Green frog (Rana clamitans) sitting in a pond

A Mallard rests on a log

Frog sitting on Lily Pads

Attracting Wildlife to Your Pond

Most pond owners have a pond because it can attract wildlife. The amazing thing about wildlife around your pond is that it takes a lot work to prevent wildlife from showing up. Mammals, birds, bugs, frogs, turtles, and other creatures will show up without any special encouragement from you. Even small fish and minnows can show up without your help, being passed as eggs through an animal or on the moist skin of a frog or turtle.

How to Discourage Wildlife in a Pond

There are several things pond owners commonly do that make their pond inhospitable for wildlife such as edge mowing, use of herbicides, and simplified pond form.

  • Mown edges reduce wildlife around ponds. Ponds that have a mown and trimmed edge are not attractive to any other form of wildlife except Canada geese, which are very fond of such conditions. Almost all other forms of wildlife suffer from regular mowing at the pond edge.
  • A clean and clear pond may be preferred for swimming, but is a poor environment for wildlife in the pond. Through the use of dyes, algaecides, and herbicides, some pond owners may reduce good habitat in their ponds unintentionally. Fewer plants mean fewer insects and therefore, fewer fish, less bird life, and low numbers of frogs and toads.
  • Ponds built with steep sides and a regular bowl shape will host less wildlife than ponds with irregular shores and bottoms. A wildlife pond has shallow shelves, deep pits, and an irregular shoreline. These features create "microhabitats" - special areas conducive to wildlife activity.
  • Finally, you should be aware that lots of human activity discourages wildlife. If your pond is near a house or busy road, wildlife will tend to avoid it, looking for a pond with fewer disturbances.

How to Encourage Wildlife in a Pond

If you would like to create special characteristics in a pond to attract wildlife, you should:

  1. Plant beneficial trees, shrubs, and other plants in and around the pond.
  2. Create microhabitats
  3. Add nesting structures
  4. Add large sunning rocks and logs to the pond edge.

Plants and Trees for Ponds

Green plants that attract many different forms of wildlife include cattails, sedge grasses, rushes, irises, arrowhead, duckweed, wild rice, pickerel weed, and joe-pye weed. These plants provide food through their seeds and leaves, cover among the stems, and even a place for nesting and hatching. You can get plants like these from pond plant nurseries, native plant catalogs, and from other ponds, as long as they are removed with permission. If you have a difficult time recognizing the names, visit a nature center where a naturalist may identify these plants.

Plants attract wildlife to the pond. Trees and shrubs provide food, shelter, nesting areas, and a cooling / shading effect around the pond. Since many kinds of wood plants cannot tolerate the wetness of a pond edge, select and plant only those recommended around a pond. Do not plant trees or shrubs on a pond dike (see the chapter on pond maintenance). Species of native woody plants that grow well around New York ponds are red maple, highbush cranberry (viburnum), alder, poplar, swamp white oak, red-twig dogwood, willow, buttonbush, and elderberry.

Wildlife Microhabitats

Pond creatures rely on microhabitats - small areas in and around the pond that are especially shallow or deep or concealed. If you create these areas during construction, you will be rewarded with lots of interesting wildlife.

In existing ponds, use a shovel to dig coves and holes along the pond edge. These areas will attract insects, frogs, turtles, and other neat creatures. Small islands or mounds near the shore will also add diversity and create spaces for wildlife. Shallow pools separated from the pond by a submersed ridge will attract frogs especially, as it will be difficult for fish to swim up and eat them.

Nesting Structures

Nesting structures are wooden boxes, or small rafts that provide shelter for breeding birds and waterfowl. Wood duck boxes have been used around ponds, but recent research shows they are better placed closer to woodlands near the pond, rather then in the pond itself. Bluebird nest boxes will likely attract swallows and other cavity-nesting birds.

If you have a pond that covers an acre or more, tripods and other special waterfowl nesting structures may attract different kinds of ducks and geese. Smaller ponds may be visited by these birds, but are usually too small to host a breeding population.

For instructions and guidance regarding nesting structures, refer to the many different books available on wildlife housing at your local bookstore. The Natural Resources Conservation Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service provide instructions about how to best manage a pond for waterfowl. Cornell Cooperative Extension offices also have publications regarding attracting birdlife to your yard.

Rocks and Logs

One of the easiest, cheapest, and effective ways to attract wildlife to your pond is to build rock outcroppings or add half-submerged logs and branches to the pond edge. Turtles use flat, sunny rocks and logs for sunning their cold-blooded bodies. Frogs, dragonflies, salamanders, toads, raccoons, snakes, fish, and countless other animals rely on these structures for sunning, breeding, protection, and food supply.Turtles on log from Illinois Natural History Survey

Anchor durable logs, like oak or cedar, so they float away from the bank. Avoid species like willow, which will sprout branches and pine, which will decompose quickly. Where possible, allow a tree to fall into the water, with branches and limbs sticking into and out of the water, and the trunk resting on the bank.

If you add rocks to the pond edge, make sure you allow vegetation to grow up to conceal a portion of the rocky area. This will provide the shelter and food some animals need to make use of the rocks. The rock pile should have at least one flat slab, angled down to the water surface for creatures to crawl up on.

Pond Chemicals and Wildlife

Pond owners who use chemicals to clarify water or reduce pondweeds can jeopardize the health of wildlife in the pond, especially if the chemicals are used improperly. It is very important to read algaecide and herbicide labels fully to understand if there are any risks to wildlife. Cornell Cooperative Extension educators can access pesticide information profiles to help you determine if a particular pond chemical poses an unnecessary risk to wildlife in your pond.

Last updated July 26, 2019