Fenced Off: What Attracts our Wild Neighbors to our Yards?

Featured Image Caption: Backyards provide refuge for humans and wildlife alike. Fences, vegetation, and yard treatment may promote or reduce the number of animal visitors. (Credit: Veracious Rey at the English-language Wikipedia, licensed by CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.)

Source Article: Fardell, L. L., Pavey, C. R., and Dickman, C. R. “Backyard biomes: Is anyone there? Improving public awareness of urban wildlife activity.” Diversity, vol. 14, iss. 4, March 2022. https://doi.org/10.3390/d14040263

Urban adapters

The ability to adapt is important for an animal’s survival. From regular seasonal changes to more unpredictable ones — natural disasters, human encroachment, and shifting weather patterns, to name a few — animals have to find new ways to avoid predators, find food, and reproduce. But what happens when an animal’s habitat also becomes our habitat? Many animals have had to adapt to the presence of humans, and this sometimes means living in an increasingly urban environment. 

Some animals might thrive in urban environments, with increased access to food and often reduced numbers of large predators. Others might struggle, with pesticides, domestic pets, and increased light and noise causing new challenges. What many homeowners might not realize is that their management choices, such as how they maintain their lawns, may have a significant impact on local biodiversity, and that even small yards can support native animals by providing refuge and resources. What are some steps we can take to support local wildlife?

A common brushtail possum at night. The possum has short gray and brown fur, and large eyes and ears. It is partway up a tree which has white bark and plants growing on it.
Common brushtail possums were the most commonly observed animal in the Austrailian backyards included in the study. (Credit: John Robert McPherson, licensed by CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.)
Who’s that in my backyard?

To explore how animals might interact with different yard characteristics, researchers surveyed homeowners living in two Australian suburbs. They asked about participants’ yard use and yard modifications, such as watering frequency and use of pesticides. The researchers also installed temporary motion-sensor cameras in several backyards to see what wildlife passed through. To encourage animals to approach the cameras, a sponge soaked in fish oil and a food lure were placed nearby. The research team was interested in figuring out which animals preferred open areas and which preferred vegetated spaces, so they placed cameras in both location types.

Most animals were more active at night, except for native birds and domestic dogs. The most commonly observed animal was the common brushtail possum, a large and fluffy marsupial with big ears. Other animals caught on camera included black and brown rats, the brown antechinus, and native birds such as the bush turkey, crested pigeon, and laughing kookaburra. Most animals appeared to prefer vegetated areas, which provide shelter from sun, adverse weather, and predators, though native birds were more common in open areas.

A crested pigeon sitting on a fencepost with a blurred brown background. The bird is mostly light brown, with black bands on its wings and reflective green and blue sections further down the wings. Its head has two small, black-tipped points.
Crested pigeons, a common Australian bird which has increased its habitat range as humans have cleared more land, were one of several native bird species identified in this study. Unlike most observed animals, native birds tended to prefer more open yards. (Credit: patrickkavanagh, licensed by CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.)
Being a good neighbor

Several homeowner choices were associated with more wildlife in yards. As may be expected, animals were more common in yards which had fences allowing passage through gaps or through a space close to the ground. Animals also tended to be more common in yards without pesticide use, perhaps because pesticides reduce food availability for many animals. In addition to removing pests, pesticides alter plant communities and decrease the prevalence of non-pest insects which are not being targeted. In contrast, regular watering was associated with increased wildlife sightings. Perhaps some animals, much like dogs, may enjoy playing with sprinklers, it’s more likely that the increased access to water attracts wildlife. Additionally, as well-moistened soil may support more invertebrates, frequently watered yards may have more food sources.

Finally, more mammals were spotted in yards which were modified less. Intensive yard management is fairly common, and despite known issues such as decreased water efficiency and lower biodiversity, the stereotypical yard — an open expanse of short-cut, non-native grasses — is a societal norm. Researchers found that wild visitors tended to favor yards which included natural vegetation and fewer man-made structures.

Though some people might head to a local park for a daily dose of wildlife sightings, it’s important to remember that urban greenspaces are home to many animals, too! This research offers insights into what might attract wildlife into your yard. Learning about your local animals, especially at-risk species, and figuring out what habitat features they prefer is a great first step towards making your neighborhood more wildlife-friendly.

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Lauren Otolski

Lauren Otolski

Hello! I am a third-year PhD student at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, studying tropical ecology. I'm specifically interested in decomposition, and how factors like wood and soil nutrients, fungal communities, and wood chemistry interact! I also love writing, playing tabletop and video games, and spending time outside.

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