Residential developments, historically perceived as a threat to wildlife habitats, are taking on a positive role through a new Nature Conservancy program called the Vineyard Habitat Network.

Residences that can actually foster healthy habitats? It’s not only possible, it’s being done already, habitat officials say.

“Residential development is a problem to start with and will be more of a problem,” said Matt Pelikan, the Nature Conservancy’s restoration ecologist. “The only alternative is to change the nature of development. So instead of viewing development as an enemy, what if we viewed it as a potential benefit?”

Through visits to individual residential properties, the program’s team seeks to promote wildlife through identifying existing beneficial features, introducing new native plants and habitats, and landscaping with wildlife species in mind.

Mr. Pelikan said that the point of the program is not just to encourage or preserve native vegetation on the property as other land registry programs have done, but to manipulate each individual plot of land to piece together an island-wide wildlife habitat. Property owners who volunteer for the program are given the chance to invite more flowers, bees, birds or butterflies into their yards.

“We are really thinking of how a particular property fits into the overall context of the Vineyard landscape,” he said. “Is the property a place where wildlife might be moving from one natural area to another? If so, what would they need on their journey?”

For example, birds flying across the Island might make use of a nesting box or a water source like a small pond. Or native pollinators could benefit from burrowing in barren soil as nests, or from native wildflowers’ pollen and nectar.

golden rod
New Vineyard Habitat Network encurages homeowers to invite birds, flowers and other wildlife onto their property. — Ray Ewing

“A lawn is a pretty useless thing for native pollinators, so maybe add butterfly weed or stiff aster to have a long-season supply of nectar sources,” said Mr. Pelikan. “We are thinking in terms of large-scale context and the roles of particular properties. Even if it is small and unpromising, there are roles a property might be able to play in sustaining life.” Program manager Brian Lawlor said this summer he has visited about 20 properties, ranging from large-scale farms to quarter-acre lots. Interested owners can contact Mr. Lawlor for an inspection of their property.

“Every property has these hidden gems or something unique about it,” Mr. Lawlor said. “If you really start getting on your hands and knees and poking around, we can find what is special about each place, and find how some minor changes can enhance it and improve the value of it for wildlife.”

On a recent property visit, Mr. Lawlor said he noticed the Massachusetts state flower, trailing arbutus, commonly known as the Mayflower, creeping in from the forest on the edge of the property-owner’s lawn.

“I told [the owner] about this plant and how it’s one of the first things to bloom in the year and how it has a special value to early bees looking for their first spring meal, and she got so excited that she had this on her property. She had no idea, and instantly wanted to know how to encourage it, protect it and make it thrive.”

He also said the Island’s different micro-regions apply to each property, noting that what might be an appropriate landscaping technique or wildlife habitat for a moist, forested part of Chilmark would not necessarily be appropriate for a sandplain grassland in West Tisbury.

The program also considers alternative landscaping practices or small changes in existing practices: for example, mowing at certain times of the year for native warm season grass species. If the grasses are mowed during the height of growing season, it could impact the diversity of wildflower species, which in turn affects pollinators, who provide food for other species, and so on.

Other factors examined in site visits include limiting accessibility to den sites for raccoons and skunks, as the predators not only dig in the owners’ trash, but rob bird nests and compete with native species for space and food.

The Nature Conservancy has also managed a native plant nursery to create seed for restoration projects, and now Mr. Lawlor is growing plants there specifically to distribute to home owners involved in the program. He wants to encourage owners to start their own nursery beds.

“It’s not just a landscape planting, it’s actually something that produces a surplus that they can share with neighbors or give back to the program for distribution,” Mr. Lawlor said.

The program is completely voluntary, he said, with no legal obligations or conservation restrictions placed on the land. It is simply a source of information and guidance for interested home owners. After a site visit, Mr. Lawlor and crew will create a list of recommendations for the property owners based on what the owner is motivated to do and capable of doing, and what is appropriate for the existing landscape and habitat type.

“Over time we hope to change the attitudes on the Vineyard,” said Mr. Pelikan. “And maybe people will start thinking about their yards not just as a yard to be maintained and look a particular way, but start thinking of it as a wildlife habitat.”

On Sept. 8, the Nature Conservancy will host an event at the Hoft Farm from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. for Vineyard Habitat Network participants to meet face to face, and for interested participants to learn more. RSVP to Brian Lawlor at or contact him for more information about the program in general.