By Lisa Wolling, Executive Director
At Friends of Texas Wildlife, part of our mission is to help educate the public on how to peacefully coexist with the wildlife in our area. We get many phone calls every month from people who want to know how they can help wildlife, so this month’s article gives a few ways we can all help our local wild friends. Especially with all the growth in our area, it can be somewhat discouraging to think and see all the ways human development impacts native species, so here are a few ways we can help give a little back.
The number one thing we can all do to assist wildlife of all kinds is to preserve their habitat. Even with development, we can all help by planting native trees, shrubs, and plants. A single, mature tree can provide permanent or seasonal habitat for all kinds of wildlife, including birds, insects, amphibians, reptiles, and small mammals. Look for varieties of plants that are drought and pest resistant, and especially choose plants that may provide natural food for wildlife (berries, nuts, seeds, acorns, etc.). Believe it or not, a dead tree can often be even more beneficial than a live one. All sorts of wildlife will nest or den in the cavities of dead trees, including chickadees, titmouses, woodpeckers, all types of squirrels, and raccoons. Denning in dead trees naturally keeps animals away from trying to gain access to your house or garage when they are looking for a place to raise their young. Additionally, mammals and birds alike often feast on the wood-eating insects that infest dead wood. If possible, it is very beneficial to leave a dead tree that is still upright right where it is. If there is a danger posed by falling limbs, the limbs can be trimmed back or removed as even leaving just the trunk is helpful to wildlife. Some of these natural “totem poles” can last for years, providing animals and birds much needed shelter and food. Denser shrubs and hedges provide shelter for animals and birds during inclement weather. Small brush piles are also good shelter for some smaller animals, so bear this in mind if you plan to burn a brush pile (especially one that has been sitting for a while). If you plan to burn, put some green brush or leaves that will smoke, and light just one side of the pile initially. Hopefully this will give any animals taking shelter in the pile ample time and warning to escape before the entire pile is engulfed in flames. Also bear in mind for mowing or weed whacking, especially if the grass or weeds have gotten particularly tall or thick, that small mammals (especially rabbits) may choose these areas for nesting. If possible, walk areas first (or let Fido check them out) to see if there are any nests to be avoided. Tall grass in pastures is a great hiding place for fawns in the late spring/early summer, so try to be mindful of that as well. Fawns under two weeks of age do not travel with their mothers, but rather the doe beds them down in what she perceives as a safe spot; fawns will lay curled up in a ball with their heads down, so they are easy to miss until you are very close to them. This spring, our center took in three fawns that had been injured by mowing; sometimes the injuries are so severe they prove fatal, so please try to be cautious during fawn birthing season (early May through end of July typically).
Water is vital to all wildlife, year round. You can help by maintaining and regularly replenishing a source of clean drinking water for wildlife. A birdbath or small pond can be beneficial. Birds prefer relatively shallow water, so if you have a deeper birdbath you can partially fill the bottom with small pebbles, or place some flat rocks in the bottom for the birds to perch on and drink. Hummingbirds in particular love misters. Be sure to change water regularly to keep it clean and safe for the critters, and also to discourage growth of mosquito larvae.
Speaking of mosquitos, try to use natural prevention as much as possible. Check downspouts, plant saucers, fountains, and any other areas in which water can pool regularly. Either dump the water out, or treat with mosquito dunks to keep mosquitos from breeding. Many chemicals used outdoors to kill insect pests can also harm birds and beneficial insects such as bees and butterflies. Additionally, some chemical fertilizers can and do find their way into water sources, where they cause algae blooms or environmental toxicity. Try to use as few chemicals outdoors as you possibly can. Instead, research natural ways of discouraging pests and encouraging your lawn and garden to grow. Provide habitats or housing for wildlife that may help control insects, such as bats (which can eat thousands of mosquitos and other biting pests every night; a single little brown bat can eat up to 1000 mosquitoes in a single hour!) lizards, and songbirds. During nesting season, most songbirds feed their growing young on insects, almost exclusively. Although not all birds will accept birdhouses, many insect-eating varieties such as chickadees, bluebirds, woodpeckers, and screech owls will use them if they are appropriately sized and located. Plans for bat houses can be found online, or pre-assembled ones are often available through garden supply websites. You can even help native bees by either building or buying a bee “house” and establishing it in a suitable location.
