How to Live with Wildlife

Attract critters to your garden and still keep them out of your attic, birdfeeder, and trash cans.

One of the best things about creating a natural garden is that wildlife will visit and maybe even live there. But even the most diehard wildlife lovers don’t want squirrels in the attic, raccoons in the trash, or bears in the bird feeders. Fortunately, you can have a thriving habitat garden and also prevent conflicts with wildlife.

Block entry points to your home. Animals need shelter, and your home can be a good place to find it. Before you plant a wildlife-friendly garden, it pays to critter-proof your home. The old saying about an ounce of prevention applies here. Don’t wait until animals have moved in to worry about critter-proofing. Dealing with shredded insulation, smelly droppings, nocturnal antics in the attic, or chewed electrical lines will cost you far more than being proactive.

Animals often gain entry through the roofline or the basement. Inspect these areas to make sure there are no potential points of entry. Trim branches away from the roof. Even a space less than 1 inch is big enough for mice or bats to squeeze into, so be thorough. Use all-weather caulking and metal mesh to cover any entry points. (Make sure you don’t have any critters already inside before you do this.) Call a professional if necessary.

Keep food locked away. Wild animals are drawn to natural foods like the insects and plants in your garden, but many will also knock over your trashcans or tear into pet food or birdseed bags. Store your trash and other edible items indoors, and don’t leave full trashcans outside overnight.

Never deliberately put out food scraps or pet food for wildlife. They’ll attract mammals such as foxes, skunks, opossums, and raccoons, as well as stray cats. You might think you’re doing a good thing, but such foods are often unhealthy for wildlife. Being fed in this way also causes animals to lose their natural fear of humans and associate us with easy meals. Wild animals that don’t fear people can become dangerous, and as a result, don’t survive long.

Be careful with bird feeders. Bird feeders are a great addition to the garden. Birds don’t lose their fear of people and don’t pose any biting threat. That said, feeders are not without their own problems. Squirrels, raccoons, and bears don’t know or care that the feeder is supposed to feed only the birds, and they won’t hesitate to take advantage of such an easy food source. The best approach, if this happens, is to take down your feeders and provide food for the birds through the berries, seeds, and nectar of your garden plants. Your plants will provide food and shelter for mammals, too, but won’t draw them to your yard in unnatural numbers or cause them to lose their fear of people.

Trap and Release?
A seemingly humane solution to wildlife conflicts is to use a “live trap” to collect the offending critter, then release it in a wild area.

Unfortunately, this approach isn’t as humane as it seems. Many wild animals have territories that they defend against others of their species. When you dump an animal in an unfamiliar park, forest, or meadow, that animal has no idea where to find food and shelter and is likely to be attacked, driven off, and possibly killed by the current residents. Newcomers typically don’t survive.

The real solution is prevention. Help wildlife by restoring the natural plant community in your garden. Avoid attracting wildlife with unnatural food sources like trash and pet food, and make sure your home is critter-proofed. Then you’ll be able to enjoy the critters and feel good about helping them.

Photo: Photolibrary/Matt Carr