10 Tips for Watching Backyard Wildlife

Fiona the fox, exploring her territory.
Fiona the fox, exploring her territory.
Courtesy of Kerry Wolfe

Whether you live among acres of sprawling land or look out over a sliver of city sidewalk, if you pay close enough attention, you’re bound to see wildlife right outside your door. So get familiar with your nonhuman neighbors with these 10 tips for backyard wildlife watching. After all, the animals are there—whether you notice them or not.

1. Get curious.

Watching wildlife is a wonderful way to learn about the other inhabitants of your yard. “You can go out and go for a hike and walk to find something, but there’s really a value in sitting quietly in one space and seeing what comes along,” Brian Hess, a wildlife biologist with the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, tells Mental Floss. Charismatic creatures like deer and bears are exciting, but there’s no need to wait for something large to come ambling through. Peek between the branches of a shrub and you may find a bird nest tucked within the greenery; move a rock and you’ll likely spot worms wriggling around in the moist earth. Try varying your routine, too, as different animals become more active depending on the time of day.

2. Don’t disturb the wildlife.

A male pheasant walking
Let them strut their stuff in peace.
Courtesy of Kerry Wolfe

Treat wildlife watching as if you’re window shopping in a store stocked with stuff you can’t afford: Basically, look but don’t touch. “My general rule of thumb whenever I’m watching wildlife is if they change their behavior because of my presence, that probably means I’m too close and should back off,” Hess says.

Keeping your distance will help both you and the wildlife stay safe—and make sure any curious pets don’t get too close to wild creatures, either. An animal may attack if it feels threatened, which, as anyone who’s seen Homeward Bound (1993) knows, can lead to some pretty painful encounters. There’s also the risk of zoonotic diseases; though fairly rare, North Americans in particular have to be cautious of rabies.

Avoid feeding wildlife, too (bird feeders are fine—more on that later). Don’t chuck your dog’s uneaten kibble or your dinner scraps out the back door, as teaching wildlife to rely on people for meals can cause unwanted learned behavior and lead to human-animal conflicts.

3. Make your yard wildlife-friendly.

One of the best ways to attract wildlife is to add native plants to your yard. “You can put an oak tree in your yard, watch the life come to it, and help rebuild your local ecosystem,” Doug Tallamy, a professor of entomology at the University of Delaware, tells Mental Floss. A perfectly manicured patch of grass or an exotic shrub may look lovely, but it doesn’t create a suitable habitat for many animals. Most insects are specialized feeders, meaning they’ve evolved over millions of years to eat particular plants. Basically, if you want to see more monarchs, you better start planting some milkweed.

Short on yard space? Urban apartment dwellers can stick pots of native plants in window boxes. Adding even a tiny bit of greenery will help city animals who may not have access to as many resources as their rural counterparts.

Finding native plants is fairly simple. Organizations like the National Wildlife Federation and the Audubon Society (and if you’re in California, the California Native Plant Society) have online databases you can browse.

And, if you’re attracting birds, avoid turning your yard into a stage for Windex commercial-level crashes. If your glass is spotless, stick some decals or tempera paint onto your windows to help prevent bird collisions.

4. Maintain your bird feeder.

Though native plants are a great way to attract wildlife, you can also supplement your yard’s offerings with various bird feeders [PDF]. Make sure you regularly clean your feeders, lest the seeds get wet and grow mold. You should also rake away any discarded shells scattered on the ground, which can collect harmful bacteria. If you live in an area with bears, check with your state’s wildlife agency for their seasonal best practices regarding bird feeders, as foraging ursines love to snack on high-fat, high-protein seeds.

5. Provide water.

A red fox drinks from a water bowl in a backyard
Chasing chipmunks really works up a thirst.
Courtesy of Kerry Wolfe

A tub of water in a shady spot away from your house will help your resident critters and thirsty passersby. If you can, put a large rock or brick in the water bowl, and fill the basin so only part of the object is submerged. This will provide insects and other animals with an extra perch to land on, as they may have a tough time sipping water from a steep-sided dog dish. The rock will also give small creatures an extra escape option, should they accidentally fall into the tub and go for an unplanned swim. Make sure you clean the water bowl regularly—standing water can quickly become a soupy mess of dirt, guano, and mosquito eggs.

6. Get excited about insects!

Put away the insecticide and instead embrace your resident creepy-crawlies. You can have a lot of fun identifying the beetles and butterflies that frequent your yard. And about 90 percent of flowering plants depend on pollinators, so not only is that bee bumbling around your garden cute, it’s also playing a vital role in helping your local ecosystem.

While insects are fascinating in their own right, you can also view them as food for larger creatures. They’re a nutritious meal for animals like birds, lizards, frogs, squirrels, bats, opossums, and much more. Caterpillars in particular are a great source of grub for local and migrant bird populations. “If you want chickadees breeding in your yard, you need to have 6000 to 9000 caterpillars or the chickadees can’t rear their young,” Tallamy tells Mental Floss.

