Wild Wonderland

The National Wildlife Federation explains how to create a certified wildlife habitat in your backyard
Ernie McLaney
The Certified Wildlife Habitat program helps gardeners transforms backyards into natural habitats

You already know that wildlife habitats are diminishing. Maybe you volunteer for an environmental organization or make charitable donations to wildlife preservation groups. Want to have an even bigger impact? Start in your own backyard. David Mizejewski, a naturalist with the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), explains how its Certified Wildlife Habitat program helps gardeners turn their backyards—and balconies—into natural habitats for wildlife.

Where did the idea for the Certified Wildlife Habitat program come from?

We started the program in 1973 to address shrinking wild areas and diminishing habitats. The idea was to empower people to get involved in conservation issues [because] we knew there were simple things people could do to experience nature at home that would be effective and powerful for wildlife conservation. The program also gives people a tangible way to connect with nature, which is at the core of our mission.

Since the program started, more than 170,000 gardens have been certified as wildlife habitats [through the NWF]. There are 7,076 certified wildlife habitats in North Carolina and 646 in Charlotte.

How does the program work?

There are four main criteria that a gardener must meet to earn certification: food sources, water sources, cover, and places to raise young.

Native plants are the best sources of food because they provide pollen, nectar, fruit, and seeds for wildlife. Even in a small space like an apartment balcony, potted plants can provide food for wildlife. Supplemental feeders are also allowed for certification, but we prefer food to come from natural sources like plants. In the wild, birds will only use feeders to supplement natural foods found in the landscape.

For cover, a brush pile, rock pile, or mature trees will work. These are places where wildlife can raise their young. On a balcony, birdhouses and other nesting boxes are also suitable for certification.

Water is the one category that most people are concerned about. It’s important to give wildlife clean drinking water and places to bathe, but there is a misconception that you need to have a pond or an expensive water feature to qualify for certification. A birdbath or dishes of water are also acceptable. You’ll attract different kinds of wildlife, depending on how high up the water source is. Birds and squirrels will use birdbaths that are up higher, and toads and butterflies will use water sources on the ground.

We prefer wildlife habitats to be chemical-free. It’s better for wildlife if there are no pesticides or herbicides used on yards.

How much work is it to get certified?

Some people will read the checklist and realize that they already have all of the elements they need to get certified. Sometimes it takes a little more work. But the program is designed to be accessible; it doesn’t matter where you live, what your budget is, or how much gardening experience you have. It’s easier to get certified than most people think.

There is an application online (nwf.org/certifiedwildlifehabitat). It costs $20 for a basic certification [$50 if you want to get a sign that you can put in the garden to let the neighbors know it’s a certified wildlife habitat], and all of the money raised through certifications goes back into the program.

What are the benefits for local wildlife?

The typical garden is usually more focused on aesthetics and doesn’t offer much in the way of habitat. By selecting the right native plant species and adding features such as birdbaths and nesting boxes, each of us can reconnect our gardens to the local ecosystem. 

Wildlife-friendly gardens can be just as beautiful and low-maintenance, with the added benefit of offering daily opportunities to see birds, butterflies, and other interesting animals like frogs and snakes. Sometimes wildlife will start showing up in your yard on the same day that you make these changes.

As habitats are shrinking, it’s more important for people to get involved. The more people who [create wildlife habitats], the more impactful it will be.

How do gardeners benefit?

A lot of people get certified because they think it’s fun and they want to be part of the movement. It gets people outside and connected with nature, whether they are planting native plants in their gardens or sitting on the porch with a cup of coffee and watching the birds and butterflies.

There are other benefits to the certification like a certificate, magazine subscription, and one-year membership to the NWF.

Does the NWF have any new programs to address habitat loss?

We have a community certification program called Community Wildlife Habitat that works to bring a critical mass of wildlife-friendly gardens into a community.

The North Carolina Wildlife Federation is working on a project to have Charlotte certified through a project they’re calling Charlotte Naturally. To qualify, the project will need to have 600 homes, 12 community sites, seven businesses, and six schools certified as wildlife habitats. 

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