Sustainable Urban Design: Educator’s Toolkit for Project-Based Learning, page 12 of 20

A woman examines a birdhouse on a fence post
Examining a birdhouse on a family farm in Wisconsin. © Mark Godfrey/TNC

Creating Urban Habitats: Attracting Wildlife

Whether you are in a city or nearby suburb, you can attract a variety of wildlife, including birds, butterflies, and small mammals, to your school or community outdoor spaces. Observation of wildlife provides enjoyment and endless opportunities for learning. Students can identify native animals that support the local and regional ecosystem—as pollinators or seed dispersers and as part of the food web. They can explore what native plants to feature to provide food and cover (native plants generally require less maintenance and will best support native wildlife). Studying these topics and observing the behavior and interaction of wildlife can be motivating and inspirational for students and fosters a deep sense of stewardship.

Animals have a few basic needs: food, water, shelter or cover, and space. Use these needs as guides for designing features of your outdoor space and you’re sure to have wild visitors! You might start by having students do an informal observational survey of what animals already visit the area and what they do there (e.g., do they use existing water features-even a puddle can provide needed water! Do birds eat when they visit and, if so, what are they eating?). Students may identify some animals that you don’t want to attract more of. For example, if you notice a lot of mosquitoes, you will want a water feature that can be easily cleaned out and refilled, or one to which you can be fairly sure you’ll attract frogs or fish, who make mosquitoes part of their diet. Or you might add a bat house nearby to attract another mosquito eater!

Getting Started

  1. Identify what kinds of animals you want to attract.
  2. Determine each animal’s needs and habits. Focus on the four areas:
    • Water features can range from adding a simple birdbath to installing a small pond;
    • Cover might include herbaceous plants, shrubs, or trees, log piles, or other landscaping features, such as stone walls, etc.;
    • Food might include adding plants that yield berries or nectar-producing and bee-friendly flowers, providing feeders, or making sure there are places for tasty insects and worms to thrive;
    • Your space may be limited, but you can make sure that animals can move freely to and from the area and, within the area, from shelter to food and water.
  3. Determine what elements you want to provide for wildlife. Note that you can create a new garden or add features to an existing one.
  4. For planting new plants to attract birds or insects:
  5. For bird feeders:
  6. For wildlife shelters:
  7. Seek out community organizations that might be willing to assist and/or share their expertise with your classroom. Contact any of the following organizations for support.
  8. Determine the equipment and supplies you’ll need. Use a budget calculator to help determine expenses (note that you might need to add items, such as stones for a stone wall, to the spreadsheet).
  9. Determine what permissions you’ll need for planting or other landscaping and notify parents so that students can dress appropriately. Consider any safety precautions you should take on planting day.
  10. Determine if you’ll need volunteers to help with planting/building day and if you’ll need help bringing the plants and supplies to your location.
  11. Have a Welcome Wildlife party and be sure to document your project with photos! Have students send a press release to local newspapers to educate the community about native wildlife and the community event.

Common Challenges

  • Getting permission from school boards and maintenance staff.
  • Finding an appropriate location.
  • Watering though the summer.

Maintenance Schedule and Other Notes

  • Plants that provide food and cover will need to be watered and possibly pruned over the summer, when school is not in session.
  • Water features need to be cleaned regularly; how often depends on how much debris they accumulate, but plan on at least once a week.

Related Lessons and Classroom Integration

Additional Project Resources