Here at the GardenFarm™, I proudly display a sign that designates my five-acre property as a Certified Wildlife Habitat. What does that designation mean and where does it come from? Well, I dive into that with this week’s guest, David Mizejewski of the National Wildlife Federation (NWF).
David, who considers himself a nature geek since birth, has been with the NWF since 2000. He wrote a book, National Wildlife Federation: Attracting Birds, Butterflies and Other Backyard Wildlife – which was developed into a makeover show, Backyard Habitat, by the Animal Planet channel at the dawn of the makeover TV craze. As a result, David became the public voice of the National Wildlife Federation and has been a frequent guest on late night television shows, morning talk shows, the major news networks, and many other public venues.
David’s passion for his work is evident and inspiring. He is a firm believer in the importance of the role our own spaces – both big and small – can play in protecting and promoting wildlife. We can’t have healthy wildlife populations without thriving native plant life. At the age of 17, he began what he calls his native plant crusade by insisting his parents redesign the landscape of their home using the native plants that he had learned were significant after reading the book Noah’s Garden – Restoring the Ecology of our Backyards by Sara Stein.
David turned his passion into his vocation when he joined the NWF as part of what was then called the Backyard Habitat Program in 2000. The program is now known as the Gardens for Wildlife Program and is one of just many endeavors of the NWF.
The Work of the National Wildlife Federation
The National Wildlife Federation was formed in 1936 to protect wildlife in jeopardy in North America. This organization is unique among conservation programs for a number of reasons. One of which is the very fact that it is federated. The NWF has regional offices around the country, but it also has affiliate offices in every state to provide a local voice to these important issues.
It’s no surprise that there are many differing – and often polarizing – viewpoints on wildlife issues, and they certainly run the political gamut. Fishing and hunting interests to climate change to logging – people all across this country have their own opinions on how wildlife and our lands should be managed. The NWF brings these various groups together – bringing each voice to the table – to find the best overall solutions and consensus based on a shared love of wildlife.
There is much work to be done. The National Wildlife Federation focuses on three key areas:
1. Protecting, Restoring and Connecting Wildlife Habitats
Through policy and legislative processes as well as community-based programs, the NWF works to protect the wilderness areas across our country which are important wildlife ecosystems. Many of the areas critical for the sustainability of wildlife are our multi-use lands. Our national forests, for example, are vital habitats, but they also serve as consumptive land as logging and grazing resources. The NWF strives to identify and implement balanced management solutions in those areas.
These efforts apply to America’s critical water resources too – finding ways to responsibly manage areas such as Chesapeake Bay, the Great Lakes, Puget Sound, and our coastal areas for aquatic wildlife in tandem with economical use such as recreation and commercial fishing.
Our urban landscapes can also be important functioning wildlife habitat, so every one of us can be involved when we are thoughtful in how we plant our individual landscapes or select flowers for our containers.
2. Managing the Conservation Movement
The National Wildlife Federation strives to ensure that wildlife conservation is being informed by current scientific research while also navigating the political landmines which can arise from these sensitive issues. Can our national policies by improved upon to improve conditions for struggling wildlife populations? Take climate change, for example. The NWF has been working to identify and develop action steps around what is necessary for the wildlife of North America to adapt to this global issue.
3. Connecting Americans with Wildlife
David and the NWF believe that connecting Americans with our native wildlife is fundamental to the preservation of that wildlife. There are many species unique to our country, and many of them are at serious risk. The NWF works through communities to develop a culture of conservation stewardship – particularly among the next generation. The Ranger Rick magazine, apps and book series educate children about the importance of wildlife and habitat. The NWF has also developed school programs to educate, provide green spaces in the schools themselves and infuse the learning environment with ecological awareness.
In short, the NWF doesn’t just focus on the issues, it is very people-centric. They are laying the foundation for a balanced conservation culture.
Making Your Own Difference
Did you know that we have lost nearly 60% of this planet’s wildlife? That’s 60% of all species – now extinct and never to return. That is a staggering statistic. One-third of the remaining wildlife in America is at increased risk of extinction in the coming decades – largely due to human activity.
