Planning for Wildlife Habitat

Planning for Wildlife Habitat

A hummingbird gathering nectar from a firespike (Odontonema strictum) flower. Photo Credit:

Do you enjoy watching a variety of birds and butterflies in your landscape?  Have you ever watched squirrels get into the birdfeeder?  Children may learn about wildlife by watching through a window.  Food, water, cover, and space are four essential elements that will create the best habitat for wildlife.  Food could be as simple as adding feeders to attract birds to your yard but having a habitat that sustains them is important.  Florida wildlife and Florida native plants evolved together and are often interdependent.  It is a must to understand what sustains the species you are wanting to attract to your area.  Different species prefer different food/plants.  Insects also provide birds a food source for their young.

Water can be bird baths, man-made ponds, and natural bodies of water such as streams, lakes, ponds on your property.  When relying on a bird bath for your water supply make sure the water is fresh and clean.  Shallow water (1-1.5 inches) is better than deep (over 3 inches).  Birds like sloping sides and a textured surface; they prefer to walk into water rather than dive in headfirst.  Place the bath 5 to 10 feet from a protective cover like shrubs or trees.  This needs to be close enough for the birds to be able to reach safety if there is danger from predators.  A small outpost for birds to land on near the bath can help them check for predators before heading to the bath.

Cover will provide a place to raise young and should have vertical layers for animals to use for safety, shelter, and nests.  Examples of cover that could be added to the landscape are snags that give food for woodpeckers and nesting perches.  Or build your own nesting boxes that are species specific for owls, bees, and bats.  All bats eat insects and substantially reduce the number of nocturnal insects in a neighborhood.

The permanently wet detention pond lined with cypress trees and sawgrass also provides habitat for fish, birds, and reptiles. Photo Credit: Carrie Stevenson, University of Florida/IFAS Extension – Escambia County

Lastly it is important to think of your space.  Create large patches of good habitat that span several landscapes or consider working with your neighbors to link the backyard habitats and create a larger area.  It is all about the “Right Plant, Right Place” concept and understanding the area you are working with and the possibilities.  When you go into the last step of planting and attracting wildlife have a plan and know what you would like to attract.  Do your research on what you will need for that wildlife and use your resources, ask your local extension agent for ideas and suggestions!

Many plants in our native landscape provide much of what attracts wildlife and provides them with at least one of the four essential elements.  The article “Planting for Wildlife Habitat!” will give you some ideas of plants and trees that do well in the North Florida area and will help to attract the wildlife you desire!

Creating Space for Wildlife

Creating Space for Wildlife

Bald eagles and other large birds of prey have made a comeback in Florida.

Florida has all the elements of a wild animal’s paradise. The state has abundant rain and water sources, lush vegetation, plenty of food, and tons of nesting and hiding places. In our state and national parks, conservation easements, open waters, and acres of ranch land, large populations of animals can thrive. Particularly in areas with fewer people, healthy populations of even large animals like black bears, alligators, and panthers can maintain substantial territories. However, human migration into and throughout Florida is increasing at as steady a rate as ever. Retirees have long fled their cold northern winters to move part or full time to Florida. Now, the ability for many working people to telecommute from anywhere has made it attractive for younger families from all over the country to join us.

A black bear helps himself to a drink from the swimming pool of a Florida home. Photo provided by Patty Underwood/FWC

With more people comes the need for more housing. Some are content with high rise condos that leave a smaller footprint, but these are often located right on the water and can displace coastal wildlife and vegetation. For the thousands of families moving in weekly, more subdivisions, roads, stores, and schools are necessary. Inevitably, these lead to human-wildlife interactions that may or may not be positive experiences. In fast-growing south Santa Rosa County, I see almost daily reports of large black bears in backyards and trash cans. For smaller mammals, the threat of being hit by a car is unfortunately very common. For nearly every call we get about an exciting manatee sighting, we get word of a nerve-wracking interaction with a snake.  As civilization moves closer to forested, once-wild areas, wildlife can be squeezed out, left without the protection of natural cover and drawn to human food and habitat.