7. When looking for wildlife, use your senses.

There’s a reason avid birders get to know their bird calls. “Hearing wildlife is a great way to start to pay attention,” John Rowden, senior director of bird-friendly communities at the Audubon Society, tells Mental Floss. “Learn the sounds, and it will help you identify the animals.” And if your yard suddenly erupts with a cacophony of squirrel alarm calls, there’s a good chance there’s some sort of predator lurking nearby. Identifying the sounds of nocturnal animals like owls and raccoons will help you discern who's been coming after dark.

You may be able to smell some animals, too. Skunks unleash a notoriously stinky spray when warding off threats; foxes and mountain lions mark their territories with their own funky scents; and desert dwellers claim they can often smell javelina before they see them.

8. Look for signs animals have visited.

Squirrel Tracks in Snow on a Wooden Railing
Clear signs of squirrel traffic.
Colin Temple/iStock via Getty Images

You don’t have to see the animals themselves to find hints of their presence. A fallen feather, a muddy print, a well-walked trail etched into the dirt, and a heaping pile of scat are all clues as to who’s been sharing your yard.

9. Get technological.

Sure, watching wildlife is a great excuse to unplug, but embracing tools and technology can help enhance your experience. A pair of binoculars will transform that blurry blot in the sky into a clearly identifiable bird; a trail camera will snap footage of whatever walks through your yard when you’re not looking. Apps like iNaturalist can help you identify various species and share your findings with fellow members of the community.

10. Document your wildlife observations.

Keep a record of the creatures who frequent your yard. This will help you get a sense of their routines and better identify individual animals. You can keep your logs simple—a quick journal entry or a series of photographs is an excellent way to document your resident wildlife. As a bonus, your observations can also help with citizen science projects, such as the Monarch Joint Venture or Audubon’s Hummingbirds at Home project.

13 Father's Day Gifts for Geeky Dads

Amazon/Otterbox/Toynk
Amazon/Otterbox/Toynk

When in doubt, you play the hits. Watches, flasks, and ties are all tried-and-true Father’s Day gifts—useful items bought en masse every June as the paternal holiday draws near. Here’s a list of goodies that put a geeky spin on those can’t-fail gifts. We’re talking Zelda flasks, wizard-shaped party mugs, and a timepiece inspired by BBC’s greatest sci-fi series, Doctor Who. Light the “dad” signal ‘cause it’s about to get nerdy!

1. Lord of the Rings Geeki Tikis (Set of Three); $76

'Lord of The Rings' themed tiki cups.
Toynk

If your dad’s equally crazy about outdoor shindigs and Tolkien’s Middle-earth, help him throw his own Lothlórien luau with these Tiki-style ceramic mugs shaped like icons from the Lord of the Rings saga. Gollum and Frodo’s drinkware doppelgängers each hold 14 ounces of liquid, while Gandalf the Grey’s holds 18—but a wizard never brags, right? Star Wars editions are also available.

Buy it: Toynk

2. Space Invaders Cufflinks; $9

'Space Invaders' cufflinks on Amazon
Fifty 50/Amazon

Arcade games come and arcade games go, but Space Invaders has withstood the test of time. Now Pops can bring those pixelated aliens to the boardroom—and look darn stylish doing it.

Buy it: Amazon

3. Legend of Zelda Flask; $18

A 'Legend of Zelda' flask
Toynk

Saving princesses is thirsty work. Shaped like an NES cartridge, this Zelda-themed flask boasts an 8-ounce holding capacity and comes with a reusable straw. Plus, it makes a fun little display item for gamer dads with man caves.

Buy it: Toynk

4. AT-AT Family Vacation Bag Tag; $12

An At-At baggage tag
ShopDisney

Widely considered one of the greatest movie sequels ever made, The Empire Strikes Back throws a powerful new threat at Luke Skywalker and the Rebellion: the AT-AT a.k.a. Imperial Walkers. Now your dad can mark his luggage with a personalized tag bearing the war machine’s likeness.

Buy it: ShopDisney

5. Flash Skinny Tie; $17

A skinny Flash-themed tie
Uyoung/Amazon

We’ll let you know if the Justice League starts selling new memberships, but here’s the next best thing. Available in a rainbow of super-heroic colors, this skinny necktie bears the Flash’s lightning bolt logo. Race on over to Amazon and pick one up today.

Buy it: Amazon

6. Captain America Shield Apron; $20

A Captain America themed apron
Toynk

Why let DC fans have all the fun? Daddy-o can channel his inner Steve Rogers when he flips burgers at your family’s Fourth of July BBQ. Measuring 31.5 inches long by 27.5 inches wide, this apron’s guaranteed to keep the cookout Hydra-free.

