December 11, 2000
Winterizing your backyard wildlife habitat
from the National Wildlife Federation
Winter has arrived with cold, snowy or rainy days in the forecast for the Northwest over the next several months. Now is the time to assess your backyard gardens to see how wildlife-friendly they are - or could be - with a little human help. Since 1973, the National Wildlife Federation's Backyard Wildlife Habitat program has been helping people across America to save a place for wildlife right in their own backyards. By providing food, water, cover, and places for wildlife to raise their young, backyard gardeners can make a difference, especially during the winter months.
Most creatures put off giving birth and raising young until spring. In winter, they are looking for high-energy food, reliable water sources for drinking and bathing, and places to find cover from winter weather and their predators. Winter gardeners can provide these needed habitat elements for those creatures that stay active all winter, like birds and many mammals, as well as for the hibernating critters we tend to forget about during the cold months, like reptiles, amphibians and even insects.
The best way to offer winter food for wildlife is by planting vegetation that produces berries, nuts or seeds. A variety of native roses in this region provide rose-hips for birds like grosbeaks, juncos, and bluebirds as well as chipmunks and other mammals. Leave seed heads on flowers rather than deadheading them - this will provide visual interest in the winter garden and feed the wildlife at the same time. Many mammals and bird species depend on these plant foods for sustenance. Remember to use plants that are native to your area - they will adapt to our soil and climate conditions and are the best way to provide habitat for wildlife.
Bird feeders, of course, see the most activity in winter when natural foods are scarce. High-calorie foods like black-oil sunflower seed and suet can provide enough energy to help birds through cold winter nights. Place feeders where they will be protected from the wind and are close to the house for easy viewing. Remember to keep feeders clean to protect birds from the spread of disease caused by moldy seed or seed contaminated by droppings. Feeders can also provide food for squirrels and field mice - even indirectly provide for predators like foxes and owls that might feed on smaller seed-eating creatures.
It is important to provide places where wildlife can find cover from cold winter weather and predators, especially in new suburban developments where the land has been cleared of vegetation. Planting native evergreens like firs provides both cover and seed for small mammals like squirrels. They also provide food for seed-eating birds like finches, and insects and nest cavities for woodpeckers. It they pose no hazard, dead trees can be left standing to provide safe cavities as well. You can also install winter roosting boxes. Plans for roosting boxes are available from many books or can be purchased from your local bird shop.
Winter is also a great time to create a brush pile. By collecting yard debris like branches, twigs and fallen leaves, you can create cover for birds and small mammals like rabbits, and at the same time offer a hibernation place for some species of turtles, salamanders and insects. The mourning cloak butterfly, for example, overwinters as an adult in woody debris and may use your brush pile as well. Many butterfly species and other insects, like ladybird beetles, will lay their eggs or overwinter, sometimes as pupae, in brush piles. Fallen leaves can also be used as mulch to protect plant roots from freezing temperatures or composted and used as organic fertilizer next summer.
Water can be scarce for wildlife in winter when natural sources are frozen. While most creatures are seeking drinking water, birds are looking for bathing water. Bathing helps birds to stay warm by keeping their insulating feathers in tip-top condition. Keeping your bird bath clean and free from ice will help birds and other creatures to survive the winter. Heated bird baths, which keep the water just warm enough to keep from freezing and use little electricity, are also available.
Winter is the time for backyard wildlife watchers to brush up on their identification skills. Keep a field guide and a pair of binoculars at hand to help identify your winter visitors. Practice in identifying trees and other plants while they are dormant and without leaves. This is also the time to take the kids on a neighborhood "nest walk." Looking for birds nests and insect galls is easier in the winter when leaves have fallen and bare branches expose them. Look for nests and galls in shrubs and low trees and along the edges of fields and clearings.
Finally, winter is the time to plan ahead for next year. So look around your property for places where berrying shrubs can provide food, evergreen trees and a brush pile can provide cover, and a bird bath or flowing pond can provide water for years to come.
To learn more about backyard habitats or to find out how to get your yard certified as an official Backyard Wildlife Habitat, check out the National Wildlife Federation's website at www.nwf.org.habitats or contact us at (800) 822-1919.
The National Wildlife Federation unites people from all walks of life to protect nature, wildlife and the world we share.