I recently spoke to a group of high school kids about wildlife habitat. They wondered, “Do animals just find new habitat you create, or do you need to bring in the animals, too?” It’s a good question. Except for extreme cases, you usually don’t have to reintroduce animals. Most of the time, animals will find the habitat.
I told them it was kind of like a real-life “Field of Dreams” — if you build it, they will come. I thought it was a good example until I learned most of the kids never saw that movie! But they got the concept once I explained it.
I live out on the broad, flat, former prairie landscape of Champaign County, Ill. I don’t have a neighbor within three-quarters of a mile in any direction, and if it wasn’t for neighboring farmsteads, there wouldn’t be a tree outside of my yard for three-quarters of a mile in any direction.
I’ve planted some ornamental trees and shrubs and a few white pines on my 1-acre lot. The largest trees were a tree of heaven, an overgrown apple tree, a couple of silver maples and a mulberry. I fought that tree of heaven for years before I finally eliminated it and all its offspring. I kind of regret not doing the same to the mulberry. I planted several more fruit trees and bushes, and some native shrubs such as red osier dogwood and elderberry. I established a small prairie plot and even dug out an area for wetland habitat.
This habitat definitely attracts wildlife, but it’s not always the idyllic coexistence some people imagine. The number and variety of birds increased dramatically on my little wildlife oasis. I have regular visits from many different songbirds, hawks and owls. I get an occasional pheasant, and one time, a very confused sora stuck around for a couple of days.
I could do without some of my visitors, though. Coyotes come right into the yard, and while I thought they would take care of the rabbits, both are such pests that I thinned them a bit — in season, of course. I saw a ragged old fox squirrel trying to get into my birdfeeder once. And there are way too many opossums coming into my garage to eat pet food. Still, I’m willing to tolerate some personal inconvenience to help add to biological diversity. Plus, it keeps life interesting.
Early this summer, I had an unusual wildlife encounter. Looking out my back door one morning, I saw something a little out of place under the pines. It took a while, but I finally realized I was seeing a deer bedded down there. Upon further study, I realized there were three deer. I’ve lived here for 16 years. That was the first time I’d seen deer in such close proximity, much less in the yard. The trio hung out in the shade for more than an hour, grazing on Jerusalem artichoke and a newly planted gooseberry bush before leaving.
A few weeks later, I saw them cross the road about 2 miles north of my house. A couple of months later when I was jogging, I saw the same group about a half-mile from my house. I had my head down and didn’t even notice them until I was only about 50 feet away. They just stood there in the bean field and watched me pass. I’m not sure which of us was more intrigued by our unusual encounter. I haven’t seen them since. But maybe that’s a good thing. I’m not sure I’d want to set up a deer stand in my yard just to protect my gooseberry bushes.
Dozier is the Illinois state conservationist. Direct comments or questions to email@example.com.