Tourists may flock to Orlando for its theme parks. But the explosive growth of this Central Florida city has made some longtime residents feel unwelcome. It may be home to the world’s most famous mouse, but urban expansion has taken over the habitat of other creatures, threatening beneficial native wildlife.

Dr. Mark Hostetler
Dr. Mark Hostetler

“Urban areas are becoming pretty dominant, so a lot of times wildlife has to go into urban areas,” according to Dr. Mark Hostetler, a professor and wildlife extension specialist at the University of Florida. “We can do a lot for them in terms of food, shelter, and places to rest.”

Dr. Hostetler says it’s important to protect beneficial wildlife for two reasons. “One, we don’t want to lose our natural heritage. Two, wildlife diversity has so many connections to helping humans, an example being the pollinators.”

Some species – the alligator comes to mind – you probably don’t want wandering around in your backyard. But there are plenty of beneficial wildlife in the Orlando area.

Insects

Butterflies – Monarchs and giant swallowtails add beauty to any garden.

Predators – Ladybugs, green lacewings, praying mantis, and many spiders and beetles are natural exterminators of harmful insects.

Pollinators – Left alone to do their work, bees are a vital part of the food chain.

Birds – Cardinals and hummingbirds are delightful while hawks stay on vigilant patrol against rodents. Owls are always a hoot to have around. Purple martins are aerial acrobats when it comes to capturing flying pests, and pileated woodpeckers pluck ants out of your trees.

Frogs – Having a few of these quick-tongued amphibians around will keep insect pests at bay while serenading you at night.

Landscaping for Beneficial Wildlife

Avoid using pesticides

“Pesticides don’t only target pests. They affect beneficial wildlife, too,” Dr.   Hostetler said.  “Spot treat if you must use them. We at least recommend not broadcasting across your whole lot.”

Limit the amount of grass you have.

Reducing grass cuts down on mowing. Replacing turf with alternate ground covers or native wildflowers also provides usable habitat for a wide variety of wildlife. “Turf is like concrete to most animals,” Dr. Hostetler said. A good landscaper can create islands of flowers, groundcover, and native grasses to attract wildlife.

Go with native plants – eliminate exotics

Native or well-adapted plants will thrive better, use less water, and are more attractive to the wildlife you want. “Invasive exotics have a big impact on wildlife,” Dr. Hostetler said. He points to ardisia and heavenly bamboo as two plants that are popular with Florida gardeners, but are invasive and displace native plants.

Plant a variety of natives to ensure you attract a good mixture of creatures. Use plants of varying heights. Consider vertical landscaping – using walls, lattices, or frames to allow plants to grow vertically. It attracts wildlife and adds visual interest to your landscape.

Provide water

All living things need water. A birdbath can help, and a small pond will do even better. A water feature is a welcome mat for frogs, and the frogs will take care of the mosquitoes.

Build bird feeders and birdhouses

Blue martins
Purple martins. Credit: OakleyOriginals, CC 2.0.

Most birds are happy to partake in a free meal of seeds if you offer it. Bird feeders are especially helpful to those that stick around in the cooler months.

Birds can build their own nests, but like humans, some species don’t mind moving into readymade digs. You can buy them at stores or online or build them yourself. The size of the house and entrance can vary depending on the kind of bird you’re trying to attract.

The purple martin, a variety of swallow, is probably the most human-friendly wild bird in existence. It pays its rent by ridding the sky of mosquitoes and other flying pests and entertains with its aerial feats. The martins in the eastern U.S. are entirely dependent on people for housing, and you’ll find purple martin houses or plans in stores and online. They’re sociable birds and don’t mind living in a high-rise condo with others of their species. In fact, putting their homes up high and away from overhanging tree branches will give you a better chance of getting tenants. You can also hang a hollowed-out gourd to attract them.

Diversity is key to creating wildlife habitat. Dr. Hostetler advises you to avoid creating a monoculture in your yard.  That is, having your property dominated by a single plant species, such as lawn turf. If you diversify your plants, you’ll have a better chance of attracting and keeping a good mixture of beneficial wildlife.

Dr. Mark Hostetler focuses on the design and management of green communities and biodiversity conservation. He’s a professor as well as an extension specialist with the Department of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation at UF/FAS in Gainesville.