Blue Ridge Naturalist: Put in a Pond for Wildlife

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© Marlene A. Condon

This artificial pond in the author’s side yard teems with numerous kinds of wildlife all year round. Photo: Marlene A. Condon.
This artificial pond in the author’s side yard teems with numerous kinds of wildlife all year round. Photo: Marlene A. Condon.

I know warm weather is on the way when I hear a Wood Frog beginning to call in my yard where I have two small artificial ponds. These cold-tolerant, hardy little amphibians give me my first clue from the animal world that spring is coming, long before the American Robins that most people associate with this particular season. (In point of fact, some robins may be in the area all winter.)

Wood Frogs (Lithobates sylvaticus, formerly Rana sylvatica) inhabit woods, but in late winter they come out of hibernation with mating on their minds. This is the best, and almost only, time you are likely to spot Wood Frogs as they come to shallow pools to breed. They will also use deeper ponds if they can attach their globular egg masses to underwater plant stems near the surface to prevent the eggs from sinking into the depths of the pond.

Many amphibian species are losing ground nowadays as wetlands are destroyed by public construction projects and by citizens on private property. Although scientists recognize the value of wetlands, most people do not. Folks tend to want to drain and fill in such areas, but this wipes out the breeding grounds for many species of wildlife.

You can make a difference by putting in a pond for wildlife and it doesn’t even need to be particularly large. The little pond in my front yard is only about 2½ feet wide and about 4 feet long. The one in my side yard is about 3 feet by 6 feet.

A pond brings in frogs, dragonflies, salamanders, and other water-loving creatures to your yard where they will help control the numbers of insects for you. I’ve watched frogs catch flies at the pond and wander around on wet days to eat insects off the plants in my nearby flowerbed. Dragonflies chase after gnats, sometimes right around your head!

Whenever I mention yard ponds in a talk, the first question I get from most people is, “Won’t a pond bring in mosquitoes?” Yes, of course it will.

But if mosquitoes lay eggs in your pond that is full of mosquito predators instead of on those rain-dampened tarps or water-filled children’s toys in your yard, the eggs will get eaten instead of producing an abundance of these biting insects.

Select a site that is easily accessible to a spigot (for refills) and is in a location where you can look at it often. Otherwise you’ll miss all of the activity!

Try to place the pond in a level area so that runoff will not normally collect in it. This is especially important if runoff might contain contaminants that can poison the plants and animals in your pond.

The pond should receive at least six or more hours of sunshine a day during the summer. Most aquatic plants need this much sun in order to produce blooms and to grow well.

Your pond should have plants that live under the water (called “submergent vegetation”) as well as plants whose stems or leaves rise above the water.

Submergent plants increase the amount of oxygen in the water, which helps underwater-dwelling animals survive. Above-water plants shade the pond, which keeps the water temperature from rising too much. Very warm water becomes oxygen-deficient.

You can make a pond of your own design by trimming a liner made of a combination of polyethylene and rubber, or you can buy a pre-formed pond made of plastic or fiberglass. Whichever you choose, you will have to excavate an area deep enough and wide enough to accommodate the pond.

To be sure that the pond water does not completely freeze during the winter months, you should make the pond as deep as possible, and certainly no less than 18 inches in the deepest section if you live in Central Virginia. You can find out from an extension agent or the local soil conservation office how deeply the ground freezes in your area and use that as your guideline.

Before putting in your lining or pre-formed pond, make sure that the sides of the hole you have dug are free of sharp objects, such as rocks and tree roots. Place a layer of sand at the bottom to create a level surface.

The hardest part about putting in a pond is the labor involved in digging out the soil from the site. If you can’t do this yourself, you might want to pay someone else to do only the digging while you take care of the actual installation. If you don’t mind spending the money, you could hire a professional pond installer.

Before doing anything, however, you should do some research about installing and maintaining ponds. Many books are available on this subject.

How quickly you attract wildlife will depend upon where you live, but you may be surprised by how soon animals show up. Insects, such as water striders, will probably be the first to appear because of their mobility (they can fly), and with luck, frogs and salamanders will arrive soon thereafter.

Birds will flock to the pond to drink and perhaps to bathe, if the underwater plant growth forms a mat thick enough to support their weight. And mammals will, of course, come for a drink of water.

Your pond will be a little world unto itself and you can learn how it functions by being a keen and nonjudgmental observer of its inhabitants. If you haven’t already discovered how absolutely fascinating nature can be, you certainly will after you have put in a pond!