How to Attract Wildlife to Ponds & Gardens 2023 [Tips, Tricks, & Advice]
Outdoor water features are a haven for virtually all types of wild animals. Garden ponds have a wealth of natural attributes that draw curious and thirsty animals to their edge. Apart from being a source of clean water, they serve as cool resting spots and breeding areas for both terrestrial and semi-aquatic species. Ponds that are specifically made to attract wild animals are called wildlife ponds.
Ornamental ponds, though made to house high-value fish, can be designed to appeal to wildlife, too. A water feature’s ecological profile is enhanced by its biological diversity, so those with varied inhabitants and regular visitors are more likely to thrive as a self-sustaining system. Many pond owners welcome small critters as they can naturally become part of the food chain. Some wish to deter them at all costs as they can carry pathogens.
Regardless of a pond’s purpose and design, chances are it will eventually attract water-loving animals and a wide assortment of microbes. Unsurprisingly, it can be much harder to dissuade wildlife from visiting a pond. The challenge of getting them to inhabit the pond and its surroundings usually arises when there are land developments that prevent safe passage. Nonetheless, there are many design tips, edging styles, and simple structures you can use to lure them in.
Benefits of Having a Diverse Pond
A rich, well-balanced ecology can be sustained by ponds with a biodiverse profile. Pond biodiversity is a function of the number of species in the freshwater system and its close surroundings, as well as their abundance. This takes into account microbial communities, types of plants, and all life stages of animals. As ponds contain both wet and dry areas, they provide hospitable microenvironments for a great number of species.
As these species settle into the system and interact with one another, they continually support a well-balanced pond ecology. Eventually, a diverse pond should be able to sustain itself without human intervention. Its benefits will “trickle” out of its physical boundaries and into the garden itself. As it becomes a hotspot for wildlife, it is increasingly capable of sequestering carbon, conditioning the air around your home, and regulating ambient temperatures.
A diverse pond is also more likely to be resilient in the face of change. Irregular dips or increases in temperature, the introduction of dangerous pathogens, and the presence of invasive plants or animals are less likely to cause severe damage to a diverse system. Lastly, a well-planted, self-sustaining pond is a therapeutic outdoor feature. Simply observing its movements and listening to its sounds is enough to reorient one’s thoughts and relieve stress.
The best way to attract wildlife to a pond is by making it physically hospitable to as many types of animals as possible. It’s best to think about animal-friendly features before the pond is even built. The edge structures largely determine which species are able to enter and exit the water. Accessibility is always a major consideration, especially for small animals.
Raised ponds, for example, are less likely to attract critters due to the sheer height of their edges. Sunken ponds with an irregular, naturalized shoreline usually have at least one edge that can serve as a point of entry. If your pond has all of the features below, you’ll find yourself constantly in awe of the animals it will attract.
1) Sloping edges
Not all animals are able to swim once they enter the pond. Many critters prefer to remain partially submerged or hidden in shallow areas. Those that will want to “test” the water will feel safer along a sloping edge where they can slowly make their way into the pond. A shallow slope helps facilitate easy entry and exit, preventing animals from getting trapped in the pond or struggling in abruptly deep water. A sloping edge or drawdown zone along at least one side of the pond should suffice.
2) Sunning spots and rest areas
Reptiles and amphibians are known for their love of sunning spots in ponds. As they are cold-blooded, they will often be found basking under the rays of direct sunlight. This helps them regulate their own internal temperatures, improve their metabolic rates, and boost their vitamin D levels. Basking also aids in the elimination of potentially dangerous pathogens that may be clinging to their external features. Moreover, sunning spots double as rest areas for animals that may accidentally fall into the pond, need a breath of fresh air, or are tired of swimming.
3) Hiding places
A high structural complexity will naturally open up many hiding places. Animals are more likely to feel safe and approach a pond if there are areas where they can hide from potential predators. There should be many forms of shelter or protection along the edge, margins, and toward the center of the pond itself. It’s best if these are found throughout all depth levels so that permanent pond inhabitants can also seek protection from predators that may enter the water system.
Intense, summer sun can spell death for many wild animals that are unable to regulate their internal body temperature. It can also stimulate the growth of potentially toxic algal species, which may quickly deplete dissolved oxygen. Wildlife ponds should have both exposed and sheltered, easily-navigable areas. The shaded spots also encourage many visitors to approach the pond as they are less likely to be seen by watchful, overhead predators.
5) Multiple depth levels
Aside from a sloping edge, stepping stones or multiple depth levels (from a few centimeters to a few meters) can be used to ease entry and exit. Moreover, these are better suited for the cultivation of marginal plants with varied depth preferences. These are generally easy to maintain and traverse as opposed to sloping edges which may be tricky to navigate while cleaning the pond.
Varied depth levels also open up more nesting sites for egg-laying species. Some types of eggs need to remain submerged or anchored to a substratum, yet exposed to ample sunlight, to hatch.
6) Waterfalls and fountains
Animals that frequently visit water features are usually attracted to their movements and sounds. Clear, moving water is a sign that the pond is unlikely to harbor pathogens that prefer to occupy stagnant pond systems.
