Turning a Small Space Into a Big Attraction for Wildlife

Even if you only have an apartment balcony or small porch, there are things you can do to welcome birds and other creatures

  • Michael Lipske
  • Dec 01, 1995
Think you need country acres, or at least a suburban lot, to entice wildlife to visit your home? Think again — and think smaller.

"Even if you only have an apartment balcony or small porch, if you have access to the world outside, there are things you can do to bring wildlife to your home," says Craig Tufts, manager of the National Wildlife Federation's Certified Wildlife Habitat Program.

Tufts has certified a number of apartment balcony gardens as official backyard habitats. In Suffolk, Massachusetts, for example, one couple's 25 square-foot balcony is strung with four hanging feeders that lure pine siskins, cardinals, redpolls, blue jays and a half-dozen other kinds of birds. The couple have also put out hummingbird and oriole feeders, and have created a small garden of columbine, lobelia and other flowers, plus red-twig dogwood and other plants that provide food or shelter for wildlife.

"A well-maintained feeder will bring the birds in close even if you're not living close to ground level," says Tufts. "especially if your balcony is near trees, such as a park or green corridor."

Tufts knows of a third-floor balcony in Portland, Oregon, surrounded by ornamental trees that is visited heavily by scrub jays and other birds. And every spring, Tufts fields phone calls from apartment dwellers in other areas who find house finches or mourning doves nesting in their hanging plants.

6 Tips for Creating a Habitat on Your Balcony or Porch

Want to create your own balcony or porch mini-habitat? Consider the following tips:

Don't put out large quantities of bird seed. You'll attract pigeon flocks or even rats — and most likely the wrath of your neighbors. (For that matter, before hanging a feeder, you may want to clear it with your building manager.) "You also want something to catch the seed hulls," suggests Tufts. Look for a hanging tubular feeder with a tray at the bottom. Using hulled sunflower seed is another way to cut down on mess.

Pick drought-resistant plants. The only natural water supply for your plants will be rain that blows in, so consider using drought-resistant species that require less-frequent watering. Plastic pots retain water better than ones made of terra-cotta.

Help plants retain water. Plants growing in baskets and boxes dry out more quickly than those in the ground. To help slow the drying process, place a water-retaining material in the bottom of the baskets, such as coconut-fiber or Super moss (the latter is a sphagnum substitute made from recycled materials). Don't use real sphagnum, the commercial mining of which is destroying bog habitats in several states. And speaking of water, fill a heavy, shallow pan or small birdbath for thirsty wild visitors.

Pick plants that can live in indirect sunlight. Sunshine is also scarce on many balconies. If you want to grow evergreens (which provide excellent shelter for birds), consider small hollies that can live with indirect sunlight. On the other hand, if your balcony gets four or five hours of sun a day, you can grow dwarf evergreens like pines, spruces and junipers. Where you live may determine the kinds of wildlife that visit your elevated habitat. In cool, moist cities like Seattle, a hanging basket of fuchsia or impatiens should thrive on a balcony—and should attract any of the region's several species of hummingbirds. In Florida and Hawaii, balconies may be visited by geckos or anoles, especially if your building's exterior walls are made of stucco or cinder block.

Target butterflies. No matter where you live, you should be able to attract butterflies to your balcony or porch. To lure cabbage butterflies, plant broccoli, cabbage or flowering kale. Black swallowtails will be drawn to parsley and dill. Zinnias, cosmos, marigolds or lantana also attract many hungry butterflies. Oregano and thyme are good windowbox herbs that entice other species of insects.

When planning a balcony or small porch garden, maintain a sense of proportion. Don't use plants that are going to grow too large or ungainly for the space. "The less maintenance, the better," says Tufts. "That way, you'll have more time to sit back and enjoy watching the creatures that you've invited to your home."

Certify Your Balcony or Porch as a Wildlife Habitat

Once you incorporate food sources, water sources, cover, and places for wildlife to raise young, certify your garden as a Certified Wildlife Habitat.

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