Weatherford Democrat

January 28, 2009

Austin program works to restore wildlife habitat

AUSTIN (AP) — Patricia Roberts-Miller says her yard was a boring swath of grass when she and her family moved into their North Austin home three years ago.

Today, the 25-by-80 -foot space teems with creatures and plant life. Toads, sparrows and finches congregate near a small, man-made pond. A screech owl peers out of a wooden box nailed to an ash tree. Butterflies perch on dill plants and passion flowers and butterfly weed.

“My son and I got up very early one morning and watched the screech owls teach their babies to fly,” Roberts-Miller said. “It was magical.”

Her yard is one of about 900 spots locally that have been certified as wildlife habitats under a new city of Austin program. The city wants the National Wildlife Federation to designate Austin a community wildlife habitat. Creating and certifying habitats in the yards of homes, schools and businesses are part of the application process.

To be named habitats, yards must have specific features, such as food and water sources, sheltered spots where animals can raise young and sustainable gardening practices.

Homeowners must pay $15 and submit a two-page application to the wildlife federation to be certified.

There are no tax breaks or any other benefits for homes that qualify.

The program’s aim is to restore natural spaces to areas that are increasingly urban and suburban, said Alice Nance, who runs the wildlife program for the city.

“The idea behind it is to maintain biodiversity even in the middle of growth and development,” she said. “It’s also about reducing your carbon footprint, not watering or mowing as much and bringing wildlife and nature into your everyday life.”

It’s easy to create a habitat, Nance said, because most backyards already include many of the features required for certification. Some of the food, water and shelter sources that qualify as habitat-friendly include berries, pollen, bird baths, brush piles and thickets. And the sustainable gardening practices include using mulch, composting and limiting water use.

Yards don’t have to be big to be habitats.

Frances Allen ’s 75-by-130-foot yard in Central Austin abuts MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1). Even with the din of nearby traffic, the space feels like a secluded slice of nature. A tall pecan tree, a compost pile, a small fountain and plants such as American Beautyberry shrubs draw cardinals, blue jays and sparrows.

David Obermann’s Northwest Austin backyard was an unkempt garden when he and his family moved in 17 years ago.

Obermann has pulled out invasive, water-hogging plants, such as waxleaf ligustrum and chinaberry, and replaced them with native species such as Texas persimmon and Mexican buckeye. A bird bath and large rocky holes that fill up during rainstorms serve as water sources. A brush pile and felled trees have been home to foxes and other creatures.

The yard, which has been certified as a wildlife habitat, requires less water, pesticides and upkeep than a typical suburban lawn, Obermann said.

“A monoculture of plants will always be under attack” by bugs and fungi, he said. “Adding a diversity of plants, even just one at a time, improves the health and quality of a yard.”