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A Three-Part Series on Building Ponds for Wildlife
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Bigsnest Wildlife Pond, Sebastopol, California

Build a Pond for Wildlife

by Kathy Biggs, California USA
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Part 1
Why Build a Pond for Wildlife? 

Building a pond for wildlife is just the natural thing to do! Around the world the loss of riparian and aquatic habitat is negatively affecting many wild creatures. By developing a pond for your wildlife, you can recreate some of that lost habitat. At the same time, the pond will give you dual pleasures: the tranquil, restful enjoyment of a garden pond and the opportunity to observe your local wildlife, up close and personal.

Many people are looking for ways to be “green” and to contribute to our planet’s health. A wildlife pond is one way. But, as Kermit the Frog said, “It isn’t easy, being green!” Everywhere you turn, you’ll find gorgeous tropical waterlilies and beautiful koi and goldfish being sold. Unfortunately neither koi nor goldfish are native to the Americas, British Isles or Europe, and they won’t belong in a pond built for wildlife in these areas. However, if you live in a tropical climate, tropical lilies are just fine.

The techniques for creating a wildlife pond are somewhat different from those used for tropical ponds. The first part of this three-part series on building wildlife ponds explores the ideas and mindset needed to embrace the concept. Parts 2 and 3 will cover the steps to take in building and maintaining a wildlife pond.

Here are some pointers to get you started in the right direction:

Choose to give priority to wildlife and enhance our planet  

Our native fauna and flora evolved together. In order to provide the creatures in your area with the very best habitat, you must resist the temptation to use the exotic. If you use mostly natives, your pond will not only be more attractive to wildlife, but it will also appear to belong in your yard, instead of looking like an import. 

Your mindset is the very most important aspect of your whole wildlife pond endeavor. Whenever possible, choose the plants, edgings, or other materials that fit best with your local terrain and habitat. Try to avoid buying commercial fish and building a circular rock-lined (“necklace-effect”) edged pond set in a lawn. Rock-lined ponds are fine for observing koi, but they make our native frogs and other creatures much more vulnerable as they cross into and out of the pond.

What animals might visit a wildlife pond?

The animals that will benefit the most from a wildlife pond are those that need water in which to breed. These include animals that spend their whole lives in the pond, and also those that only need the pond for breeding, such as frogs, some salamanders and newts, dragonflies, many diving beetles and other aquatic insects.  

Eight-spotted skimmer
Female dragonflies like this eight-spotted skimmer might lay eggs in your pond. These eggs will hatch and live as underwater nymph for about a year before emerging as adult flying dragonflies. Dragonfly nymph are voracious feeders on mosquito larvae; by providing shallow sunny areas with emergent vegetation, you can encourage them to breed in your pond. 

Blue dasher
Male dragonflies, like this blue dasher, will claim a territory on your pond, awaiting a female to claim. The males will perform amazing aerial maneuvers when they duel with each other, and also when they find a female. Their amusing and entertaining antics can be a source of delight for the wildlife pond owner.  

Adult dragonflies feed on mosquitoes and other flying insects. Sometimes dragonflies attempt to breed in koi ponds, but koi and other fish feed on dragonfly eggs and dragonfly nymph; they will not be successful. Read more about dragonflies in the May issue of WGI Online.   

Almost all frogs need water in which to breed, and frogs worldwide are in distress. A fishless wildlife pond offers them a safe place. Their polliwogs eat algae! Frogs should be able to find your pond on their own during wet spells. Some areas are plagued by non-native frogs, so please educate yourself as to what is native in your area. To the left is a Pacific tree/chorus frog sleeping in the center of an Indian rhubarb leaf. This frog is the size of an American quarter coin, but its “song” (croaking) can be heard for about a quarter mile (400 meters). 

Other animals will use your pond mostly as a “watering hole”. During periods of drought, your pond can be a real “safety net” for them. Depending on your continent, and whether your area is urban, suburban, rural, or even wilderness, some of the larger animals that might use your pond could include deer, opossums and raccoons – or kangaroos, wallabies and other small marsupials!   

  Birds of all sizes and colors will not only use your pond as a “watering hole” but also as a birdbath. Some will even collect the moss and mud from the edges for nest building materials. Fly-catching birds specialize on skimming insects off the water surface. Such a bird is the black phoebe, shown at the left.  

