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Some Yards Give Refuge to Wildlife

December 05, 1986|ANN JAPENGA | Times Staff Writer

To a dragonfly, the typical Los Angeles gardener is as much of a menace as an empty-bellied toad.

By keeping their yards groomed and sleek, gardeners denude their property of water, food and shelter --resources necessary to dragonfly survival. But there's a movement of rebel gardeners afoot. They are making backyards safe not only for dragonflies, but butterflies, birds, lizards, possums and other creatures as well.

Katherine Brosman, for instance, has turned her Mar Vista backyard into a veritable wildlife Hilton by installing two fish ponds and by planting trees and shrubs that supply cover and food in the form of fruit, seeds and nectar. Out of regard for her backyard visitors, Brosman, 66, also eschews the use of insecticides. "And some of my flowers show it," she lamented, fingering a bug-eaten azalea.

Brosman's is one of about 4,500 mini-wildernesses in the United States that are certified as backyard habitats by the National Wildlife Federation in Washington. In its free brochures, the federation teaches potential wildlife gardeners how to get started. There's also a planning kit that sells for $16.95 plus $2.50 for shipping and handling. (The National Wildlife Federation is at 1412 16th St. N.W., Washington, D.C.)

The federation's stance is that because wildlife has been forced out of its natural haunts by development, humans have a responsibility to restore some of those lost homes by sharing their own habitats with displaced creatures.

"It's not a program geared toward any particular endangered species--there aren't too many endangered species that appear in backyards," said Antoinette Pepin, coordinator of the backyard habitat program. "The tiny little bits of habitat (created by the program) can't take the place of National Parks and wildlife refuges, but maintaining a habitat can educate people about what all wildlife needs--a place to live."

Wildlife gardeners lay off the pruning shears so that bushes can fill out, providing living quarters for birds, rabbits and other creatures. They let dead leaves and grass pile up so that the ground approximates a natural woodland floor.

The effect, to some eyes, is just plain weedy.

Sneaked in to Mow Yard

There have been several cases in the Midwest and East where habitat owners have clashed with neighbors who believe yards are to be tamed, not set wild. At least two such disputes have resulted in lawsuits. In a suburb of Buffalo, N.Y., frustrated neighbors sneaked in to mow the offending wildlife gardener's yard of chicory, black-eyed Susans and other wildflowers when the courts did not intervene fast enough to suit them.

Southern California backyard habitat keepers interviewed for this story reported no such problems. Some of them appease the neighbors with an orderly front yard--it's only in back that they let the oleanders run amok. David DuVal said his neighbors enjoy seeing what native creatures dash through their own yards en route to DuVal's backyard habitat in Whittier.

And Chris Gorman said her neighbors in Tustin find her family's backyard habitat so novel that she gets many requests for tours.

There are undoubtedly plenty of wildlife-loving gardeners who have created backyard habitats without consulting the National Wildlife Federation. As the best-known champion of the method, though, the organization has become a clearinghouse for information about gardening for wildlife.

Craig Tufts, director of the organization's non-game/urban wildlife program, writes a monthly column "The Backyard Naturalist," which appears in newspapers around the country, addressing topics such as the emotions associated with spotting your first backyard mole, and getting acquainted with isopods, or pill bugs. Tufts also appears occasionally on the PBS-TV series "Victory Garden" to talk about backyard habitats.

The federation's monthly publication, National Wildlife, keeps readers informed of developments in urban habitats:

- A homeowners group made up of 42 families in Waco., Tex., turned their yards into a single backyard habitat, home to broad-winged hawks, armadillos and 25 species of butterflies.

- A Milwaukee couple planted 300 shrubs and trees, as well as 35 species of wildflowers and native plants in a quarter-acre backyard, proving that lots of space is not needed to start a habitat.

- Eleven employees of the National Starch and Chemical Co. in Buffalo, N.Y., converted four acres adjacent to their plant into a habitat. Other non-home habitats appear at factories, elementary schools, nursing homes, a San Francisco firehouse and an Ohio computer library. An Oklahoma prison has expressed interest in starting a habitat.

Applications Required

Tufts explained that interested gardeners must first submit an application explaining how they intend to provide food, water and shelter for the creatures who visit their yard. The plan is reviewed by a naturalist.

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