This new series, Backyard Connections, gives fun and easy tips for exploring the nature right outside your door.
Spring is one of the best times for nature observation; it has the benefits of winter, like bare trees and open ground, but is bustling with growing things and new life everywhere. These few weeks in the middle of spring are some of easiest times to really see what and who is living in your yard; even urban yards can be full of more life than you realize. This is important to understand; the animals that visit your yard make up a large part of your backyard community and are affected by any changes you may make to it. Sometimes the unsightly features that you wish to remove from your yard, like a brush pile in the back or a misshapen shrub, are really vital to critters that need them. In addition, it can be useful to understand who is nibbling off the tops of your pea plants or digging up your wildflower seeds; once you know who is doing the damage, you can take measures to gently redirect these backyard vandals to more desirable options. Finally and most importantly, backyard creatures like rabbits and birds are accessible to children; it can be fun to learn about animal life cycles through observation over time, such as watching a litter of baby squirrels grow up and raise their own young. Children grow invested in the lives of these critters and truly think of them as garden friends, all while growing in their observation and deduction skills.
How can you figure out who is living in your yard? Observation, of course. Keeping a journal of animal signs can help you and your child learn more about the critters in your yard over time. You can track feeding habits, nesting times, and more. Remember, it is never wise to poke at or get too close to any animal or its home. Observation from afar is the best way to learn about these creatures.
Look for the following signs of animal life in your yard:
Where do I live?
Bare trees are the animal watcher’s best friend. By the end of April, most flowering trees are still sparsely covered and many large shade trees have only minimal leaves. In addition, many migrating bird species that spend their winters in the tropics are back for the summer. Backyard favorites like catbirds, hummingbirds, orioles, and a whole host of warblers are looking for places to nest, eat and sing! One way to know who is living in your yard is to look for nests; every bird species builds differently shaped nests in different kinds of locations. All of these can be found by scanning the bushes with your naked eye or a pair of binoculars. Another way that you can keep tabs on nesting birds is by providing bird houses for them; bluebirds, wrens and other small birds that are susceptible to nest predation appreciate this consideration and will often reward you by inhabiting these structures. If you look carefully, you may also find nests that have been abandoned by birds and co-opted by mice or chipmunks; ever opportunists, these small critters use old nests to raise young and stay warm in the winter.
Birds are not the only animals that build nests. Squirrels also build nests in trees, commonly called “dreys”. They often look like large, leafy clumps situated in the crook of several tree limbs; often located very high in trees, some dreys are so large that they can be seen from fairly far away. Since a typical grey squirrel can have up to three or four litters a year, this is an important place for them to raise their young.
There are also many animal homes to be found on the ground. Look under rocks and fallen logs for reptiles and amphibians; small invertebrates also like the constant temperature and moisture of life against the ground. A brush pile is a great place to find many small mammals and even some birds; low shrubs provide shelter and sometimes food. Your yard may also be home to larger animals that build dens underground, like rabbits, groundhogs or even foxes. Look for holes in the ground near shrubs, trees or other sources of cover.
What do I eat?
The easiest, and sometimes most frustrating, of animal signs to spot is evidence of eating. Whether this means shells around the bird feeder or a decimated garden, most backyard animals are not shy about making your yard their salad bar. Half eaten leaves and broken stems are a sure sign of animal feasting. If you find something unusual, like peanut shells buried in your garden beds, investigate further and figure out which backyard critter is responsible. This is a great way to hone your child’s deductive skills; make an educated guess and then set up an experiment to learn more. You’d be surprised how excited your child will be to check the same spot every day for updated activity.
You may also find evidence on a smaller scale, such as with caterpillars and other herbivorous invertebrates. Introducing lady bugs or other predator insects into your yard can be both effective and fun to do with your child. Another great way to help with insect issues is to provide a toad home, which can be as simple as an upside-down flower-pot nestled in the shade; a toad home is both wonderful for your garden and an easy way to learn about amphibians. You and your child can visit your garden friend by lifting up the pot on occasion and can even watch them raise young over the course of the summer. Toads will return to the same place every spring, so you will have a friend for life!
How do I move?
Many backyard critters show their presence through tracks. Especially in the spring, when the ground is soft and muddy, it can be easy to see exactly what your resident rabbit or raccoon has been up to based on where its tracks lead. Most of these animals leave fairly distinctive tracks, from the two hooves of a deer to the hand print of a possum. Look for tracks in newly dug garden beds, areas with sparse plant cover and muddy places. If you can’t make out a clean print, the overall pattern of the tracks can help you figure it out – clusters of four prints indicate a galloper, like a chipmunk, whereas a wider, heavier set of tracks indicates a more meandering animal, like a bear or raccoon.
Another kind of animal track is evidence left by their movement, like a spot of matted plants where an animal has been resting or a bare spot on a tree where an animal was rubbing. Look for signs in your garden beds and under trees where your backyard friends have been busy. While you are looking, keep your eye out for other signs like feathers, clumps of fur or snake skins. All of these signs can help you figure out which animals are using your yard as a home and even what parts they are relying on for food and shelter. Take a magnifying glass outside and go on a track hike, looking close to the ground for signs of life. Record your observations and see if track patterns change over time!
To make the most of watching animals in your yard and help them thrive:
1. Help your nest-making backyard friends by providing nest helpers and bird and squirrel feeders out of natural materials (via The Crafty Crow)
2. Get involved in citizen science through Project Feeder Watch, NestWatch or Celebrate Urban Birds
3. Learn more about birdwatching from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s online resources; identify feathers using the US Fish and Wildlife’s Feather Atlas or try this great inquiry activity (via Nature Skills).
4. Learn about specific animals tracks (via Minnesota DNR) or find a similar guide to match your particular region.
5. Provide a brush pile in the corner of your yard; many birds and small mammals will appreciate the shelter it creates; similarly, a rock pile in a sunny spot can provide a great home for garter snakes and other small reptiles.
6. Provide a water source near a protective shrub or tree; all the animals in your yard will appreciate this, especially as it gets hotter through the summer.
7. Attract toads to your yard (via Bird and Blooms) and learn more about reptiles and amphibians in your area.
These are just a few of the things that you will find in your yard if you look for them; animals, including insects, leave many different signs – including themselves! As you and your child spend more time learning about the animals that live in your yard, you will come to be experts at spotting them. You may also come to appreciate them as an integral part of the ecosystem of your neighborhood. Remember, both you and your backyard are part of the same community of life!
Above photos were used courtesy of the Phipps Science Education staff and WikiMedia.