A lush backyard landscape surrounds a recognition sign from the National Wildlife Federation. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension

There are plenty of ways we can co-exist, though. A Florida-friendly yard is a wildlife-friendly yard, and those who go the extra mile can even be recognized by the National Wildlife Federation for their efforts. There are several steps one needs to take to become wildlife-friendly. The most important include providing food, water, and cover, so the animals’ basic needs are met. Actions like removing invasive species, keeping pets supervised when outdoors, and adding layers of vegetation are also excellent ways to attract and protect native creatures.

While small and medium sized animals can find shelter in a single yard, it takes neighborhood cooperation to be a haven for something larger, like deer, bears, birds of prey, or large tortoises. Some neighborhoods are designated from the beginning to include conservation easements that serve as amenities to the neighborhood. They include trails, shady waterfront areas, and plenty of space for wildlife. It is important when moving into one of these neighborhoods that each homebuyer understands and respects the purpose behind conservation areas. Residents of older, existing neighborhoods can also work together to designate common areas and stretches of adjoining yards as wildlife-friendly corridors, allowing more animals to use the space safely.

A gopher tortoise burrow is noted by a sign in a local city park. The tortoise is co-existing peacefully with its neighbors! Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension

In my own neighborhood in the city limits, a gopher tortoise has moved in and become a neighborhood mascot of sorts! When alerted to the presence of its burrow, the city brought in a sign explaining the animal’s protected status and crucial role in the environment. Floridians share their citizenship with thousands of other species. These breathtaking birds, fish, mammals, reptiles, and insects are integral to the health of our land and water. By taking steps to look out for their well-being, we are also providing for our own.

Snakes in the Home Landscape

Snakes in the Home Landscape

Here in Florida, we have snakes. Some may say we have lots of snakes. While their presence may be something to be expected out in wild areas, homeowners often find it alarming when these creatures show up near places where we live. The reaction is often a simple one: if it is a snake, kill it.

Dealing with snakes should not be like this, however. Although some are venomous, many others are harmless to humans and make valuable contributions to the local ecology. As more natural areas become developed, wildlife such as snakes are increasingly pushed into close contact with people, so learning to live with them is important.

Of the 46 species of snakes found in Florida, only 6 are venomous. The chances of being bitten by one of these venomous snakes is very low; there are only 7,000-8,000 bites in the entire U.S. each year. Fatalities are even more rare, with less than ten people typically dying across the country annually from venomous snakebites. In a country with a population of around 330 million, that’s not a lot.

A venomous Eastern diamond-backed rattlesnake.

Snakes, especially venomous ones, should be treated with respect, however. Knowing how to identify a snake can be an important step in knowing how to react to them, and understanding their behavior can help avoid unfortunate encounters. The venomous snakes we have in Florida are the copperhead, the coral snake, the cottonmouth or water moccasin, the Eastern diamond-backed rattlesnake, the pygmy rattlesnake, and the timber rattlesnake. For help in identifying these species, see our guide on EDIS at

A harmless hognose rattlesnake.

Understanding snake behavior, including their feeding habits and preferred habitats, is also important. If you can make the areas you live in less hospitable to snakes, especially venomous ones, they’ll be less likely to move in. This doesn’t mean getting rid of every snake out there – some snakes that are harmless to humans may be predators that consume other snakes (including venomous ones) or rodents. Because venomous snakes often consume rodents and other small animals, allowing the nonvenomous ones to control populations of prey can help keep dangerous snakes out!

Watch out for areas where snakes may shelter, including tall grass, overgrown shrubs, piles of brush and wood, or debris. There is no need to remove all such things from a property, as other wildlife use them as well, but keep them away from houses and areas where people frequent. Also be sure to keep rodents under control in and around buildings to avoid attracting snakes that feed on them. You can find more information on managing habitat to deal with snakes at

Easy Identification for Leafcutter Bees

Easy Identification for Leafcutter Bees

In a garden with a variety of flowers, pollinators will be abundant.  Sometimes we don’t always recognize the specific pollinator when we see it, but there are some native pollinators that leave other signs of their activity. One of our medium-sized native bees will leave a distinctive calling card of recent activity in our landscape.

Leafcutter bees have collected circular notches from the edges of a redbud tree. Photo by Beth Bolles, UF IFAS Extension Escambia County.

