All through spring and summer we carefully tend our yards. It’s a busy time of year, what with new butterfly plants to plant and feeders and birdbaths to keep clean and filled. Not to mention all the other odd jobs to do out there. Now, with the first brisk mornings of fall, it may seem like all that’s ahead is to rake up our leaves and then relax until spring. But, no. After we’ve prepared a successful summer habitat, now it’s time to prep your yard for wildlife in winter.
Have all your bird nesting boxes been cleaned out, disinfected, repaired, if necessary, and stored away? It’s important to do this. Careful, though. Don’t do it indoors because of the possibility of releasing parasites, such as fleas and mites, into your house. Even outside, position yourself so you won’t be inhaling any of the contents of the box as you remove the nesting materials. Or, use a face mask or towel over your nose and mouth.
Despite the possibility of parasites in the boxes, don’t apply insecticides or other pesticides to them. For disinfecting, use only 1 part bleach to 9 parts water. Rinse and let them dry completely. After that, some people wrap their birdhouses in plastic to prevent winter critters from finding their way in. Nest boxes also can be left up through the winter so birds can roost in them. Those should be cleaned and disinfected, too, to give birds a sanitary place to sleep. In fact, a box with nesting materials left in it will likely be altogether ignored by birds.
Bird feeders and birdbaths must be periodically cleaned year-round, so fall is a good time to do it again while the weather’s still nice. (Move the job to your garage when the weather becomes inclement, avoid taking them indoors in order to keep your home sanitary.) Fortunately, in winter, they won’t need cleaning as often, about every four to six weeks (but sooner, if necessary). Place them where they’ll stay through the winter, whether that means in storage or outdoors in use. Make sure they’ll be safe for birds — that means far enough away from shrubbery to keep cats and other predators from hiding and easily springing out upon unsuspecting birds.
Does winter bring freezing temperatures to your area? If so, is your birdbath heated? Heaters use very little electricity, as they warm the water only just enough to keep it liquid. Water is as important to wildlife in winter as in summer. Sometimes more so — whether everything’s dry or everything’s frozen, it’s all the same for a dehydrated animal and it’s sometimes the difference between life and death. You can find heated birdbaths locally at seed stores or online. Also, separate heaters are available for unheated birdbaths.
Clean plant debris out of ponds and water features. Rotting vegetable matter will deplete oxygen in the water, putting frogs and other helpless hibernating animals at risk.
Leave plant stalks, seedheads and tall grasses standing through the winter. Wildlife will use them for food and shelter. (They’ll also add some visual interest to your winter landscape.)
Fallen leaves are a great mulch. Leave them where they lay or mulch them with your mower to scatter (2 to 3 inches deep) in your butterfly garden. Mulch helps conserve moisture in the soil and adds organic matter. Or, add the leaves to your compost pile.
Do you have a brush pile? If not, start one with the next pile of branches and twigs you rake up. Hide it behind shrubs or elsewhere in your yard where it won’t be a visual bother to you. As you add to it over time, it’ll provide a place for rabbits to hide and for reptiles, amphibians and insects to hibernate. Ground-nesting birds can use it in spring and summer.
After all your fall work is done, it’s a good time to evaluate your landscape. Consider the varieties of plants, shrubs and trees in your yard. Do they produce food for wildlife in one form or another throughout the year? Do some of them provide places for hiding and nesting? Do you have evergreens for year-round shelter? Can you reduce an area of your lawn and convert it to a butterfly or hummingbird garden? Do you have a suitable spot for a small frog pond? If you aren’t sure just how to start your landscape plan, our designs, tips and plant pages can help.