Wanted: Annapolis backyards for wildlife habitats

The sign proclaiming his little urban yard a "wildlife habitat" became more than a label the day Dirk Geratz found the nest of baby rabbits.

He'd hoped for robins and butterflies as he checked off the ground cover, the bird baths and the berry bushes on his certification paperwork and forked over $20 — plus extra for the sign.

"I was amazed that a rabbit would want to raise her young right there in a side yard," Geratz said. "I would have thought they would have found it inhospitable."

He tries not to think about the fox he sees strutting down the center of Shaw Street, even though attracting wildlife to his Murray Hill neighborhood in Annapolis was precisely the point of registering his backyard with the National Wildlife Federation.

Geratz's yard is about to take on even more significance as an example to nature lovers reluctant to join the citywide effort to secure a wildlife certification.

Annapolis is en route to becoming the second NWF Community Wildlife Habitat in Maryland, after Takoma Park. Within a year, the city has met every measure of the process save one — trying to convince at least 150 households to register backyards.

"It's getting people to open their backyards," said Marisa Wittlinger, who oversees Annapolis' environmental programs. "Sometimes people are reluctant to do that."

City officials still need another 75 people to sign up for the program, which they say is part of Annapolis' mission to become a green and sustainable community.

And not only backyards need apply — patios, front yards and even balconies can become habitat, too. All it takes is filling out paperwork and promising on the honor system to provide shelter, food, a water source and places to raise young, and to use sustainable gardening practices.

"It's a broad spectrum of things, but it's relatively easy," Wittlinger said. "We want to do everything we can to help increase the wildlife near the Chesapeake Bay."

More insects and berries translate into more birds, which can bring more predators and strengthen the entire food chain, she said.

The city's hosting a garden tour this month with five yards in the Murray Hill neighborhood to try to convince people that going green is easier than they might think. Geratz's yard will be on that tour, and he said he was doing nearly all these things as part of his landscaping before he got his yard certified.

"You feel like you're contributing, in a small part, to something bigger," Geratz said. "I wish I owned hundreds of acres, but I only have a tiny backyard. So I do what I can."

The National Wildlife Federation started a backyard certification process nearly 40 years ago, said Roxanne Paul, who oversees the organization's community certification process.

Paul said community-wide certifications have existed for a little more than a decade. So far, 62 communities across the country have earned it. An additional 50, including Annapolis, Centreville, Rockville and Bowie, have registered their efforts but not finished the work.

"Natural habitats are disappearing, and that's been the case since the building boom after World War II," Paul said. "And without a habitat, the wildlife have nowhere to go. If you have a yard that's basically all lawn, that's just worthless to wildlife. There's usually chemicals and fertilizer. There's nowhere to hide. There's nothing to eat."

That was the yard that came with Karen Jennings' Eastport home three years ago.

By the time she hung her certification plaque on her fence this year, she'd created a log pile from a felled tree, planted flower beds with butterfly bushes, lined the perimeter with shrubs that have berries and used as many native plants as possible. Neighbors out walking dogs see the sign and stop to chat about it, she said.

Jennings said she and her husband felt it was the least they could do.

"There's so much of the wild habitat that's being gobbled by development," she said. "Also, I just think it's prettier."


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