How to Attract Herps (Reptiles and Amphibians) To Your Property
By Eric Roscoe
We are glad that you have, or have decided to take an interest in helping promote local conservation efforts by making your home or property more herp (reptile and amphibian) friendly! There are many different ways, materials, and methods that can be used to attract these animals that this article will cover. Where you live or are located, the size, location, and type of property, and which species may be found in your area are all influencing factors to consider. Areas located in more rural, or naturalistic settings (not dominated by agriculture and/or development) have the greatest likelihood/potential of attracting herps from the surrounding area. However, even urban and suburban settings can often have opportunities for attracting common or ubiquitous species such as American toads (Anaxyrus amercanus), painted turtles (Chrysemys picta), or common garter snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis).
It is also always important to consider some potential legal aspects before any efforts or alterations are made. Always ensure that the property any given activity is taking place on is either one’s own, or, that consent is given by the landowner/property owner if the area is privately, state, or otherwise owned by someone else. Remember to never trespass and/or make alterations without consent. Appropriate zoning, as well as other applicable local, county, state, and/or federal public health and property maintenance codes should also always be followed for various reasons (including, but not limited to reducing the spread/breeding grounds of nonnative/invasive species, mosquitoes and other nuisance insects, and other reasons). With all of this said, here are some general, as well as species specific tips for attracting herps to your backyard, garden, or property.
Most species of reptiles and amphibians have differing and specific habitat and living requirements that must be met or replicated closely in order to attract them. This makes it somewhat difficult to plan for attracting them without a specific species, or at least group of animals (i.e. snakes and lizards, turtles, frogs & toads, or salamanders). However, in a very broad and general sense, there are some ways of making one’s property or landscape more herp friendly. Reducing mowing and trimming of grass, bushes, shrubs, over story vegetation that can shade out conditions suitable for most species, or other vegetation can often provide shelter and ground cover for a variety of herps. Leaving brush piles, woodpiles, fallen logs, rocks, leaf and vegetative litter, and other natural (or artificial/man made) ground debris can go a long way in not only attracting many species of herps, but other wildlife as well.
Lastly, do not feed or attempt to feed any wild animals or wildlife. Doing so is against the law in most areas, and animals that are fed will often become habituated to people and handouts, often losing their natural fear or wariness of humans and becoming a nuisance and/or a danger to other pets and people, as well as jeopardizing the animal’s welfare.
Snakes and Lizards (Squamates)
In general, snakes and lizards can be found in a variety of open to semi open habitats with access to suitable ground cover. Closed canopy, or excessively shaded conditions tend to harbor few, if any snake or lizard species. These conditions provide for additional refuge and potential hibernacula, foraging and hunting opportunities, and opportunities for thermoregulation. Examples of suitable ground cover can include, but is not limited to overgrowth of grass, bushes, shrubs, or other vegetation, rock piles or rock walls, concrete or stone foundations, loose and/or flat rocks, logs, brush piles, leaf litter, woodpiles, or other forms of natural or artificial debris laid out around the property such as plywood coverboards, pieces of scrap wood, corrugated roofing tin or other sheets of metal or tin. It is important to become familiar with the seasonality and local conditions in which objects are placed or constructed to ensure they receive adequate sunlight and thermal gradients for any snakes or lizards. South, southwest, to west facing open hillsides or bluff/”goat” prairies near the summits of bluffs or elevated moraines with exposed sandstone, dolomite, or other bedrock outcroppings and loose, flat rocks nearby will also very often provide habitat and hibernacula for many species of snakes and lizards. Such areas can be maintained and preserved by regular brush cutting and removal of invasive, woody overgrowth such as red cedars or sumac.
Hibernacula are another very important component for many snakes and lizards. Hibernacula are sites in which these animals instinctually travel to, from, and congregate at every year that go several feet below the frostline, and maintain relatively mild temperatures of 40-55 degrees F throughout the winter. Hibernacula that may exist on or near your property can include, but are not limited to rock fissures, rock walls or rock piles, woodpiles, and stone or concrete foundations, basements, and/or garages. If your home is an older home with a stone or concrete foundation, or is a relatively new home that was built upon an existing foundation on site or nearby, chances are you may already have snakes present and residing in the area (this is particularly if you live in a rural area, although even urban and suburban foundations can serve as hibernacula for any snakes in the area). To keep these hibernacula open for the snakes to enter and exit, do not seal up or repair any cracks, gaps, fissures, or other openings that may serve as entry/exit ways. There are also several different do-it-yourself hibernacula that can be constructed in various ways and materials on your property. Check out these links below on homemade hibernacula:
Attracting turtles to your property depends on several things including whether there are any water bodies nearby (within 2 miles typically), the type of water body, and whether suitable nesting habitat exists on or around your property. Female turtles of most species will travel over land for up to considerable distances in search of open, sandy nesting river banks and other sites in which to lay their eggs from May to July. Some species of turtles prefer, or are typically most often found in or are associated with certain water body types (such as medium to large flowing rivers or streams in the case of many map and softshell turtle species), while others can be much more widespread, being found in ponds, lakes, rivers, streams, marshes, roadside ditches, and other permanent to semi-permanent wetlands. In Wisconsin, painted turtles (Chrysemys picta), common snapping turtles (Chelydra serpentina), and Blanding’s turtles (Emydoidea blandingii) tend to be the most common and widespread species. In the case of terrestrial Ornate box turtles (Terrapene ornata), the state’s most endangered turtle species, providing or maintaining open, cleared sand barrens, sand prairie or oak savannah with some vegetative cover within this turtle’s range are the most important steps that can be taken to attract this turtle species.