Buy it: Toynk

7. Doctor Who Vortex Manipulator LCD Leather Wristwatch; $35

A Doctor Who-themed watch
Toynk

At once classy and geeky, this digital timepiece lovingly recreates one of Doctor Who’s signature props. Unlike some of the gadgets worn on the long-running sci-fi series, it won’t require any fancy chronoplasm fuel.

Buy it: Toynk

8. Wonder Woman 3-Piece Grill Set; $21

Wonder Woman three-piece gill set
Toynk

At one point in her decades-long comic book career, this Amazon Princess found herself working at a fast food restaurant called Taco Whiz. Now grill cooks can pay tribute to the heroine with these high-quality, stainless steel utensils. The set’s comprised of wide-tipped tongs, a BBQ fork, and a spatula, with the latter boasting Wonder Woman’s insignia.

Buy it: Toynk

9. Harry Potter Toon Tumbler; $10

Glassware that's Harry Potter themed
Entertainment Earth

You can never have too many pint glasses—and this Father’s Day, dad can knock one back for the boy who lived. This piece of Potter glassware from PopFun has whimsy to spare. Now who’s up for some butterbeer?

Buy it: EntertainmentEarth

10. House Stark Men’s Wallet; $16

A Game of Thrones themed watch
Toynk

Winter’s no longer coming, but the Stark family's propensity for bold fashion choices can never die. Manufactured with both inside and outside pockets, this direwolf-inspired wallet is the perfect place to store your cards, cash, and ID.

Buy it: Toynk

11. Mr. Incredible “Incredible Dad” Mug, $15

An Incredibles themed mug
ShopDisney

Cue the brass music. Grabbing some coffee with a Pixar superhero sounds like an awesome—or dare we say, incredible?—way for your dad to start his day. Mom can join in the fun, too: Disney also sells a Mrs. Incredible version of the mug.

Buy it: ShopDisney

12. Star Wars phone cases from Otterbox; $46-$56

Star Wars phone cases from OtterBox.
Otterbox

If your dad’s looking for a phone case to show off his love of all things Star Wars, head to Otterbox. Whether he’s into the Dark Side with Darth Vader and Kylo Ren, the droids, Chewbacca, or Boba Fett, you’ll be able to find a phone case to fit his preference. The designs are available for both Samsung and Apple products, and you can check them all out here.

Buy it: Otterbox

13. 3D Puzzles; $50

3D Harry Potter puzzle from Amazon.
Wrebbit 3D

Help dad recreate some of his favorite fictional locations with these 3D puzzles from Wrebbit 3D. The real standouts are the 850-piece model of Hogwarts's Great Hall and the 910-piece version of Winterfell from Game of Thrones. If dad's tastes are more in line with public broadcasting, you could also pick him up an 890-piece Downton Abbey puzzle to bring a little upper-crust elegance to the homestead.

Buy it: Hogwarts (Amazon), Winterfell (Amazon), Downton Abbey (Amazon)

At Mental Floss, we only write about the products we love and want to share with our readers, so all products are chosen independently by our editors. Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a percentage of any sale made from the links on this page. Prices and availability are accurate as of the time of publication.

How to Watch the Great Smoky Mountains' Synchronous Fireflies From Home

QEYES/iStock via Getty Images
QEYES/iStock via Getty Images

Each June, thousands of synchronous fireflies put on a stunning light show in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. People won't be able to view the spectacle in person this year due to the COVID-19 crisis, but for the fireflies, it will be business as usual. As CarolinaCoastOnline reports, the nonprofit Discover Life in America found a safe way to share the event with as many people as possible by streaming it online.

The fireflies of Tennessee's Great Smoky Mountains are the only fireflies in the Western Hemisphere that flash in sync. For two weeks in June, the males above ground blink for the females on the forest floor below, creating a rhythmic, hypnotic display.

In a typical year, thousands of people would gather to witness the phenomenon, but in April 2020, Great Smoky Mountains National Park canceled the event after determining that social distancing would be impossible. The synchronous fireflies are so popular that the park has to distribute tickets for shuttle access by lottery. Whether you had plans to see the show this year or you're hearing about it for the first time, it's now easy to view it from home.

Discover Life in America, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting biological diversity, streamed its virtual firefly-watching event to YouTube on Monday, June 1. After an introduction explaining the science behind the insect's behavior, the feed cuts to footage of the Great Smoky Mountains at night. The fireflies can be seen flashing over a stream, a hiking trail, and an open field in the park. There's even a clip that shows the insects performing the mating ritual as a thunderstorm brews in the background. You can watch the full video below.

If you're looking to relax with more wildlife content, check out these animal webcams you can watch right now.

[h/t CarolinaCoastOnline]