If you see some of the leaves of trees and shrubs with distinct circular notches on the edges of the leaves, you can be sure the Leafcutter bee is present.  The females collect the leaf pieces to make a small, cigar-shaped nest that may be found in natural cavities, such as rooting wood, soil, or in plant stems.  Each nest will have several sections in which the female places a ball of pollen and an egg.  The emerging larvae then have a plentiful food source in order to develop into an adult bee.

When identifying a leafcutter bee in your landscape, look for a more robust bee with dark and light stripes on the abdomen.  These bees also have a hairy underside to their abdomen where they carry the pollen.  When loaded with pollen their underside will look yellow.

Leafcutter bees are solitary bees that are not considered aggressive.  A sting would only be likely if the bee is handled.  Your landscape will have many plants that a leafcutter may use for nesting material.  The pollinating benefits of these bees far outweigh any cosmetic injury to the plant leaf margins.

Visit Featured Creatures to see a photo of the leaf pieces made into a nest.

Cuban Treefrogs in the Panhandle

Cuban Treefrogs in the Panhandle

Photo by Dr. Steve Johnson

Treefrog calls are often heard with each rain event.  But, how about a “snoring raspy” call that begins after a day time light rain?  That may be a male Cuban treefrog trying to attract the girls.  Cuban treefrogs breed predominately in the spring and summer.  Reproduction is largely stimulated by rainfall, especially warm summer rains such as those associated with tropical weather systems and intense thunderstorms.

Range of Cuban treefrogs

The Cuban treefrog, Osteopilus septentrionalis, was accidently introduced to Florida in the 1920’s as a stowaway in shipping crates from the Caribbean.  Over the last hundred years, the invasive frog has managed to spread throughout Florida and the Southeastern U.S. by hitchhiking on ornamental plants, motorized vehicles, and boats.  Though occasional cold winters have created temporary population setbacks, new generations of Cuban treefrogs continue to be reported in north Florida, including the Panhandle.

An invasive species is generally defined as a plant, animal or microbe that is found outside of its native range, where it negatively impacts the ecology, economy or quality of human life. Cuban treefrogs come out at night to feed on snails, millipedes, spiders and a vast array of insects.  But, they are also predators of several Florida native frogs, lizards and snakes.  Tadpoles of the invasive Cuban treefrog have been shown to inhibit the growth and development of native Southern toad and green treefrog tadpoles when all of the species are in the same water body.  Additionally, a large female Cuban treefrog can lay over 10,000 eggs per season in very small amounts of water.

Panhandle citizens can help manage the invasive Cuban treefrog by learning to identify them and reduce their numbers.  All treefrogs have expanded pads on the ends of their toes.  Cuban treefrogs have exceptionally large toepads.  They also have a “big eyed” appearance due to their oversized bulging eyes.  Cuban treefrogs may exceed 6 inches in length, have warty-looking skin with possible blotches, bands or stripes, and vary greatly in color.  However, they can be distinguished from other treefrogs.  Cuban treefrogs have a yellowish wash where their front and rear legs are attached to their body.  Juvenile Cuban treefrogs have red eyes and blue bones visible through the skin of their hind legs.  The skin of the Cuban treefrog produces a sticky secretion that can cause a burning or itching sensation if it contacts the eyes or nose of certain individuals.  It is recommended to wear gloves and wash your hands after handling Cuban treefrogs.

It is important to document the locations of Cuban treefrogs in the Panhandle.  By placing short sections of PVC pipe in the ground around your home and garden will provide hiding places for treefrogs that enables you to monitor for Cuban treefrogs.  Cut 10 foot sections of 1.5-inch-diameter PVC pipe into approximately three-foot-long sections and push them into the ground about 3-4 inches.  To remove a frog from a pipe, place a clear sandwich bag over the top end, pull the pipe from the ground, and insert a dowel rod in the other end to scare the frog into the baggie.  If you suspect you have seen one, take a picture and send it to Dr. Steve Johnson at  Include your name, date, and location.  Dr. Johnson can verify the identity.  If it is a Cuban treefrog, upload the information by going to and click the “Report Sightings” tab.

