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NC State Extension

Step One – Identify Wildlife Needs

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drawing of butterfly

The common buckeye is a common butterfly in urban gardens.

Whether you want to attract a variety of wildlife or a specific butterfly species, you should identify the basic needs of each wildlife species you want to attract to your landscape. It’s a good idea to have target species in mind, so you can identify the needs of those species and use that information to guide your design and plant selection. If you ignore the habitat needs of your target wildlife species when planning your landscape, you are likely to be disappointed with the end result.

Basic Needs – All wildlife have the same basic life requirements: food, water, and cover. When planning and installing a native plant landscape, all three of these basic habitat components should be considered.

green leaves with yellow flower

Yellow poplar flowers and seeds are eaten by birds and other wildlife.

• Food – The types of food eaten by wildlife vary during the year and include insects and spiders, acorns and other nuts, seeds, fruits, and nectar.

• Cover – Animals require cover for nesting, resting, hiding from predators, and avoiding harsh weather.
• Water – Wildlife require water year round and obtain it from a variety of natural and man-made sources.

black ad red berries

Blackberry provides excellent year-round cover for birds.

Limiting Factor – In some cases, one of these basic components may be absent or less available than the other two. The least available component is termed the limiting factor and generally limits the number of animals that can occur in an area. For example, cover may be the limiting factor for songbirds in a backyard containing numerous feeders and a birdbath but no areas of dense vegetation for nesting or hiding from predators. It’s important for you to identify the limiting factor in your landscape and find a way to compensate for it before addressing other habitat components. This could mean adding plants that provide cover or including a birdbath in your design.

orange and black bird

Orchard oriole is a neotropical migrant that spends winters in the tropics.

Seasonality – Habitat needs of birds and other wildlife change with the seasons. From early April to mid May, buntings, cuckoos, flycatchers, orioles, tanagers, thrushes, vireos, and warblers migrate north from Latin America to their breeding grounds in the United States. These birds are called neotropical migrants. These same birds fly south in September and October, after nesting, to avoid the food shortages that occur as temperatures get colder. Migrating birds favor areas of dense vegetation because of the protection from predators provided by the thick foliage. Resident birds, like bluebirds, northern cardinals, and chickadees, are present in North Carolina year round and spend the winter along with other species that migrate southward into the state from breeding areas to the north. During cold nights and winter storms, these birds and other wildlife reside in evergreen vegetation, including hollies, wax myrtle, eastern redcedar, or pines. It is best to provide a diversity of native plant species on your property, which in turn ensures that food and cover will be available throughout the year.

Specific Needs – Habitat needs vary from animal to animal. Although all animals require food, water, and cover, each species has specific and unique habitat preferences. Meeting those needs with native plants requires careful planning.


brown bird

Brown thrashers eat fruits in the late summer, fall, and winter.

Food – In the spring, migrating birds feed on insects present on the leaves of oak, black cherry, yellow poplar, black willow, and other deciduous trees. Later in the year, adult birds feed their nestlings insects and spiders that provide the protein and calcium important to bone and tissue growth. Some birds, including thrashers and thrushes, seek out fruits available in the late summer and fall. Sparrows, juncos, and many other birds present in the winter eat seeds.

brown bird with red eyes

The red-eyed vireo nests in the tree canopy.

Cover – Different songbirds feed, nest, and rest in different types of vegetation. Birds, because they can fly, are able to segregate themselves vertically within a landscape. The presence of low-growing plants beneath the tree canopy provides vertical vegetation structure, which allows shrub-dwelling birds like northern cardinal to live directly below treetop birds like red-eyed vireo.


red flowers

Ruby-throated hummingbirds eat nectar from coral honeysuckle.

Food – Hummingbirds have habitat requirements different than other birds. Ruby-throated hummingbirds, the only species that breeds in North Carolina, feed on small insects and nectar from bright, tubular flowers.

Cover –Ruby-throated hummingbirds prefer areas of dense undergrowth and vine tangles for feeding and cover. They commonly occur in gardens and along woodland edges.


green leaves with red berries

Spicebush produces fruits eaten by birds and is a caterpillar host plant.

• Food – Different butterfly species vary widely in the types of plants they use as adults and as caterpillars. The diverse natural landscape of the southeastern United States provides a home for hundreds of butterfly species. For example, more than 160 butterfly species occur in North Carolina. Some species are found statewide, while others are restricted to a specific habitat or region. A typical butterfly’s life begins as an egg, laid on the leaf of a host plant. A host plant is a plant that caterpillars like to eat. Each species of butterfly caterpillar generally has unique food requirements that restrict it to a specific host plant. For example, the spicebush swallowtail uses the spicebush as its host plant.

• Cover – Butterflies use plant foliage, downed wood, and standing dead trees as cover throughout the year. During hot afternoons on summer days, butterflies may seek out shady areas. Many butterfly caterpillars are camouflaged to resemble leaves or bird droppings so that they blend in with the foliage of their host plant. Some butterfly adults hide in tree cavities or other tight spots during the winter.