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Set the scene, and wildlife will come

Nearly two weeks ago I was sitting near a window with some friends in a Horace residence, waiting for a bird to show up.

Not just any bird, but a Carolina Wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus). This bird had appeared in late December and marked just the fifth recorded occurrence of its kind in North Dakota, according to the North Dakota Birding Society. I had seen this species many times when I lived in Mississippi and once even in Bismarck. But this was my first opportunity to see it in Cass County. After a time, this normally shy bird appeared much to my delight.

While spending time at the Gregg residence, I was overwhelmed with the layout of their beautiful property. It was obvious Linda and Joe had created a critter-friendly yard. Why a rarity such as this should show up here was no surprise. Attracting wildlife (like the retail trade) means nothing more than three things: location, location, location.

The needs of wild creatures, including birds, are really not that much different than our own. If one thinks of food, water and shelter as being the essential tenets of human survival, that person is well on the way to understanding the necessities of wildlife as well.

Creating a property that's suitable for man and beast is not difficult, but it takes some thought and time. First and foremost, habitat is everything. And in the animal world that usually means one thing, cover. Trees, bushes, forbs and grasses in diverse mixes make up plant cover in an urban landscape. Sticking with native stuff is best. Wild birds have adapted a survival strategy over thousands of years using plants found in native landscapes. Some superb suggestions can be had from your local nursery, county extension office, or the North Dakota Game and Fish Department.

Don't ignore the importance of dead plant material. This idea may be difficult to sell to your neighbors, but I would suggest resisting the temptation to "clean" your yard to pristine standards. Take a walk in Minnesota's north woods or even the Sheyenne National Grasslands. One element of wild places that stands in stark contrast to our urban properties is the presence of dead stuff. Critters thrive in it. As a practical matter we can't let a dead boulevard tree stand or let our lawns grow to three feet, but there is always the back yard. Leave a brush pile (or your Christmas tree) over the winter, let gardens stand as is until next spring, don't cut down your perennials in the fall, and leave a few apples on the tree. You may be surprised by the positive response from birds and other wildlife.

Water is another essential ingredient to survival. Most wild animals are well suited to going without water for a time, and they can find it on their own with little difficulty. But if a person offers it in a landscape, it becomes an instant magnet for wildlife. In terms of bird diversity, water will actually attract more species than feeders will.

Water features have gained popularity in recent years, and a person could spend a fortune on some of the fancier ones. While that may suit a formal landscape, the critters don't really care how much a person spends. A simple birdbath or other container is enough to attract a variety of birds. Heaters are even available for winter use; I use a heated dog dish--it's cheaper.

Reams of literature are available regarding the feeding of birds and other wildlife, so little needs to be said. I will offer one suggestion: diversify. If the goal is to attract and enjoy a variety of birds, a person should offer a variety of food. Stick with suet (or some alternative), black oil sunflowers, thistle and perhaps peanuts. Beyond that it's up to you.

All of us can't live in idyllic settings in the woods or along the river, but if creating inviting and suitable habitats for ourselves and for wildlife is a goal, it can be done to a certain degree, no matter where we call home, even in urban environments.