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These days, it feels like our wildlands are being assaulted on all sides. Being an advocate for what wild we have left is a huge job. Coming from the perspective that all good starts with our own corner of the universe, we have decided to make our yard as friendly to wild creatures as possible — we at Rancho Gatito are starting the Habitat At Home program (organized by the Tucson Audubon Society), which offers encouragement, guidelines, and makes resources available for the average resident for making your backyard, or front yard, more hospitable to wild birds. 

The program is organized into levels that help you set goals — not all levels will be appropriate for all residents (one may only have a tiny backyard to work with) so don’t feel terrible if the upper levels of recognition are not attainable. We all do what we can. 



The checklists for each level of the
Habitat At Home program are available here.



The Hummingbird Level
Do you have limited time, resources, or space for a landscaping project? Are you a renter who can’t make big changes to your yard? This level will guide you to make a small hummingbird planter garden on a patio.



The Goldfinch Level
Are you working with small space, or integrating native plants into a majority non-native garden? This level will guide you to make a pollinator garden with a water feature that you can adapt to small spaces.



The Thrasher Level
Ready to take on a full-scale yard design? This level will guide you to design a yard that collects water, produces food for birds and humans, and integrates a majority of native plants.



The Cardinal Level
You’re ready to be a champion for birds! This level will guide you to create a yard that is bird friendly, sustainable, and designed to lower heat island effects through an integrated approach to landscaping.




Gila Woodpecker

Since we have a fair amount of space to work with, and all the permissions to do so, I think we can bring our yard at Rancho Gatito to the Cardinal Level. This program is especially exciting because it encourages participants to get neighbors and neighborhood involved. And the more we can make our neighborhoods friendly to the wild, the better. 

Also since I live at the base of A Mountain, and thus at the western end of the Tucson Mountains, my home can become more of a healthy buffer between the two, especially for birds. 

Sign up for this program begins on November 14, and it is a self-guided program. The Tucson Audubon Society offers guidance in various forms, including consultation and installation programs for those who aren’t as apt or available to get their own hands dirty. 

Among the general projects that are encouraged are: 

  • Get acquainted with native species of birds and keep a checklist of the birds that frequent your yard: there are many resources for this, but perhaps a good place to start is eBird, an application that helps you with your bird checklists (whether at home or traveling). 
  • Get acquainted with native plants, especially those that encourage birds.
  • Plant native species in your yard.  Desert Survivors plant nursery has a decent list of plants that they make available to the public. If you are in a rental and not allowed to plant anything in the ground, consider planting bird-friendly plants in containers.
  • Install bird feeders and fountains: there are a few local businesses that can help you here. Tucson Audubon Nature Shop offers all kinds of feeders and feed (as well as all the literature you can use on the subject of birds in our area). We get hummingbird nectar from Hummingbird Market. Other resources for feeders and wild bird feed include OK Feed and the Wild Bird Store. We always encourage supporting local businesses. 
  • Removing invasive species that spread to the wild and ruin habitat, like fountain grass or buffelgrass which are creating problems in our region, particularly by bringing fire to a landscape that hasn’t evolved with fire
  • Providing physical habitat for birds to land on, reside in, hide in, find shelter and shade in: this is part of the goal when planting native plants, but providing birds places to land above threatening domestic animals like cats is also very helpful. 
  • Speaking of cats, making sure your cats are not hunting the birds you are attracting. Luckily our cats are not much into anything bigger than grasshoppers, but we keep feeders out of their reach, making sure that feeders are not climbable. There are a few wild cats in our hood (and in most hoods in Tucson) that regularly kill birds. 
  • On the upper levels, there is a goal of helping decrease the heat island effects of our urban areas by planting more trees, and collecting water, at least in the landscape. 

male and female house finches

So far, we’ve got a few sources of water for birds, one seed feeder, and several hummingbird feeders — we intend on getting several more bird food stations with different sorts of food to attract different types of bird. We even have a bat house to install on the north side of our house. And since we are such plant nerds, we already have at LEAST 50 native plants in the yard. Getting 100 planted shouldn’t be too much of a challenge for us, but we will be putting a lot of thought into plants that offer food, shelter, and convenience to birds, especially considering the cats on property and in the neighborhood. 

Regular residents at Ranch Gatito this month include (so far noted) house sparrows, common house finch, mourning doves, greater roadrunners, Anna’s hummingbirds, gila woodpeckers, verdins, cactus wrens, and northern cardinals. Surprisingly, we haven’t had pigeons in our yard lately. When we first came to this property and brought our chickens, we had pigeons taking advantage of the chicken food that is always available. But for some inexplicable reason, we haven’t seen them lately. We’ve seen phainopepla on the property before, but not lately. I need to do more research on what bats regularly visit us in the evenings (I haven’t looked recently to see if they are still around). I feel like I have seen thrashers here, but lately I haven’t seen them. I am keeping a record of all birds I see on eBird. 

When we first arrived at the property, the only birds we noticed regularly were the mourning doves milling about the empty yard with pigeons and house sparrows, and the Anne’s hummingbirds in the large hackberry tree. We’ve planted a full garden in the backyard, and have almost fully landscaped the front, and as a consequence have continued to see a rise in bird diversity this year. Our goal is to continue making Rancho Gatito a nice place for resident and vagrant birds alike. 



Jared "Kitty Katt" McKinley

Publisher, botanist, explorer, and proud desert dweller.