Overhead birds are often distracted by fountains and waterfalls as these draw their focus and signify the presence of cool, fresh water. To semi-aquatic and aquatic insects, moving water is often a telling sign that they may come across a potential mate in search of an aerated site for egg-laying. A strong current tends to protect their eggs from being consumed by predators. These water features also create splash zones and small puddles that may be suitable for the fleeting life stages of some animals.
The Importance of Native Pond Plants
Wild animals feel safer when they are surrounded by scents, textures, and colors that are familiar to them. They are more likely to approach a pond that is thoroughly planted with native species instead of one with markedly foreign plants. Grazers will readily make their way toward flora that they have previously consumed.
In the same way, potential predators may approach familiar plants in the hopes of finding prey items that they’ve previously caught amongst their leaves or flowers. Flowering native plants are also crucial for attracting pollinators, which enhance the productivity of a pond’s edge. Pollinators ensure that your pondside flora are able to produce fruits, which are often vital food sources for wild animals, and seeds, which can expand your plant colonies.
While the use of non-native ornamentals is often tempting and can effectively set your pond apart, this practice may spread invasive or toxic species that can affect the survival of local plant and animal populations.
Microhabitats are small pockets of life with features that may subtly differ from that of the surrounding environment. A freshwater pond is considered a habitat, whereas the pond bottom or marginal zone, which consists of a specific set of conditions, may be considered a microhabitat. As you have your own room with your specific set of needs in a larger house or apartment, it follows that animals require their own microhabitats to safely rest.
The concept of a microhabitat is largely influenced by the size and range of movement of its occupants. Thus, if you wish to attract frogs to your pond, they will require a microhabitat that will allow them to jump from place to place, comfortably feed on aquatic insects, and lay their eggs. A cluster of lily pads close to the pond’s margins would be a perfect microhabitat. It has surfaces on which they can rest above or hide underneath as they go about their daily activities.
Increasing your pond’s structural complexity is a great way to ensure that more microhabitats are opened up to potential occupants. Simply placing logs along the pond bottom, rocks of various sizes along the pond’s edges, empty pipes that can act as caves, and dense stands of marginal plants along a single corner of the pond should already create dozens of safe havens for small animals. Sustained populations of small animals should then attract larger ones that can aid in balancing the pond ecosystem.
Natural Corridors for Visitors
If a pond is beautifully naturalized yet surrounded by an expanse of concrete, with nary any trees or pockets of nature in the distance, the odds of attracting wildlife are significantly reduced. The most effective designs are those which are associated with natural corridors or fragments of wild plant communities. If another freshwater system is located close by, the chances of attracting wild animals are boosted further.
Wildlife corridors are basically strips of densely planted land. These allow animals to safely transit between natural environments. Essentially, they maintain connectivity between wildlife populations in increasingly developed or polluted areas. You can create your own miniature wildlife corridors to encourage animals to visit your pond. These can either link your pond to a nearby expanse of wilderness or they can simply lead to other areas of the garden.
To create your own wildlife corridor, it would be best to plant trees and shrubs that are endemic to your area. Individual plants should ideally be rooted into the ground and situated close to one another to provide sufficient cover. Add piles of natural rocks and logs to serve as shelter for small animals that may pass through the corridor.
Common Pond Visitors – Who to Expect?
Listed below are general groups of wild animals that are likely to visit and possibly inhabit a garden pond and its surroundings. There are thousands of species all across the globe that greatly benefit from pond systems. If you manage to spot any of these, it would be best to watch them from a respectable distance. Avoid touching or handling them as they may harbor microbes that are harmful to humans.
- Amphibians: frogs, newts, salamanders and their larvae
- Semi-aquatic reptiles: snakes, turtles, lizards
- Small mammals: voles, mice, hedgehogs, otters, shrews, bats
- Large mammals: deer, bears, cats, dogs, foxes, badgers, beavers
- Winged insects: dragonflies, butterflies, bees, moths, mayflies, caddisflies
- Aquatic insects: diving beetles, pond skaters, water boatmen, backswimmers, water fleas
- Waterfowl and fish-eating birds: kingfishers, herons, egrets, ducks, geese
- Invertebrates: slugs, leeches, worms, snails, insect larvae
Pond Safety for Wildlife
Ponds that are frequently visited by wild animals must be clean and free of toxins. This means that it should not be a site at which polluted water is collected. Avoid making use of harmful chemicals, such as synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides, for plants that are located close to the pond’s edge. Also, keep in mind that stormwater may often carry contaminated substrates into a pond.
Wildlife ponds should not be a source of pathogens that may be spread to other water systems. Introducing wild-caught fish, unquarantined imports, and non-native plants can spell disaster. These may carry transmissible diseases or have the capacity to multiply quickly and compete with native wildlife. Animals that enter and exit the pond can easily become vectors of transmission.
The pond’s algal communities may also be detrimental to the health of visiting wildlife. If you notice that bright-colored mats of algae have fully colonized the water’s surface, it would be best to block off the pond. These rapidly spreading algal communities, aptly termed harmful algal blooms, may be producing toxic substances that can result in mass mortalities for all pond inhabitants and any visitors. Algal blooms often occur after an influx of leached nutrients, such as those from fertilizers or eroded soils, enter the pond. Responsible pond maintenance and regularized water testing are vital to keeping a pond safe for wildlife.