Wednesday, June 15, 2016

First Habitat at Home Yard: Are You Next?

Tucson Audubon’s Habitat at Home program has recognized its first Habitat at Home yard! The Habitat at Home program helps you implement safe, sustainable bird habitat in your yard. Then we recognizes your effort with a sign that looks like this!

For years Jennifer Patton and Ben Wilder have been working to make their central Tucson yard, front and back, a haven for native plants and birds. Let's look at some of the things they've done that qualified them for recognition.

When they bought their house in a central Tucson neighborhood in 1998 there were 24 species of plants. Seventy percent of them were exotic—from other continents. Now there are 100 species of plants and only 8% of them are exotic (two of those are fruit trees). 

Native vegetation in the front yard

Native plants are the cornerstone of Habitat at Home, because on average they do a much better job of providing for the needs of birds. This is in large part due to the fact that they support many more of our native insects. According to the influential book Bringing Birds Home, by Douglas Tallamy, 96% of North American terrestrial birds depend on insects to feed their young, even if they tend to eat other things the rest of the year. They need insects to reproduce. And if birds don't successfully reproduce in our neighborhoods, they will not usually be present there.

A diversity not just of native plant species but also of plant structure helps lots of birds. Mid-story vegetation, in particular, is important for birds to forage and nest in. Certain native species, Abert's Towhee, Costa's Hummingbird, Bell's Vireo, Northern Cardinals and others often nest in mid-story vegetation (say, about 3 to 7 feet off the ground). 

Abert's Towhees nested this spring in this riot of
vegetation--including a lot of mid-story structure--in
the back of the lot off the alley

Water is important for the survival of most birds and providing and appropriately-sized water source will increase the variety of birds you see and help them survive.

This, and another small water source in the
yard, provide plenty of fresh water for birds

There was some decorative rock mulch (gravel) in the yard when they moved in, but Jennifer and Ben have emphasized organic mulch as they have upgraded the yard over the years. This insulates the ground, cools the yard and increases diversity of life in soils underneath. Lizards also seem to like it a lot! The abundance of lizards in the yard speaks to the owners' success in encouraging the bottom level of the food web--the insects and other arthropods that provide food for lizards and birds alike.

Spiny lizards blend in well with the organic mulch 

This yard keeps rain onsite with rainwater harvesting basins. They have also removed an impermeable concrete driveway and replaced it with permeable landscaping full of native plants. The has a gray water system making use of water from the washing machine. This all reduces the amount of rare, valuable potable water that is used for watering plants. 

Formerly a concrete driveway, this area along the west side
of the house is now a cool, shady path lined by scores of native
plants. Most of the rainwater that falls here sinks into
the ground now rather than running into the street.

The best news is that in 1998 only 11 species of birds were observed (27% of them were exotic House Sparrows, European Starlings and Rock Doves). In the last couple years 38 species have been seen and the exotics now only constitute only 8%!

The Habitat at Home program seeks a wholesale conversion of Tucson yards into safe, sustainable bird habitat. Let’s make Tucson a miracle of bird diversity and reconciliation ecology! In doing so, we will make our city cooler, less dependent on imported water, and more beautiful. And our kids will have a yard full of wonder that might, just might, pry them away from their screens for a while!

Sign up for Habitat at Home now! Go to!


  1. Jennifer and Ben are inspiring! Perhaps someday there will be a yard tour of Habitat at Home residences as a fundraiser for TAS! Good work Kendall for this important program.

    1. Thanks Michele. When we have recognized more yards one of our goals is to have a yard tour. Jennifer and Ben have inspired me to redouble my efforts for this important program.

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