Winter can be a particularly trying time for wildlife. There are plenty of wild animals out there trying to survive, with only their fur or feathers to shield them from the cold. Food becomes scarcer, and normally reliable water sources freeze over. Every day, more and more wildlife habitat is lost to the spread of development. But you can help wild animals in urban and suburban areas by offering them sanctuary within your own backyard (or front yard, roof-top garden, or deck), no matter how meager.
Here are some ways you can make this winter season a little more bearable for your wild neighbors.
Leave things Natural
From a wild animal's point of view, our annual autumn rituals of raking leaves and cleaning up yards and gardens are a major blow. Just when the going gets tough, we're removing prime sources of food and shelter. So do the animals – and yourself – a favor and skip the raking, bagging, trimming, and other yard chores this fall. It may just help your neighborhood wildlife survive the coming cold weather.
Fallen leaves make excellent mulch for your yard and garden. Leave them where they fall, or better yet, shred and spread them in your garden. This easy (and totally free) mulch will help conserve water and improve soil fertility. (For best results, make your mulch layer about two to three inches deep.) You can also add leaves to your compost pile. All of this saves them from contributing more unnecessary organic waste to landfills.
Leave those dead stalks, leaves, and seed heads in your garden to help feed overwintering birds. Hold off on nipping and tucking your garden beds or patio container plantings until springtime – those dead stalks, leaves, and seed heads provide food and protection to wildlife. Critters will especially go wild for large flowers like Black-eyed Susans, sedums, purple coneflowers, joe-pyeweed, and sunflowers, as well as zinnias, marigolds, cosmos, phlox, and dianthus. The same goes for hardy ferns, which often remain green well into winter.
Build a brush pile
An easy way to clear your yard of stray branches and twigs s to build a brush pile to provide a safe spot for ground-nesting birds, chipmunks, rabbits, and hibernating reptiles, amphibians, and insects. Put it in an out-of-the-way corner of your property, preferably close to food sources and away from buildings. Start with a layer of larger limbs and stack branches loosely, adding grasses and leaves to create nooks and crannies.
Your firewood pile can also make a good shelter for wildlife, even if you'll be disturbing it occasionally throughout the winter. Pile your logs crisscross fashion in order to create internal spaces that offer small animals a little relief from the cold.
You can keep birds happy with plants like bayberries, junipers, and cotoneasters that produce berries all year. Animals will also forage the seeds of dead grasses, and next spring, birds will use old stalks and foliage for nest-building material.
If you have trees in your yard that are beginning to die, leave them standing (unless they present a safety risk, of course). Their cavities can supply food and shelter for animals large and small.
Provide a Water Source which will not Freeze
As reliable watering holes dry up or ice over, water is one of the most important elements you can provide for wildlife. When water suddenly disappears, animals expend valuable energy and risk dangerous exposure searching for other sources – which might mean the difference between life and death in the coldest season.
For birds, water is essential for drinking as well as for bathing – a year-round necessity to keep feathers in top flying and insulating shape. While animals will eat ice and snow, they benefit greatly from a reliable source of water.
In cold weather, a heated bird bath can be a bird's best friend. The easiest, most reliable way to keep water ice-free is to use a heat source. You can find birdbaths with built-in heating elements (generally set to 40–50 degrees Fahrenheit) at home and garden specialty stores. You can also purchase water-heating units designed to float on the surface of ponds or to rest on the bottom of birdbaths. These heaters usually cost little to run and safely shut off automatically when pulled out of the water.
If you live in an area that does not get many days of freezing weather, try regularly replenishing your birdbaths with hot (not boiling!) water to melt any ice.
You can also use solar energy to your advantage. Put water sources on the south or southwestern side of your property, preferably sheltered from the wind. To capture even more heat, apply black latex paint or secure black rubber pond liners to the interiors of water containers. NEVER add anti-freeze chemicals to the water, as they can poison wildlife.