Maintaining suitable basking opportunities in or near the water will also benefit many turtles greatly, and can include exposed or sometimes overhanding logs, rocks, river or shore banks, downed trees in the water, beaver and muskrat dams or lodges, or other vegetative snags. Artificial ponds or wetlands (discussed further below) may also attract transient turtles as well. Monitoring and protecting nesting sites is another important step to take in making your property more turtle friendly. Most species of turtles see high nest and egg mortality from predators such as raccoons, skunks, and opossums. Nests, if they can be observed or located, can be protected by covering them with a 2-3 inch wire mesh material buried and installed several inches below each side to prevent predation. They should also be wide enough for the hatchling turtles to fit through once they hatch or emerge from the nest, although hatchlings may also overwinter in their nests and may not emerge until the following spring.
Amphibians (Caudates, or Newts and Salamanders) and (Anurans, Frogs and Toads)
Attracting amphibians depends largely on which species one is interested in seeing, their range/whether they may be found in your area, whether there are already any ponds or other wetlands nearby, and their habitat preferences and requirements. In general, however, most amphibians require a pond or other water body for annual mating and reproduction as components to their lifestyles. Many species (including most salamanders) will breed in temporary, or ephemeral ponds, ditches, or other wetlands that may exist on or near your property and that dry up later in the year. These amphibians will also occupy nearby or surrounding mature to semi mature forest and moist microclimates underneath rocks, logs, leaf litter, or other suitable natural or manmade debris (such as coverboards, trash piles, etc.). Many frogs and toads will also benefit greatly from maintaining increased vegetative cover and emergent aquatic vegetation near or along shorelines of lakes, ponds, rivers and streams, marshes, and other wetlands. These can include duckweeds, lily pads, bulrushes, and other vegetative snags. Species that can be found in more open grasslands, fields, prairies, and marshes such as leopard frogs and chorus frogs can also benefit from reduced mowing of grasses as well.
Maintaining the surrounding upland areas is another very important step in making your property more attractive to amphibians. If no ponds or other wetlands are known to be nearby, or if one wishes to create additional opportunities for amphibians, artificial ponds can also be constructed using a variety of materials and methods. Ponds that are constructed should be of a depth (at least 2 feet or more) to prevent them from freezing to the bottom, and thus allowing amphibians to overwinter in them if they are deep enough. Ponds can often be constructed as simply or as elaborately as one desires, and there are many other articles and resources that are available on constructing an amphibian/wildlife friendly pond beyond what this article will go into in depth or detail. It is also important to remember that the construction of ponds or wetlands may also increase suitable breeding grounds for mosquitoes and other nuisance insects, in which case, additional biological controls (such as providing sufficient vegetation for dragon flies, and/or nearby bat houses for bats) should also be considered. Also do not stock ponds or other artificial wetlands with predatory fish such as bass, or panfish, which will eat amphibians, and their larvae/tadpoles/eggs. Fishless wetlands are best for most amphibians. Allowing natural organic growth of algae in ponds will also benefit as a food source for tadpoles and other larval amphibians. Do not use any chemicals, pesticides, or other herbicides in or around ponds or wetlands in which amphibians may live in or breed, since pollutants are a major source of detrimental effects on amphibian population declines worldwide and most have sensitive, porous skins. Ponds should also be constructed such that they allow amphibians easy access and exit to the pond without becoming trapped or drowning. There are many sloped sides and/or ramps that can be considered for ease of access.
It is also important to remember to never collect, relocate, or transfer any reptile or amphibian from one area to another for the purposes or re-stocking them on your property. Doing so not only often is against the law, but many of these animals have very specific home ranges, and relocating them too far away (over ½ a mile or more) can speall a death sentence for the animal. Furthermore, transferring an animal from one population to another greatly increases the risk of introducing or spreading potential disease or pathogens into the environment that were not present in the area before. The best course of action is to always simply allow animals to find your property naturally and minimize disturbance or impacts to them as much as possible. The Wisconsin DNR has additional information and FAQs pertaining to all of Wisconsin’s native reptile and amphibian species: http://dnr.wi.gov/topic/wildlifehabitat/herps.asp
For constructing artificial ponds and other wetlands, check out these links below: