Wildlife gardens should include more than just the furred and the feathered. For your next garden project, consider the slithery and the slimy, too. Before you think “Ick!” and flip the page, consider this: Reptiles and amphibians—including salamanders, toads, snakes, turtles, frogs, and lizards—are some of the most important pest predators. Mosquito larvae, adult mosquitoes, flies, slugs, beetles, voles, mice, and moles are all on
Amphibians and reptiles (collectively called herptiles) are also prey for other species of wildlife you might want to attract. Red-shouldered hawks, roadrunners, and herons are just a few of the birds that eagerly gobble frogs, lizards, and snakes. Herptiles are food for all sorts of mammals, too, including opossums, javelina, and foxes.
Herptiles can also tell you whether your environment is healthy. Amphibians absorb gases and liquids through their sensitive skin, making them very susceptible to toxins. They cannot survive in polluted environments, so if you find them in your garden, you know it’s healthy for your family and pets, too.
Here’s how to attract these beneficial creatures to your garden:
Provide cover. To attract tree frogs and lizards, make sure you have plenty of dense vegetation—this provides hiding places and hunting grounds. Brush piles also offer hiding spaces for frogs, lizards, and turtles.
Provide warm rocks. To attract reptiles, build a rock wall or rock pile. In addition to providing hiding places for many types of benefical wildlife, rocks serve another important purpose for reptiles. Reptiles need to bask in the sun to absorb heat and metabolize their food, so they love to “lie out” on sun-warmed rocks.
Don’t use pesticides. Pesticides rob herptiles of their prey and often kill them outright. Amphibians, in particular, are very susceptible to pesticide poisoning.
Give them a drink. A backyard pond planted with native species can offer everything many herptiles need to survive. Frogs find shelter, hunting grounds, and places to lay their eggs in ponds. Aquatic turtles and snakes also find shelter and food in ponds. Ponds provide hibernation places for many herptiles and a clean water source for drinking.
Build them a place to lay eggs. While you can’t build a house for herptiles to raise their young like you can for birds, you can create a pond where amphibians can lay eggs. Keep an area of sandy soil in a sunny spot for turtles, snakes, and lizards to build nests. Baby herptiles receive no parental care or protection, so dense vegetation and brush will give them places to hide from predators.
Reptile or Amphibian?
People often confuse reptiles and amphibians. Both groups are ectothermic, which means they depend on the outside environment for temperature regulation. In places with cold winters, they hibernate at the bottom of ponds or underground. They often share the same habitat. But that’s where the similarities end.
Reptiles (snakes, lizards, and turtles) are covered in dry, scaly skin. Most species lay eggs with leathery shells in nests excavated in the ground. Amphibians (frogs, toads, and salamanders) generally have moist, smooth skin. They lay their eggs underwater or in wet environments on land, such as under rotting logs.
Here are some tips to identify the critters that show up in your garden:
Snake or Lizard? Legless glass lizards are often confused for snakes. Here’s how to tell them apart: Lizards have eyelids and external ear openings, unlike snakes. All snakes are carnivores, while some lizards eat plants.
Frog or Toad? Toads are really just one type of frog. Toads tend to live in dryer environments than other frogs and have dryer, bumpier skin. They walk or hop on short legs, whereas frogs have long legs for swimming and leaping. Frogs have tiny teeth; toads don’t.
Lizard or Salamander? Lizards are reptiles with dry, scaly skin. They lay eggs with leathery shells. Salamanders are amphibians with moist skin, and they lay their eggs in wet environments. Many salamanders produce skin toxins as protection from predators.
David Mizejewski is the author of Attracting Birds, Butterflies, and Other Backyard Wildlife (Creative Homeowner, 2004), the host of Animal Planet’s “Backyard Habitat,” and a naturalist with the National Wildlife Federation.