Backyard Beauties and Beasts

 Although we all enjoy visiting nature preserves, sometimes it is possible to see very exciting animals right in our own backyards.  The chances of this can be improved considerably if you manage your yard plantings and ground litter specifically to create wildlife habitat, and avoid killing natural predators that will help to control pests without the excessive use of pesticides.  Since no single lot can be sufficient habitat for more than a few species, encouraging your neighbors to do likewise will multiply your pleasure at seeing critters in your own backyard nature preserve.



Here are a few photos of my own backyard bestiary divided into animals some may consider beauties or beasts.  I make this as only a semantic distinction since I consider all creatures equally beautiful.  No one would disagree that the male painted bunting would be on everyone's list of the most spectacular creatures and we have finally succeeded in attracting buntings in winter by providing a drip of fresh drinking/bathing water and white millet seeds.  The bizarre plumage colors, as is the case for the bright red male cardinal, are likely designed to attract females by advertising the male's fitness as a mate.  So the drab yellow-green female is really in charge behind the scenes! 


Butterflies are some of natures most flamboyant creations and they can easily be attracted by planting food both for the caterpillars and the adults.  The Gulf fritillary is one of my favorites- its bright colors apparently mimic the monarch although its toxicity is not derived from monarch's larval food of milkweeds, but from passionvines.  The corky stemmed passionvine is a common native or you may plant some of the exotic species which also have beautiful flowers.  Since our soil is better for the native and I am a lazy gardener, I rely primarily on corky stemmed which seeds itself from bird droppings.  The adult fritillaries will drink nectar from many flowers but especially favor firebush, Jamaican porterweed and pentas.  


The mangrove skipper is a large dark skipper with gorgeous cobalt blue highlights.  Its larval food, red mangrove, is provided naturally along tidal shores, so you only have to plant nectar sources for the adults.  This skipper is drinking from a Mexican flame vine which is very attractive to all butterflies.  Unfortunately it is an invasive exotic which requires some effort to contain in the garden but repays such effort with periodic bursts of brilliant flowers.


The red morph of the screech owl seen here was roosting in a thick area of shrubs in our yard.  This illustrates how provision of cover is crucial for the successful wildlife garden.  Whereas we humans seen this tiny owl as beautiful and fascinating, small creatures that serve as food for this small but fierce bird of prey may have a different opinion.  We also put up a nesting and roosting box for the owls plus we have several dead palms with woodpecker created holes that can be used for breeding.


The top of the list for backyard beasts is occupied by the whip scorpion or vinegaroon.  This is an intimidating creature which is a predator on small ground-living insects, but it is completely harmless to humans.  It does not sting like true scorpions and only sprays a vinegar-like substance as a defense.  But it is death on small cockroaches and if provided with adequate ground litter will patrol your yard and keep a natural check on small pests.  A healthy litter community is dependent in large part on using natural litter which provides spaces in between leaves which are absent in dense mulch which is so often used in flower beds.  Two reptilian members of the litter community are the blind snake and the blue-tailed skink, both of which are quite beneficial in feeding on insects.  The worm-like blind snake is an all-female species which reproduces by  parthenogenesis.  It is an exotic species which has been widely distributed in flower pots.  The native skink lays eggs which the female curls around and protects until they hatch; the bright blue tail advertises toxicity to potential predators.


The final member of our  "beast" list is the ant lion which is a fierce predator on insects, especially ants.  If this creature were the size of a dog, we would all have to carry an AK47 to defend ourselves when we went into our yards!  Since it quickly colonizes sandy areas it can be recruited to serve as a control against insects that seek to enter your home.  Simply clear a zone of two feet around your house and place some sand there, which will attract antlions.


Think about ways you can modify your yard plantings and ground litter to encourage wildlife and natural predators on pests.  This will benefit you by increasing the number of animals you can enjoy watching; it will minimize the pests that bother you, and it will decrease your exposure to toxic chemicals.


Bill Dunson 
Englewood, FL, and Galax, VA