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Couple turn yard into habitat for wildlife, themselves
Behind their Jefferson home, David and Cindy Johnson have created a natural oasis with a vegetable and herb garden, fruit trees, water garden and a variety of native plants, among other features. - photo by KATIE DUNN

Certify your own backyard as a wildlife habitat
Residents can create a wildlife friendly space in a backyard, school, business or elsewhere in a community.
Requirements: Provide four essential wildlife needs: food, water, shelter, and places to raise young, as well as sustainable gardening practices
Cost: $20. Fee includes a certificate, National Wildlife Federation membership and free subscription to the organization’s magazine, "National Wildlife."
More Info: 800-822-9919; Certify Your Wildlife Garden; Garden for Wildlife; or visit the Johnsons’ blog.

JEFFERSON — A residential backyard might seem a strange place to cultivate a wildlife refuge.

But creating a natural oasis behind their Jefferson home has afforded David and Cindy Johnson a glimpse into a world they might otherwise have overlooked.

A variety of butterflies, birds, rabbits and other critters now frequent the Johnsons’ backyard to drink nectar from flowers, peck up seeds or nibble on a variety of plant species that grace their small patch of earth.

Last month, the National Wildlife Federation recognized the Johnsons’ backyard as an official Certified Wildlife Habitat.

Founded in 1973, the national program encourages people to maintain natural landscapes instead of properties dominated by expansive lawns and ornamental plant species. Its popularity has only recently grown, however, according to Roxanne Paul, a NWF spokeswoman in Reston, Va.

Three quarters of the more than 126,000 certifications that have been awarded nationwide occurred in the last five years.

"The program’s really taken off," she said.

The Johnsons’ backyard is the 126,393rd addition to the certified wildlife habitat family. Most certified properties are residential backyards, but the NWF also has 3,500 schools, more than 3,000 farms, 1,000 businesses and a number of churches that have participated, according to Paul.

In Georgia, there are 5,209 certified habitats, and Jackson County is home to 23 of these properties.

A new appreciation

What started with a gazebo and pebble path three years ago has since evolved into an ongoing labor of love for the Johnsons. The couple decided to work towards certification after they stumbled across the program while researching gardening on the Internet.

Named for its humble beginnings, Pebble Path Gardens now boasts 41 Leyland cypress trees, a vegetable and herb garden, a currently frozen water garden home to several fish and a variety of fruit trees, among other attractions.

"It kind of perpetuates itself," said David Johnson about the project. "The more you do along the guidelines for the wildlife, the more that shows up, the more you want to do it."

While thrilled to witness a variety of birds flit from tree to tree and butterflies from flower to flower, the Johnsons’ interest in identifying these species was only recently sparked.

After adding a hummingbird feeder, the couple decided to leave it up into the colder months. Last month, they noticed one or two hummingbirds were still frequenting the feeder.

Following a discussion with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, they learned their backyard may be a winter refuge to a rufous hummingbird, a species native to the Pacific Northwest.

The National Audubon Society has ranked the species at No. 16 on a list of common birds in the U.S. whose populations are declining. The bird’s current global population is 5 million, and its native range is from southern Alaska to northern California.

"Whereas before it was really pleasant and nice, now it’s kind of grown into more of a curiosity to kind of know exactly what’s here," Cindy Johnson explained.

Beneficial endeavor

The Johnsons even created a blog,, to chronicle the evolution of their backyard and to inspire others to create their own wildlife refuge.

"We started it (the project) for the enjoyment, but when you realize that you truly can do something environmental at the same time, I mean that’s a good feeling ... and it makes you want to do more," David Johnson said.

His wife agreed. "It’s a feel good that you can do something that you enjoy and is beneficial," she said.

It is this message that the NWF wants others to understand about the initiative.

"A lot of wildlife is losing their homes," Paul said. "If we can each have a little habitat in our own backyard and put in some native plants, it replaces the habitat that’s lost."

With the nation’s population now exceeding 300 million and development encroaching into what were once pristine ecosystems, much of the nation’s wildlife is being forced out of its native habitats.

As an example, from 1990 to 2000, the rate at which the developed world pushed into undeveloped lands increased by 19 percent nationwide, according to a 2005 study by the University of Wisconsin. In the South, however, that intrusion was 24.3 percent, and in Georgia, it was 24.4 percent.

In fact, Atlanta ranked fourth in the nation out of 83 metropolitan areas measured for experiencing the most urban sprawl, according to Smart Growth America, a national coalition pushing for better growth practices.

In addition to a loss of wildlife habitat, people, too, are losing sight of wildlife. "As green spaces keep disappearing across the country, people have fewer and fewer opportunities to get to see wildlife," Paul explained.

Getting certified

A property can be certified once the following wildlife needs are present: food, water, cover and places to raise young, as well as sustainable gardening practices.

But that doesn’t mean the task is difficult.

"Every year we try to do one extra thing," Cindy Johnson said. "So, every year, if you add just one thing, in three or four years, you have a lot and it didn’t take a lot of effort or time."

Paul said it boils down to "quality (rather) than quantity" when transforming a property. People have certified properties as large as a farm to as small as a balcony, she said.

The initiative can also bring participants closer together, as in the Johnsons’ case.

"This has been something that me and my wife have been able to do together, that we both enjoy," David Johnson said.

The couple’s 14-year-old son, Ian, enjoys the hobby as well. Cindy Johnson said he loves cooking fresh produce from the family’s vegetable garden, sweet potatoes especially.

As the Johnsons continue to expand their small refuge, the number of critters frequenting their backyard will likely grow as well, a benefit for both sides, Paul said.

"You can say that, well, one person doesn’t make that much difference, but if it’s multiplied by the effect of a lot of people doing it, it probably does make a difference," she said.