How to make your outdoor space a refuge of biodiversity

A green hummingbird flies among the sage bush’s branches, dipping its long beak into the purple blossoms as the sun shines on its metallic-pink neck feathers. From behind a rock, a tiny brown lizard darts. Mourning doves coo from a bottlebrush shrub, but their voices are quickly drowned out by squirrels yelling angrily at each other.

A family of raccoons digs in the turf at the base of a tree as the sky darkens, looking for worms and grubs. A coyote howls in the distance as the moon rises.

This is happening in a tiny back yard a block from a major freeway, not in some idyllic country retreat. And if you think such a diverse wildlife in such a small space is unusual, think again.

California is the most biodiverse state in the country and one of the world’s most biodiverse. The Bay Area has so many different types of flora and fauna — birds, fish, mammals, amphibians, and invertebrates — that UNESCO designated it as the Golden Gate Biosphere Reserve in 1988.

Despite its concrete, Los Angeles County is home to over 500 species of birds, 19 species of snakes, and dozens of species of frogs, lizards, and turtles. And that doesn’t even include mammals, according to Lila Higgins, senior manager at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and co-author of the 2019 book “Wild L.A.: Explore the Amazing Nature in and Around Los Angeles.”

“We’ve got very ‘urban’ habitats, parks, back yards, empty lots, streetscapes,” Higgins said. “(But) like a ‘urban forest,’ all of those things create zones for creatures to live in.”

To put it another way, you don’t have to go to the wilderness to see wildlife. They’re right in your backyard. Higgins and colleagues launched the annual City Nature Challenge in 2016 as a Los Angeles-Bay Area initiative to encourage citizen naturalists to photograph wildlife they see in their yards, parks, and hiking trails. Since then, the effort has expanded to a global scale. The 2023 challenge, held May 1-7, involved 485 cities in Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia, and the Americas, and over 66,000 citizen naturalists recorded nearly 1.9 million sightings of more than 57,000 species.

If you missed this year’s challenge, Mark Girardeau, who posts his sightings of bobcats, pumas, coyotes, foxes, and even orcas at, says you can still do some nature spotting and recording of your own.

But back to the coyotes. You might think these canids have taken over your neighborhood if you belong to a neighborhood Facebook group or spend time on NextDoor. Coyotes are estimated to number between 250,000 and 750,000 in the state, with urban coyotes expanding their territories into California suburbs. However, Girardeau claims that they are not as common as social media would have us believe.

“We now hear about every coyote sighting, whereas just 10 or 20 years ago, we didn’t,” he said. “It seems like people are seeing them more, when in reality, we are just more connected to everyone else’s lives and complaints than ever before.”

(However, if you come across one, keep your distance. If you feel threatened, make yourself large and loud, wave your arms, and yell at the animal to leave. Do not flee. Keep dogs on leashes to prevent them from running, and if you’re walking a small dog, pick him up.)

Of course, you don’t want to attract coyotes to your backyard, so don’t leave pet food on your porch or patio. But how can you make whatever green space you have as wildlife-friendly as possible?

Plant as many drought-resistant native species as possible.Include a water feature. A small pond, bird bath, or fountain can help attract birds. Pesticides should be avoided. Leave mulch on the soil and do not remove brush piles. They provide protection for insects and smaller animals like lizards.

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