If you ask many of today’s leading conservationists and environmentalists where they go to enjoy nature, most of them will tell you about their own backyards. Whether you live in an apartment, a house or on acres of farmland, you can create a space to relax and enjoy nature. You can plant butterfly or hummingbird garden, hang a bird feeder, or put in a pond. With the help of National Wildlife Federation, you can turn your own backyard into a place where you and your children can connect with nature every day. Every few years, I like to help the families in AFiN create wildlife habitats in their yards and apply for the NWF Backyard Habitat certification. The essential elements of habitat are shelter, food, water and a place to raise young.

We have such a large group of families now, that we were able to have many different projects to choose from in each of those categories this year. Families could make bird houses out of clay which I then fired at a local pottery shop, Ceramics Bayou, that rents kiln space.This was a more difficult project and was best for the kids over 8 or 10 years old.

The younger kids made toad abodes out of clay. This is a very open ended project that a child as young as 2 could accomplish with some help. For food, we used soda bottles from our recycling bin, old wooden spoons and wire to create recycled bird feeders.

The younger kids made classic pine cone feeders with peanut butter and seeds. Austin has very few pine trees, so most kids had not done this before and were very excited about playing with real pine cones. Luckily, one of the families in our group just happened to have a huge collection of pinecones from their grandparents’ house in Houston that we could use.

At the end of the day, I gave each family a packet of milkweed or dill seeds to plant in their own backyard habitat so that they could enjoy watching caterpillars turn into butterflies. I also recommended that they go see the IMAX movie “Flight of the Butterflies” about the incredible monarch migration that passes through our area. Over the years, we have had hours of enjoyment watching the monarch caterpillars and butterflies on our milkweed plants and searching for the gold edged chrysalises.

For the third element of wildlife habitat (the most important one in Austin during the drought) I taught the families in AFiN to make a small pond in their yard out of a 3ft cattle tank (relatively inexpensive at your local feed store).

Just as I was talking to the families about backyard habitat and how we got our yard certified five years ago, a beautiful Yellow Crowned Night Heron landed in the tree right behind me.

It could not have been more perfect timing.

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