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August 2005
Creating an Urban Wildlife Sanctuary
By Margaret Baird


Creating a haven for wildlife—even in the heart of a city as large and densely populated as New York—can be as easy as it is rewarding, and any conflicts with your wild neighbors can almost always be solved using non-lethal strategies.

Developing or modifying your outdoor space to accommodate the needs of wildlife—be it a yard, balcony, or window box—is an ongoing process, especially once you learn to view your environment as animals see it. And no matter how large, small, natural, or developed your property, you can make it more attractive and useful for the wild animals who live around you by providing features that meet their basic needs: water, food, and shelter. Provide one or more of these necessities and animals will come. Particularly in cities—home to many adaptable, generalist species like raccoons, opossums, sparrows, pigeons, and other songbirds—animals will take advantage of whatever meets their needs on a permanent or seasonal basis. As your personal sanctuary develops, so will the feeling that you are part of the natural community around you.

A Watery Welcome
Water is a powerful attractant for wildlife—especially in an urban environment where natural water sources are limited—so simply maintaining a birdbath or shallow dish of water is a great way to provide for them. This is also particularly true in winter, when regular water sources tend to dry or ice up—forcing animals to expend valuable energy in searching for alternatives, which might mean the difference between life and death during the coldest season. For birds in particular, water is a year-round necessity not only for drinking but for bathing, since it keeps feathers in top flying and insulating shape. Your water container should be frequently cleaned and have a shallow end, so birds can safely wade. During the winter, keep water ice-free by using a heated birdbath or a water-heating unit with a built-in thermostat. If that’s not possible, replenish your water sources with hot—not boiling—water to melt away any ice; this should keep it nearly ice-free for a few hours.

Bed ‘n’ Breakfast
Food and shelter for your wild neighbors is best provided by native plants, such as those that produce seeds, nuts, berries, or nectar and offer shelter, nesting places, and safe cover from predators. Even a window box, balcony, or patio can hold a few wildlife-friendly container plants favored by songbirds, hummingbirds, butterflies, and squirrels. Ideally, providing as much natural habitat as possible is the goal to shoot for. Birdfeeders or other artificial food sources should be undertaken with great care. These benign feeders could be hazardous to wildlife when a homeowner decides to take a three week vacation in the dead of winter, and the feeders suddenly go unfilled. Feeding may also bring about animals we may have conflicts with, such as rats. Having said that, moderate and careful feeding of birds and squirrels in a backyard situation is not likely to create problems. It can also make a difference for animals when natural food sources are depleted, and of course give you a chance to observe and enjoy their presence at close range. Since natural foods are readily available from late spring through summer, consider limiting songbird feeding to the cooler months of the year. Hummingbird feeders, however, can stay out from spring through early fall.

Get Certified
Once you’ve developed your sanctuary, take the next step and have it officially certified as an Urban Wildlife Sanctuary by The Humane Society of the United States. In a nutshell, HSUS’ goals are not only to cultivate greater understanding and appreciation for wildlife in urban environments, but to help people safely and peacefully co-exist with their wild neighbors.

Margaret Baird is the Director of Communications for the HSUS Urban Wildlife Program. Learn more at



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