It’s so important that we all get involved to better provide for our native wildlife. The good news? It is so easy to do – it can even be as simple as pressing the Share button on a National Wildlife Federation social media post.
A lack of resources is a common frustration among all non-profit organizations, and the NWF is no exception. There is never enough time, money or people involved to tackle all that needs to be done, but the work continues nonetheless.
Capitalism is an important aspect of our society. Unfortunately, capitalist forces and the drive for profit are often behind the destruction of wildlife habitat. Although the NWF doesn’t have the financial resources to go head-to-head with a corporation which might choose to invest millions into a single ad campaign, the Federation’s conservation message can be spread by each one of us – at a viral level.
When we tell others about the efforts of the National Wildlife Federation, when we share social media posts highlighting these issues – we can create a multiplier effect. Our voices can be a powerful weapon against the destruction borne of a thirst for profit. Ultimately, there are ways all our interests – corporate and conservationist – can join for a common solution, but there must be motivation to identify that common ground.
Making a Difference at Home
If you plant it, they will come. It doesn’t matter how large or small the space you call home is. Your space matters. If you have a large farm, there are steps you can take to help protect habitat and native wildlife. If you have a small yard or a balcony, you can make a difference.
Wildlife habitat begins with plant community. The National Wildlife Federation developed a garden certification program as a way of recognizing the efforts of everyone who gardens with an awareness of wildlife needs. All wildlife require four fundamental resources: Food, water, shelter, and a place to reproduce and raise their young.
Do you have a bird feeder outside your window? Birds rely on feeders as a supplemental source, but it’s the natural food sources which are most critical. Plants which provide berries, seeds and pollen are all important to the survival of native bird species. 90% of American birds feed their young insects, so while you may grumble about the bugs in your backyard, remember that a healthy insect population feeds a healthy bird population.
There are many ornamental plants which we love to feature in our landscapes, but if they aren’t native to our area, they often provide no benefit to area wildlife. So, spend a little time becoming familiar with your native species and incorporate those in your garden. You will be surprised at the increase of wildlife visiting in appreciation of what you have developed.
It’s important to think seasonally too. What will the life cycles of your wildlife require throughout all four seasons of the year? What can you plant to provide blooms for nectar throughout the seasons, or seed pods for foraging birds, or foliage to support beneficial insect larvae? It may sound like a lot of work, but once you learn some of these basics, making the right choices becomes second nature and the nature around you will greatly reward your efforts.
Keep those bird feeders around though. I have several at the GardenFarm, and I make sure to keep them clean. Disease can be spread by bird feeders, so be sure to take them down and give them a good scrubbing a few times each year.
Do not, however, provide supplemental food for wildlife such as raccoons, possums or deer. While birds don’t become dependent on feeders and don’t become habituated to human contact, the same is not true of larger wildlife. Deer, raccoons, bears, and most other wildlife will become dependent on handouts. Not only is this dangerous – as they lose their fear of humans – but it is also harmful to their health. Just don’t do it – and be sure to keep your trash out of their reach as well.
If you have the ability to add a water garden or small pond to your landscape, that’s great. Many wildlife will benefit from it for drinking and bathing. Frogs will love it too. But the simple truth is that a bird bath can provide nearly as much benefit. Pollinators, birds, and lots of other wildlife will be drawn in by a birdbath.
Mosquitos don’t need to be a concern either. Simply dump out your birdbath every couple of days, and mosquitos won’t have an opportunity to mature. If your water feature can’t be emptied regularly, a Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) dunk is a great, organic solution. Bt will kill the mosquitos, but it won’t harm the wildlife you are trying to provide for.
Wildlife, like humans, want to get out of cold, hot or windy weather. They also need spots to hide while hunting or when being hunted. Think about how you plant as well as what you plant. Mimic what you see in nature. Dense planting and planting in layers (plants of varying heights) creates natural shelters. A dead tree stump or a hollow log, when left in your landscape, can provide a haven for many beneficial creatures.