Some of the insects a phoebe might find delectable are those that are able to “skate” on the water’s surface tension, such as water striders, right.  

Many aquatic insects will inhabit your wildlife pond, including diving beetles, backswimmers, water boatmen, and even microscopic creatures.
Butterflies may use your pond as a “mineral lick” and dozens of them fluttering about a wildlife pond’s beach as they “puddle” is a delightful sight. Many species of butterflies will also gather nectar from your flowering pond plants, and if you plant their host plants, some may breed on plants in the bog or, possibly even on those in the pond. If one lays its eggs there, the caterpillars must find their way carefully from plant stalk to plant stalk. To the right is a painted lady butterfly “puddling” getting not only a drink, but also minerals from the beach area.  


Sometimes building a pond and opening it up to wildlife means setting aside prior ideas as to what is a varmint, and what is a guest! For example, in many areas, wetlands and raccoons have evolved together for centuries. Because they eat fish, many pond owners consider them a nuisance. But, if you build the pond large enough, then their visits won’t totally disrupt it.

Raccoon photo courtesy of Wikipedia 

It’s a good idea to give ownership of your pond to your wildlife visitors and take the role of pond steward for yourself. Trapping and relocating wild creatures usually just provides the animal with the territory “next door” the opportunity to move in!

However, the animal that might get the most use/enjoyment from a wildlife pond could be you! Not only will you enjoy both the action and the tranquility of the pond, but you can also cool down in your pond during hot weather. It’s the perfect time to do maintenance or just to sit lazily along the edges with your feet in the water and a cool drink in your hand.  

Research what’s native in your area and what you personally like 

Having established the correct mindset, the next step to take in building a pond for wildlife is to determine what plants and edgings appeal to you. Go out into the wetlands in your area and take pictures and/or notes on what you see growing there, especially noting what delights you.

Then find out which nurseries sell native plants in your area, and learn about local native plant societies. Visit them to see what they have available.

It is against the law in most places to collect plants from parks, recreation areas or the private property of others. But in some cases it may be possible to secure permission to collect plants, since most aquatic plants reproduce readily through seeds and/or runners.

Look for plants, items and situations that please you personally. Do you like seeing rocks inside the pond sticking out of the water? Logs partially submerged? Tall plants? Lots of underwater plants? Pointy leaves? Colorful flowers? Are there certain creatures you’d especially like to attract? What would invite them into your pond? Time spent on research will be time well spent! The more seasons in which you do your research, the more opportunities you’ll have to see how things look in the wild.

If you love damp wildflower meadows, perhaps you’ll want to plant those species in a sunny bog adjacent to your pond so that you can grow native wetland wildflowers there. The possibilities are nearly endless. To the left is shooting star (Dodecatheon pauciflorum), Indian paint (Castilleja) and buttercup (Ranunculus).  

What are some aquatic plants for use in wildlife ponds? 
  An example of a plant that would be useful planted inside the perimeter of a wildlife pond is blue flag Iris (Iris missouriensis), left. Besides having plants inside your pond, a wildlife pond should have transitional bog areas. The cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinales), right, is an example of a good bog plant.


Although native plants will best accommodate the critters that have evolved with them, that doesn’t mean that you can’t use plants that pre-exist in your yard, especially those that are closely related to natives. In the Bigsnest Pond, a non- native azalea (Rhododendron sp.) provides double pleasure with its reflection (left).

Click here for a list of native North American plants that are appropriate for a wildlife pond.

Click here for a list and photos of wildlife seen at Bigsnest Wildlife Pond.

And click here for a list and photos of wildlife seen at Dragonfly Roost Pond.

Some examples of wildlife ponds, all of these built in North America, mostly in California but one from New York, are below.

Bigsnest Pond

Conley Pond

Allen Pond

Dragonfly Roost Pond

Brinkerhoff Pond

Mt. Shasta City Hospital Pond

Once you’ve decided to create a pond for wildlife, the next step is to design its perimeter and interior. These steps will be covered in Part 2, which will follow in the next issue of WGI Online.

Click here to learn more about Bigsnest Wildlife Pond, 14 years old in 2009.

Part 2: How to Design a Pond for Wildlife
Part 3: Maintaining a Wildlife Pond coming in issue 5.2

WGI ONLINE Journal Table of Contents

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