a bee balm plant
A bumblebee forages for pollen and nectar in one of McMillie's bee balm plants. Photo credit: Cliff Fairweather

Today McMillie’s property, adjacent to the Little Rocky Run Stream Valley Park in Fairfax County’s Greenbrier community, seems to draw the park into her backyard, along the sides of her house, and on out to the street. Indeed, her front yard holds a bountiful mini-meadow with several species of native plants. It is alive with butterflies and other pollinators.

But this is no yard-gone-wild that prompts angry calls by neighbors to the county. McMillie’s property is carefully planned and well tended. What she plans and tends, however, has tremendous habitat value for birds, beneficial insects, turtles and other reptiles and, of course, frogs.

McMillie’s yard is part of a growing trend towards habitat gardening that is occurring in backyards, schoolyards, churchyards and wherever else a bit of open space might be planted with native trees, shrubs, flowers and other plants. Indeed, her property provides such good habitat that it’s been certified as an Audubon at Home Wildlife Sanctuary by the Audubon Society of Northern Virginia (ASNV).

Properties are eligible for certification under ASNV’s recently launched Wildlife Sanctuary program if the owners take steps towards managing their land in an environmentally responsible way, such as reducing pesticide and fertilizer use. More importantly, they must document that their sanctuary is being used by at least 10 out of a list of 30 Audubon at Home sanctuary species.

“We say ‘let the animals decide’ if a property gets certified as an Audubon at Home sanctuary,” explains ASNV’s Conservation Chairman Terry Liercke.

“Sanctuary species include a variety of birds, such as Baltimore Orioles, Carolina Chickadees, and Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, as well as box turtles and other reptiles, frogs and salamanders, and beneficial insects such as Monarch butterflies. They are species that could benefit from more native habitat and are also relatively easy to identify.”

A complete list of sanctuary species and fact sheets with information on their natural history and how people can help meet their habitat needs is available at the Audubon at Home pages on the ASNV website, www.audubonva.org. A wide variety of resources for creating a home habitat are available at this site as well.

“We started Audubon at Home as a response to the loss of natural habitat in the region due to urban growth,” Liercke continues. “Yards, gardens and other open spaces offer the largest opportunity to restore native habitat in the region; our program gives people the help they need to turn that opportunity into habitat.”

Pam McMillie and others in her garden.
Pam McMillie leads a group of Audubon at Home Ambassadors in an advanced training session in home wildlife sanctuary. Photo credit: Cliff Fairweather

The Audubon at Home program is intended to provide the information and guidance homeowners and others need to take advantage of this opportunity. It also offers free consultations by Audubon at Home Ambassadors, well-trained volunteers who visit property owners to give them on-the-ground guidance on starting their own wildlife sanctuary.

“Our ambassadors are really the heart of the program,” says Liercke. “Without their willingness to take the training and then go to homes, schools, churches and other properties throughout the region to do consultations, there really wouldn’t be any program.”

The ambassadors meet with property owners interested in developing habitat to brief them on the program, discuss the owner’s goals and concerns and walk the property with the owner to assess existing habitat and make recommendations for creating or enhancing habitat.

“We stress to our clients that this is a long-term process best done incrementally rather than trying to do it all at once,” says Liercke.

McMillie, now an ambassador, adds, “My best advice is, start small and garden for what you want to attract. Butterflies and birds were my inspiration and still are, but that doesn’t mean I don’t love the dragonflies, damselflies, reptiles, and amphibians.”

She started with a seven-by-three foot plot with coneflower and Brown-eyed Susans and added to it while her husband, Mike, was away on Air Force deployments. She replaced invasive plants that have little habitat value, such as English ivy, with sassafras, elderberry and other natives.

Native plants play a key role in the Audubon at Home program, because they are critical links in food webs. Native insects are adapted to feed on native plants and those insects then provide food for birds, reptiles, amphibians, predatory insects and other animals. Once a well-functioning habitat is established, insect predators tend to balance out insect pests.

Wildlife isn’t the only beneficiary of an Audubon at Home Wildlife Sanctuary, though. The human participants also take pleasure in their stewardship.

“When I see animals eating or drinking in my yard, I am overwhelmed with joy because I know then that my work made a difference for that creature that day,” says McMillie.

To find out more or get involved in the Audubon at Home Wildlife Sanctuary program, contact ASNV’s naturalist, Cliff Fairweather, at 703-438-6025 or cliff@audubonva.org.

The ASNV Audubon at Home program is supported by a grant to ASNV from the National Audubon Society funded by the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

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