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Habitat Chat with George H. Harrison
GEORGE H. HARRISON knew he was on to something. While serving as managing editor of National Wildlife in 1972, he heard about two U.S. Forest Service researchers in Massachusetts who were studying ways to convert suburban yards into mini-habitats for birds and other wild creatures. “Their study showed that the same basic principles wildlife managers had been using for decades—providing food, water, cover and places to raise young—worked beautifully on a smaller scale in backyards,” says Harrison.
He convinced the two researchers, Richard DeGraaf and Jack Ward Thomas, to write an article describing the steps homeowners could take to create such habitats. That article, “Invite Wildlife to Your Backyard” in the April/May 1973 issue of National Wildlife, helped provide the basis for NWF’s Certified Wildlife Habitat® program, which celebrates its 38th anniversary this year.
Kelly: John Strohm, then editor of National Wildlife, called the article “one of the most significant articles we’ve ever published.” Why do you think the article was important?
George: The whole concept that suburbanites and urbanites could have a backyard filled with birds and other wildlife awakened people’s need to be closer to nature. It was a timely article because in the 1970s the American public had realized that our planet was in trouble (the first Earth Day, etc.) and that nature was no longer a part of their world. “Invite Wildlife to Your Backyard” opened a whole new opportunity for people, especially families, to interact with wildlife at close range, just outside their windows. For most people, it was—and still is—the one and only way to see nature and relate to wildlife.
Kelly: How did the article change the way you garden?
George: Though I had been feeding birds in my backyard since I was a child (we were a nature family), the concepts of increasing the kinds and volume of birds and animals in my environment by providing food, cover and water caused me to design my own model backyard wildlife habitat. I am Certified Wildlife Habitat® #604. I have since designed backyard habitats in private and institutional locations.
Kelly: You’re the author of The Backyard Bird Watcher and other books for wildlife enthusiasts. When you meet people new to wildlife gardening, wondering how to get started, what advice or encouragement do you give them?
George: The easiest way to get started learning and appreciating wildlife is to establish your own backyard wildlife habitat. You can start small with a couple of bird feeders, a bird bath and some potted evergreens. If you group those three items outside a favorite window in your house, birds and other wildlife will come, I promise you.
Kelly: Why do you think the Certified Wildlife Habitat® program remains relevant today?
George: With each passing year, young people are removed farther and farther from the natural world. In Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv documents how children are living lives that are more distant from nature than ever before in our history. Involving kids in the process of creating habitat is a way to reverse this trend.
George H. Harrison is an award-winning nature writer and photographer whose accomplishments include authoring 13 books, hosting six PBS television specials and helping to start Birds & Blooms magazine. While working at National Wildlife Federation, he served as both managing editor and field editor of National Wildlife.