Many people enjoy watching backyard birds at feeders they put up. It is perfectly ok to feed wild birds. However, not all birds like the same types of feed, so to save money and have less waste (birdseed scattered on the ground might attract things you don’t want, such as wood rats), it is a good idea to do a little research into the nutritional needs of the wild birds in your area and to select a food mixture that will be of most benefit to the species you’re hoping to attract. In addition, be aware that a backyard feeder tends to attract more birds than would naturally concentrate in an area, so if you stop feeding for any reason, the birds may suffer because there isn’t enough natural food for them all. So, if you start feeding, try to be consistent, especially during the winter months when food may be harder to find. Mammals, particularly deer and raccoons, should never be fed. Putting food out for these mammals can cause them to become overpopulated in a particular area, which in turn can lead to spread of disease. Also, dependence and lack of fear can make animals more likely to come into conflict with people or domestic pets. This almost always brings sad results for wildlife.
This next suggestion always causes a lot of controversy, but here goes anyway: cats make great pets, and we love cats as much as anyone (most wildlife rehabilitators love all animals and have multiple cats as pets as well). However, cats are predators and they just can’t help themselves, even though as domesticated pets they do not need to hunt in order to eat. Pet cats that are free to roam outdoors can and do prey on vulnerable native birds and other smaller wildlife (rabbits, squirrels, lizards, juvenile opossums, etc.). Some estimates put the number of birds lost to cats each year at 500 million in North America alone. Please train your cat to be an indoor pet. In addition to protecting wildlife, keeping cats inside keeps them safer and healthier, and they have a longer life (SPCA studies show that, on average, cats who are allowed to roam outdoors often don’t live past age five while house cats can live to be 18 to 20 years old). Additionally, many people don’t realize that leash laws in most areas also apply to cats. Any cat that is free roaming off their owner’s property is considered a stray and can be picked up by Animal Control, or turned over to an Animal Control officer or shelter.
Be mindful of our wild friends when you are behind the wheel, and please brake for wildlife! Vehicle/animal accidents tend to be even higher in the weeks following time changes for daylight savings. Although wildlife are not aware of the time change, they are aware of typical traffic patterns in a particular area, so when this suddenly changes due to the clocks being set back or forward by an hour, the chances of accidents increase. Dawn and dusk tend to be more risky times, so be especially vigilant during those hours. Heavy rains can also cause animals to be out on roads where they typically would not be (if there is local minor flooding, etc.). Turtles are often hit crossing roads during the spring and early summer when they normally “migrate” to their breeding ponds. If you do happen to see a turtle on the road, and it is safe to pull over to assist the turtle, remember to put the turtle on the side of the road in the direction he was heading so he can continue on his way. Snakes are sometimes on roadways in the early evening when they come out to hunt (the pavement is still warm from the daylight sun, so as cold-blooded animals they are warming themselves). Snakes are an important part of the ecosystem, so please try to avoid them.
Lastly, if you want to assist wildlife in our area, please consider supporting Friends of Texas Wildlife, or the local wildlife group wherever you live. Local groups like us are unfunded and non-profit, so are always in need of financial help. You might also consider helping out as a volunteer. Even if you can’t help care for animals, we can use your talents to help with other support we need (community outreach, fundraising, etc.). Also, don’t forget to let your voice be heard. Vote for candidates who have some concern for our wildlife and who will work to preserve at least some wild spaces for both people and the animals to enjoy.
To learn more about what we do and view pictures of many of the animals we assist, please visit our Facebook page at www.facebook.com/SavingTexasWildlife. Our educational visitor’s center has an open house the second Saturday of each month from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., located at 29816 Dobbin Huffsmith Road, Magnolia, Texas. The next open house will be Saturday, August 12. Come on out and visit us, learn a little more about local wildlife, and meet some of our non-releasable educational animals. Also, we are hoping to have our 8th annual Day in the Forest at Northshore Park in The Woodlands on Saturday, October 21. We need the community to help support this wonderful educational event and are looking for sponsors and vendors. For more information, please email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit ftwl.org.