Once identified as a Cuban treefrog, it should be euthanized humanly.  To do that, the Cuban treefrog in a plastic sandwich bag can be placed into the refrigerator for 3-4 hours then transferred to the freezer for an additional 24 hours.  Alternatively, a 1-inch stripe benzocaine-containing ointment (like Orajel) to the frog’s back to chemically anesthetize it before placing it into a freezer.  After freezing, remove the bagged frog from the freezer and dispose of in the trash.  Ornamental ponds should also be monitored for Cuban treefrog egg masses especially after a heavy rain.  The morning after a rain, use a small-mesh aquarium net to scoop out masses of eggs floating on the surface of the pond and simply discard them on the ground to dry out.  Various objects that can collect water found throughout your yard need to be dumped out regularly to reduce breeding spots for both Cuban treefrogs and mosquitoes.

Who’s Digging Up My Yard‽

Who’s Digging Up My Yard‽

Lawns and landscapes are greening up this time of year, and it’s not just plants showing signs of activity. All sorts of creatures are out there living their lives, and some of them are doing some digging.

From little piles of dirt to big mounds and long tunnels, it can be frustrating to figure out what is disrupting your carefully tended lawn or ornamental bed. Luckily, there are differences between the possible culprits. Here are some of the possibilities (see the associated links for more information and control methods):

  • A miner bee hole. Photo: Evan Anderson

    Miner Bees (and other ground nesting bees and insects) – Miner bees are harmless, solitary bees that tunnel into the soil. Not to be mistaken for yellowjackets, each bee digs her own small nest to lay her eggs in. Multiple such bees may be attracted to the same location, but they do not form hives and aren’t aggressive. Small mounds of soil may form around the entrances to their nests, but these will vanish after a rain.

  • Mole cricket tunnels. Photo: N. Leppa

    Mole crickets – These are crickets that dig small tunnels just under the surface of the soil. Several species live in Florida, one of which is native and is not a pest. Non-native species can become pests of turfgrass.

  • Moles – Small mammals (not rodents) that produce raised tunnels along the surface of the ground. They forage for insects among the roots of plants, and while their presence does have some benefits, many homeowners dislike their aesthetic contributions to the landscape. If you can overlook their tunnels, they do help aerate soil and eat pests like mole crickets, grubs, ant larvae, caterpillars, and slugs.
  • Pocket Gophers – Sometimes called “sandymounders” or “salamanders” by old-timers, these are small rodents that dig tunnels beneath the ground. Active especially in cooler months, they make a series of mounds of soil in a line along their tunnel as they excavate. They feed on roots, bulbs, and tubers, though their sand-mounding is often more a problem than their feeding.
  • A fire ant mound in the landscape. Photo: B. Drees

    Fire Ants – A single ant isn’t particularly threatening, but fire ants have found that thousands of rage-filled friends make a good deterrent. They build large mounds of soil to help regulate temperature and moisture in their nests, which can be quite unsightly in the landscape. Disturbing these mounds will unleash hordes of stinging ants, so beware; while they don’t necessarily do any harm to plants, they aren’t terribly friendly neighbors.

  • Squirrels -These tree-dwelling rodents may nest up in the boughs, but often come down to the ground to look for food. In doing so, they may dig small holes as they forage for nuts, seeds, and fungi. The holes they dig are typically shallow and usually not too much of a problem.
  • Armadillos – Nocturnal and heavily armored, the armadillo forages for insects in the ground. While it may sound beneficial to have an animal removing all the pest insects around, they aren’t careful about the damage they do while they feed. A hungry armadillo can dig numerous 3-5 inch wide, 1-3 inch deep holes in a lawn overnight, and may also burrow under structures, driveways, and patios.
  • Yellowjackets – Yellowjackets are a bit of an honorable mention for this list, due to the fact that their digging often goes unseen. These ground-dwelling hornets leave no mounds or raised tunnels to identify their nests by. Instead, a small hole is often the only indication they are present, until a person or pet disturbs them. Then…surprise! It’s time for stinging, screaming, and crying.

For animal pests, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission maintains a list of nuisance wildlife trappers at For insects, you may need to contact a local pest control specialist or company. For help in identifying a problem, contact your local Extension office.