Barbara Grant gleefully exclaimed as a wild rabbit scooted across her front yard and disappeared. Earlier the same day, she'd come upon a turtle while weeding, and birds, butterflies and bees flitted across her garden.
Grant and her husband, Doug, frequently enjoy such wildlife sightings. Their two-acre yard in the Ivywood neighborhood west of Rock Hill has been certified as a wildlife habitat through the National Wildlife Federation.
"When it snowed this year, I counted 21 species of birds that came to feed at the feeders on the back porch," said Barbara Grant, 60, a York County master gardener. Doug has relocated 85 squirrels and a couple raccoons since January to a large, wooded tract.
As gardeners who enjoy nature and love animals, the Grants say they feel a responsibility to preserve natural wildlife habitats on their own property. And they're joined by a growing number of others who have made a similar commitment.
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"As the houses come on smaller and smaller lots, it becomes increasingly important for people to deliberately care for wildlife, because you've taken it away," Barbara Grant said, referring to natural habitats. "We need to give it back."
Donna Schlegel, a member and past president of the York County master gardeners, sees a growing interest in the wildlife habitat effort among area gardeners.
In fact, South Carolina has 3,600 homeowners who have certified backyard wildlife habits, according to the S.C. Wildlife Federation -- more sites per capita than any other state.
"It's something that appeals to a lot of people," said Schlegel, who recently certified her own yard, a 1.5-acre tract on White Ridge Drive west of Rock Hill.
Though Schlegel and Grant enjoy tending very large yards and undeveloped areas that lend themselves to wildlife areas, they both said a lot of space isn't a necessity. In fact, Grant said she has all the elements of a wildlife habitat on her back deck.
The four elements that are required to become certified are food, water, cover and places to raise young, and gardening in an environmentally friendly way. Gardeners who offer those elements can apply to the federation for certification.
The easiest way to provide a natural food source for wildlife, according to the federation, is to offer native plants on which birds and other types of wildlife can feed. The federation provides a list of plants for each state.
Some of the South Carolina plants on the list include elderberries, willow oak, which produces acorns, sweet pepperbrush, milkweed, aster and the swamp sunflower.
Water can be provided with bird baths, ponds and streams, either natural or manmade. Cover can be provided using existing vegetation, dead or alive, by natural formations like rock walls and with birdhouses and other manmade structures.
Environmentally friendly gardening includes mulching; reducing lawn areas, which require the use of chemicals; xeriscape gardening, an approach that minimizes water use; and removing invasive plants and restoring native varieties.
Schlegel's yard includes a large, wooded area. In one area, a tangle of tree roots covered by earth forms a small den. She and her husband, Joe, have spotted some tracks, but they're not sure what type of animal is living there.
A stream also runs through their property, and there's a boggy area when rainfall is plentiful, though it's dried up right now. Schlegel also used rocks to create a rock wall habitat for small critters, and bird houses are everywhere.
Joe built several wood bridges across the stream in the yard's natural area and the couple made dirt paths so they could walk about. He used a couple tree stumps to make rough benches.
"We thought that it was so pretty, we might as well enjoy it for what it is," Schlegel said of the natural area. "We kind of like that natural feel to everything."
The inhabitants they've seen include everything from a coyote to hawks, chickadees, frogs and turtles. "We've seen a coyote a couple times," Schlegel reported. "At first, I thought it was a brown dog."
The Grants' yard is an eclectic mix that includes patches of brightly colored flowers, scattered yard art scoured from secondhand sales, including a brass-plated bed headboard and a tie rack adorned with dozens of wind chimes.
The couple built a three-foot deep fish pond generously stocked with koi and goldfish, and their yard is home to several birdhouse communities.
They rarely use pesticides, preferring to pick off harmful insects instead of dousing them with chemicals, and Doug catches squirrels and raccoons in humane traps before moving them to an undeveloped tract where they can roam.
"The environment around here seem to be pretty balanced," Doug Grant explained. "We really don't have a whole lot of pests around here."
But they do have plenty of wildlife. A neighbor has seen a fox prowling, the Grants have spotted possums and winged inhabitants include hummingbirds, hawks and all sorts of bees.
Like the Grants, Schlegel said she enjoys watching the nature thriving around her. "It's really fun to see what you've got living there," she said. "It's nice for all of us to know that we're helping to preserve nature."
For more information on the National Wildlife Federation's backyard habitat wildlife program, including requirements and suggestions, visit the Web site, www.nwf.org.