Converting your yard into a Wildlife Habitat
     The typical grassy yard shown below is not attractive to native birds and wildlife, but this is what most yards look like when you buy a new home, so this guide is an attempt to explain how to convert a typical grassy yard into a wildlife habitat in Texas.  These guidelines can also be used for other locations, but the main difference will be that the types of native plants will be different for different areas of the country.  You may have a Native Plant Society in your area that can help you find out where to buy native plants. 
     People often wonder how they can make a difference for the environment and wildlife when so many things seem out of our direct control, but one easy way to make a big difference in the world is to convert your yard into a habitat that reflects the unique regional diversity that existed in your area before humans developed the land.  You'll be amazed at the huge number of birds, butterflies, and other wonderful creatures that will bring your garden to life and make you quickly realize you've made a difference in the world.  Neighbors will see what you've done and ask questions about how to change their lawn into habitat as well. 
     The land area currently covered by non-native grasses such as Bermuda and St. Augustine represents more land area than any other crop in the United States.  Maintenance of a single grass lawn for one year may require as much gasoline as driving 14,000 miles in your car, more water than you use inside your house, and fertilizers and pesticides that get washed down into local lakes and streams and kill birds and wildlife. Even 1 granule of diazinon can kill a bird (the bird will fly off to a secluded place to die, so many people never realize they've killed birds by using this pesticide).  The alternative is a wonderful native wildlife habitat that uses 0 gallons of gas, 0 gallons of water (I'll show you how to hook up a simple rainwater collection system to collect water for minor uses and getting plants started), and 0 lbs of fertilizers and pesticides (any plant that requires these chemicals to survive should simply be left to die and replaced with a native plant), which means saving aquatic life and birds that depend on local lakes and streams that will no longer be polluted by storm runoff, and providing food and habitat for birds and wildlife in the yard itself.  A few added bonuses for you, on top of the rest, are that once things are planted, you'll no longer have to spend all that time and money mowing each week, and you save time and money by not having to use fertilizers, pesticides, or water any more. 
     The picture below shows a native habitat that includes tall trees, understory trees, shrubs such as the American Beautyberry in the foreground, and some ground level plants.   This provides things for the birds to eat at every elevation (many birds feed primarily on insects, and some enjoy berries, nuts, and seeds), and places to nest at every elevation (some nest in cavities, some build an open nest in dense branches, and some nest on the ground).  Each elevation is important because different birds feed and nest at different elevations.  Even a single bird may like to feed at one elevation and nest at another. 
     If you're starting out with a yard that doesn't have large trees, you can enjoy an extensive hummingbird and butterfly garden before your trees get tall.  You won't have to wait for the birds to start using new trees and shrubs you plant; however, because even while your trees are small, they will attract a wide variety of birds that will nest in shorter trees (cardinals, mockingbirds, etc.) and many birds will come to search for insects and berries among the branches of young trees.  The biggest trees such as oak trees would preferably be planted furthest from the house, with mid-size trees such as yaupon holly, texas persimmon, and mexican plum forming the mid-level feeding and nesting areas, and a wide variety of shrubs placed among the trees and in front of them as you get closer to walkways, with native grasses and nectar plants such as salvia greggii and black-foot daisy bordering walkways that lead to the home. 

Cedar elm in center, texas mountain laurel back right, salvia greggii in foreground.
Some plants and shrubs/trees for Birds in Central Texas
Fragrant Sumac (berries for birds)
Evergreen Sumac (berries for birds)
Agarita (evergreen shrub/cover plant, with berries for birds)
Chile pequin (mockingbirds love these little native peppers, use them in your cooking too instead of jalapeños)
Elderberry (fruits for birds, you can also use it to make jelly or wine)
Dewberry (berries for birds and jelly for yourself)
Barbados Cherry (berries for birds, semi-evergreen shrub for shade)
Wax Myrtle (evergreen border or screening plant with berries for birds)
American Beautyberry (mockingbirds love these berries, beautiful understory shrub)

Vines for birds:
Mustang Grape
Virginia Creeper (berries for birds)

Small trees for birds:
Texas Persimmon (fruits for birds)
Mexican Plum (fruits for birds)
Yaupon Holly (berries and nesting sites for birds due to nice dense branching)
Possumhaw Holly (loses leaves in winter while berries cover tree)
Flame-leaf Sumac (berries for birds)
Rusty Blackhaw Viburnum

Large trees for birds:
Cedar elm (nesting sites)
Black Cherry (fruits loved by birds)

Note:  all of the plants listed for butterflies also help birds, because many birds rely on a strict diet of insects, or a mixed diet that includes insects.

Ruby-throated hummingbird taking a break on a little branch of a Texas redbud.  Ruby-throated and black-chinned hummers are the most common in Central Texas, but I also see rufous quite a bit.  Female hummers use spider webs to build their tiny nests (yet another beneficial use of insects!)

Nectar Plants for Hummingbirds:
Autumn Sage (salvia greggii)
Flame Acanthus
Scarlet Penstemon
Red Yucca
Turk's Cap
Red Buckeye
Rose Mallow
Texas Lantana
Mealy blue sage
Coral Honeysuckle (vine)
Trumpet Creeper (vine)
Cross Vine
... and many others 

Now let's get started with the step-by-step instructions on how to convert the typical suburban yard into a wildlife habitat.  Following the instructions, I will also provide pictures and descriptions of many native plants I would recommend for Central Texas gardens.

Step-by-step instructions for conversion of grass lawn to habitat (under construction)
Native plants for Central Texas (under construction)

While I'm working on my site, please visit the new:
National Wildlife Federation Backyard Wildlife Habitat Homepage