However you decide to provide water, remember that sanitation is important year-round. Locating water sources close to your house makes cleaning and maintenance much easier –and you won't have to carry buckets of water far. Be sure the containers are regularly cleaned and replenished with fresh water – more often as more animals use them – to prevent the spread of disease.
Rinse your birdbath daily before refilling it, and clean it once a week using a solution of one part chlorine bleach to nine parts water and with a scrub brush loosen debris. Rinse again thoroughly before refilling with fresh water.
Once you start feeding the birds, please try to keep your feeders full all winter long. If you leave home for vacation, ask a friend or neighbor to fill your feeders, especially when extended cold temperatures and snow cover are expected.
Foods to offer
Black-oil sunflower seed: high in fat so it provides good energy; seeds are small and thin-shelled enough for small birds to crack open.
Suet cakes: commercially made suet cakes fit the standard-size suet feeder (you can even find vegetarian options).
Peanuts: offer in tube-shaped metal mesh feeders designed for peanuts; use a feeder with smaller openings for peanut hearts.
Peanut butter mixed with cornmeal, pressed into cracks of bark or spread on a pinecone and rolled in seeds
Cracked corn: choose medium-sized cracked corn, as fine will quickly turn to mush and coarse is too large for small-beaked birds.
Nyjer seed: use a tube feeder with tiny holes to keep the seeds from spilling out.
Suggestions for other seasons'
Birds and squirrels will store seeds from a feeder in the bark of trees for later use when food is not as plentiful.
Spring feeding: Offer fruit, baked and crushed eggshells, and nesting materials, such as human hair, pet fur, bits of string or yarn, and small strips of cloth to help nesting birds
Summer feeding: Limit to nectar for hummingbirds and nyjer seed for goldfinches
Autumn feeding: Offer millet, peanuts, peanut butter, and suet cakes.
Birds should not be offered many of the foods humans eat. Chocolate, for example, is toxic to birds, just as it is to dogs and cats (it contains theobromine); Never offer birds any foods containing chocolate.
Here are some you can offer
Bread: throw out your scraps of old bread; moldy bread can harm birds.
Thrushes, blackbirds and squirrels will especially enjoy your Fruit and veggie cuttings. Scatter scraps of lettuce stalks, peels and cores from apples, raisins and song-bird mixes on the ground for them.
Should you feed birds year-round?
Bird feeding is most helpful at times of when birds need the most energy, such as during temperature extremes, migration, and in late winter or early spring, when natural seed sources are depleted. Most birds don't need your help in the summer. When they are nesting and rearing their young, many birds focus on eating insects, so feeding is less necessary at those times. It is also important for young birds to learn how to find naturally occurring foods, so take a break from filling feeders in summer.
During warmer months, when natural food is available, it’s usually best to reduce the amount of feed you make available or put off feeding altogether.
If you do provide feed for backyard wildlife, remember that it is also important to maintain safe, clean feeders to prevent the spread of disease.
Choosing a Birdfeeder
Plastic, steel, or glass feeders are easier to clean than are feeders with porous surfaces, such as wood or clay.
Choose feeders with no sharp edges or points; the design should allow birds to perch away from the food to prevent it becoming soiled.
Where to Place Birdfeeders
Birds are most likely to eat where they feel safe from predators, including free-roaming cats. Place feeders twelve feet from a brush pile, evergreen tree, or bush. Birds can quickly fly twelve feet to reach the safe cover, yet predators cannot use it to hide within striking range of the feeder. As further protection, you can place wire mesh around ground-level feeders.
Many birds will feed at more than one level, but some species have specific preferences.
Looking after Other Creatures
Check bonfires before they are lit for sheltering and hibernating animals, such as hedgehogs, toads and frogs.
Be careful when you turn compost heaps. As these are often warm, they can be the winter resort of frogs, toads and other animals.
Provide a shallow dish or container of water at ground level. This will benefit other garden wildlife that needs to drink.
By implementing a handful of these tips into practice this winter, you'll enjoy a steady stream of wildlife to observe in your backyard sanctuary.
© 2013 Rosalind Scarlett