AKRON, Ohio — Pam Wilson's yard is the neighborhood hangout for the fur and feather set.
On a cold morning recently, squirrels scampered along tree limbs while birds fluttered from branch to feeder and back. Patches of snow were packed underfoot, pocked by the telltale prints of hooves and paws.
The Springfield Township, Ohio, woman has turned her three-quarters of an acre into a wildlife haven where critters are assured of finding abundant food and water, as well as places to sleep, nest and hide from predators.
Pam Wilson's yard has been certified as a wildlife habitat by the National Wildlife Federation, a designation that indicates she provides for the various needs of wildlife in an environmentally responsible way.
Homes, organizations and businesses can seek certification from the federation by providing wildlife with food, water, cover and a place for them to raise their young. You can read more and apply for certification at www.nwf.org.
Caring for wildlife is a passion for Wilson, a retiree with a lifelong love of animals. She started feeding the animals about 10 or 15 years ago, and "it just started growing," she said, with a laugh.
Her yard has 20 or more feeding stations, which she supplies with 50 to 60 pounds of seed and peanuts every day, along with shelled corn and apples for the deer. Heaters keep the water from freezing in about half a dozen birdbaths so the animals can drink or bathe. In summer when heating isn't necessary, she provides even more watering stations, sometimes using such simple vessels as old TV dinner containers and plastic trash can lids.
The yard is natural-looking without being unkempt. Brushy areas are edged by ornamental plants, selected both for their looks and their ability to provide food or cover for wildlife. A small tree that fell in a windstorm this fall was left lying in the yard to provide shelter, and Wilson was looking forward to gathering discarded Christmas trees to add to her brush piles.
Those kinds of features are ideal for attracting wildlife, said Jamie Emmert, a representative for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources' Division of Wildlife. Our society prizes neat lawns, but she argues it's better to leave some areas natural. Not only it is preferable for wildlife, but it also saves time and resources, she said.
Still, it's not necessary to go to Wilson's extent to attract wildlife to your yard. Even small steps make a difference.
Providing habitats for wildlife is helpful all year but especially in winter, when conditions are harsh and natural supplies of food and water dwindle, Emmert said.
Want to make your yard a more attractive place for wildlife? Here's how.
Water is often more attractive to wildlife than food, simply because it's hard to find, especially in winter, Emmert said. It's also cheaper, she noted.
Water can come from a source such as a creek or waterfall, or just a simple container. Any shallow container that can hold water will do, she said. It's best if the container is only a couple of inches deep, but you can add stones to a deeper container to give birds places to stand.
If you have an outdoor electrical outlet, Emmert recommended buying a heated birdbath or a small heating element designed for a birdbath to prevent the water from freezing. Stores that specialize in bird feeding usually carry birdbath accessories.
Moving water attracts wildlife more than standing water, so Emmert suggested adding a device that makes the water ripple.
Change the water as necessary. In warm weather, change it as often as two or three times a week to remove mosquito eggs before they hatch, the National Wildlife Federation advises.
Wildlife needs places to hide from people and predators and seek shelter from bad weather. Native shrubs and thickets are ideal, the wildlife federation says, but brush piles also work well.
Emmert recommended creating a brush pile near a bird feeder so birds — especially desirable songbirds — have a place to retreat if they feel threatened. Birds are less likely to visit a feeder that's out in the open, where they feel vulnerable, she said.
For small mammals such as chipmunks and rabbits, Emmert suggested creating a shelter by stacking downed limbs in Lincoln Log fashion to create walls with a cavity in the center.
She said fallen trees can be left in place to provide shelter for cavity-nesting birds and squirrels. Insects that live in the rotting wood will also feed woodpeckers.
Many habitat features that supply cover to wildlife also provide places where the creatures can mate, and bear and raise their young, the wildlife federation says. Mature trees, meadows, prairies, wetlands, dead trees, dense shrubs, thickets and water gardens all support wildlife reproduction.
You can also help nature along by providing nesting boxes and houses, which often double as shelters from the cold in winter for birds and squirrels, Emmert said.
You can buy nesting boxes or build them. A box should be constructed of untreated wood and designed for the species you want to attract. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources has guidance on nesting boxes online at tinyurl.com/nestingbox.
We often think of feeding wildlife in terms of filling bird feeders or setting out corn, but one of the best ways to provide food is just to plant things the critters like to eat, the National Wildlife Federation says.
Shrubs, trees and flowering plants supply foods such as berries, nuts and nectar that help a variety of wildlife thrive. The wildlife federation recommends choosing native plants, because they're adapted to your area's conditions and usually need little care. They're also in sync with the natural cycles of the area and provide the foods native wildlife need at the time those creatures need them.
When those natural food sources are scarce, the federation recommends providing supplemental food. Not all wildlife experts agree, however. Some note that supplemental feeding isn't necessary and can encourage wildlife to become a nuisance.
"There's a lot of argument out there on how much animals depend on subsidized feeding," Emmert said. Wildlife usually can find other sources of food if humans don't provide them, she said, but she believes feeding the creatures does them a favor, especially when the weather is bad.
If you choose to provide supplemental food, Emmert recommended buying good-quality birdseed mixes or wildlife mixes containing nuts and berries. Peanuts are a good choice, she said, because many animals like them, and they provide needed fat and protein.
Shop at feed stores and shops specializing in bird feeding, Emmert suggested. She recommended avoiding big-box stores, which may sell inferior food.
Keep feeders full and as clean as possible, Emmert said. If you'll be away from home for an extended time, she said it's a good idea to take the feeder down, "but don't lose sleep if you're on vacation and the feeder runs out."