Consider adding a roosting box in your garden. These look similar to a birdhouse, but they have a hole in the bottom and several perches inside, which birds use to sit on during inclement weather.
A Place to Raise Their Young
A healthy wildlife population means more than sustaining the current generation. We want to protect and promote future generations, too, in hopes that wildlife populations will increase. That requires proper habitat. Frogs need clean standing water in which to lay their eggs. Birds need spots where they can safely build nests and raise their chicks. Pollinators require the right plants to feed their next generation before they reach adulthood.
Monarch butterflies are a great example of this. Monarch butterfly caterpillars require milkweed as a food source. In fact, they feed exclusively on milkweed, so the female butterfly seeks out milkweed on which to lay her eggs. I plant it at the GardenFarm for that very reason, and it has provided some amazing moments in my garden.
Since milkweed dies back over winter, I’m always concerned that I’ll inadvertently pull it up during early season weeding. Last year, I flagged the spots where the milkweed is planted. One day, when the new growth of one of my milkweed was just a few inches tall, something far off in the distance of my five-acre property caught my eye. I watched in wonder while this movement came closer and revealed itself to be a monarch butterfly. The monarch flew around my property and, somehow, zeroed in on that small sprig of milkweed near where I stood.
Observing this creature as it honed in on this lone spring milkweed growth in such a vast space was a moment I will never forget. What we plant matters.
A Bit of Myth-Busting
David and I both frequently hear from gardeners who are hesitant to use native plants because they think native plants are weeds. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Many native plants are widely available as common ornamentals – some good examples are Black-eyed Susans and purple coneflowers. Check with your local nursery or county extension office or spend a little time online to look for options.
If you can’t find a specific native for purchase, look for cultivars with traits which are similar – color, shape, etc – as they will be most likely to provide the benefit your local wildlife populations need. Avoid buying double-blooming cultivars which provide little or no benefits to pollinators.
It’s not necessary that native plants look wild and unkempt either. There are gardens using natives which look pretty messy, but there are also those which are very formal or geometric. The truth is, the best wildlife habitats fall somewhere in the middle of that spectrum. In other words, you can still have a tidy and beautiful garden while using the native plants which provide for wildlife.
David likes to drive home the point that there are many common ornamentals – shrubs and flowers – which are oftentimes of no more benefit to wildlife than if we placed plastic flowers in the ground. The same is largely true of a sprawling lawn. As far as North American wildlife are concerned that lawn may as well be astroturf.
To Certify or Not to Certify
Now that you understand the four elements of the National Wildlife Federation’s Certified Wildlife Habitat Program, it’s also important that you understand the benefits of the certification itself. The NWF offers a variety of signs and plaques that you can display in testament to what you have created.
Displaying the sign, as I do, is an important way to generate conversation and curiosity among your neighbors. I display the sign for just that reason. I hope that it inspires others to find out what certification means and – in the process – to gain a deeper understanding of the importance of providing habitat for wildlife. Also, I know that the money I spent in purchasing the sign goes straight back to the programs of the NWF.
It’s important to note that it certainly isn’t necessary that you strive for certification. Any efforts you make to diversify native plantings in your garden and to be mindful of providing wildlife habitat is valuable and needed. Have you explored the plants native to your area? Do you use any of them in your landscape or in containers? I would love to hear about your efforts in the Comments section below.
As gardeners, we make choices sensitive to wildlife habitat because we care. We choose to invest the time to learn which plants are native to our area and how we can manage our gardens without chemicals. These aren’t always the easiest or the least expensive options, but we are mindful that it is our collective actions which will serve the wildlife populations of today and for future generations. I’m grateful and privileged to be a part of that.
The National Wildlife Federation is a membership organization. It’s the membership dues which support the programs. I hope you will consider becoming a member as well as following – and most importantly sharing – their updates on their social media channels. Let’s work together to elevate these important messages.
There is so much work to be done nationally, but it’s these things that remind me that the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
I hope you’ll listen in to my conversation with David – if you haven’t already done so. Scroll to the top of this page and press the Play icon in the green bar under the page title. David describes the hope he finds in his very small but thriving garden.