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Build a Backyard Wildlife Habitat

How one Florida family shook up their yawn of a lawn and created a certified wildlife habitat

Not long ago, in a small suburban backyard in Florida, three little boys were stunned into silence. Their eyes fixed on the same point. The quiet was interminable: perhaps 0.8 seconds. Then Davis yelped, "We're rich!" "We've struck gold!" hollered Lucas. "That's gotta be worth a thousand bucks!" roared Bernardo.

The object that held them rapt was a luminous green monarch butterfly chrysalis (or pupa) studded with gold filigree. Davis is used to finding such treasure in his backyard because it serves as an oasis for small mammals, birds, lizards, frogs, fish, and, yes, butterflies. The place is so inviting that the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) designated it a "backyard wildlife habitat," one of 60,000 across the country.

Davis's mom, Heidi (Davis is her youngest; Bernardo and Lucas, twin brothers, are his pals), grew up on a 500-acre farm in Maine. "It was woods beyond woods," she says. "I wanted to give my children some of what I had, to teach them to be still in nature, to pay attention." So, she dug up the border of her lawn and laid in splashes of red and orange flowers to rope in birds and butterflies. She built a pond. She planted fruit trees. "It only takes a teensy space of plants for animals to make communities. The trick is to provide their four basic needs: food, water, cover, and places to raise their young."

Sow the Seeds
Plants are the triple-crown winner of habitats: They provide cover, a place to raise babies, and food (orioles love Chinese red hat vine). Here's a saying from the NWF: "Hummingbirds like ice cream cones and butterflies like pizza," meaning that hummers prefer tube-shaped flowers like honeysuckle and columbine, while butterflies enjoy flat flowers like zinnia (left) and phlox. Check out NWF's Web site for a list of "host species."

"When we send our children out with a watering can, they are part of creating a habitat," says Heidi. "Then the plants bloom, and the kids get to see who comes to visit."

Add the Water
So, creating a backyard wildlife habitat is straightforward. Just plant those plants native creatures find irresistible — then add water. You can set a shallow dish near some cover (the easy route), install a pond (the high-maintenance but high-style way; click here for more details), or go the middle-of-the-road method and bring in a birdbath.

"The birdbath is an invitation," says Heidi. After the birds freshen up, they check out the other amenities. You have to stay on top of keeping the bath filled: Heidi says most species will snub a tub for weeks if it's empty even for a day. Lucky for her, Davis refills the birdbath daily — and he knows the ideal water depth is just a couple of inches, as birds are waders. Make sure your basin has a rough surface so the poor dears don't slip. If it's smooth, mess it up with sandpaper or stick on no-slip tub decals.

Step into Nature
This stepping stone path strings an inviting lane between the animal "cities" (for details on how to make a stepping stone, click here). Heidi planted low bushes near the path, which gave a welcome to the sparrows, finches, painted buntings, and mourning doves (all ground feeders). When Davis jounces down the path, "the doves don't even fly," says Heidi, "they just watch him pass." Ever since he was a toddler with bells tied to his shoes (so Heidi could track him), Davis, too, has watched them pass. "It's about being outside," says his mom. "It's about mental stimulation. Kids will retain a little, and let go of a lot."

For career day at his school, Davis planted vines with chrysalises in a terrarium so his classmates could witness the world he sees each day — and has held on to.

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