Maureen F. Nitkowski

Master Naturalist

The American design for front yards almost always consists of an expanse of turf, evergreen shrubs in several sizes near the foundation, a few trees to add a height element and a concrete walkway to the front door.

The species of plant material varies according to the climate region, but rarely do you see more than 6 to 10 species present. Uniformity seems to be the goal rather than providing habitat, using native plants, producing fruits or nuts or even designating space for recreation. Unfortunately, my front yard differs little from the standard; most of the innovative landscape is found in the backyard or on the sides of the house.  Imagine my surprise when “nature” showed up in my front yard!

Among the requisite front-yard trees that came with the house, we placed a bird bath and some feeders to attract song birds throughout the year that could be watched from indoors. During this hot summer other creatures took advantage of the bird bath. The largest visitor was a hawk or accipiter, most likely a Cooper’s hawk.  Accipiters hunt birds among trees and thickets, and our hawk left feathered remnants of a blue jay near the bird bath.He also spent time standing in the bird bath, drinking from it and dipping his breast in the water just as the song birds do. While the hawk was away the squirrels came to drink and cool off. One squirrel laid flat in the bird bath with its chin resting on one edge and tail hanging over the far edge. Regardless of our personal feelings about squirrels they deserve an “A” for adaptability to human habitation.

Other visitors to the front yard that attracted our attention were the bluebirds with their distinctive calls and darting behavior. The bluebirds had spotted a Texas rat snake in the open grass and were warning all birds in the vicinity. This particular snake was about 40-inches long. It traveled to a nearby tree and climbed it with ease.

 Rat snakes eat birds and nestlings, rodents and other small mammals.

The bluebirds use several nesting boxes on our property. The boxes are mounted on poles with baffles to thwart snakes and raccoons. Birds that nest in shrubs, trees or on the ground only have their warning system for protection.

Although I enjoy our front-yard visitors I realize that they are transients in that environment and do not have suitable habitat there to complete their life cycles.

 In contrast to the low-diversity front yard, our backyard has a wide variety of native plants and fruiting trees and shrubs that provide food and shelter for rabbits, birds, snakes and insects. There also are bird baths and bowls placed in this area to supplement water needs.

Diversity in plants leads to diversity in animal representation, so think diversity when you design your property, and enjoy the permanent residents as well as the visitors.

For more information about Master Naturalists, call the AgriLife Extension Service at 972-825-5175 or e-mail ellis-tx@tamu.edu.