Prepare your yard for wildlife in winter


Throughout spring and summer, we carefully tend our yards. It’s a busy time of year, what with new butterfly plants to put in the ground and feeders and birdbaths to keep clean and filled. Plus there’s a garden to be tended and assorted other odd jobs to do. With the first brisk mornings of fall, it may seem like all that’s left is to rake up our leaves and then relax until spring. But, alas, there’s more to do if you want to prepare your yard for wildlife in winter. 

Nesting boxes

Have all your bird nesting boxes been cleaned out, disinfected, repaired, if necessary, and stored away? This is important. 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 empty it. Better yet, use a face mask or towel over your nose and mouth.

Despite the possibility of parasites, don’t apply insecticides or other pesticides to them. For disinfecting, use one part bleach to 9 parts water. Rinse and let them dry completely. After that, store them (some people wrap their birdhouses in plastic to prevent winter critters from finding their way in.) They also can be left up so birds will have a clean shelter through the winter.

Feeders, birdbaths

Bird feeders and birdbaths must be periodically cleaned year-round, so fall is a good time to do again while the weather’s still beautiful. (Move the job to your garage when the weather becomes inclement; avoid taking them indoors.) Fortunately, in winter, they won’t need cleaning as often, about every four to six weeks. Place them where they’ll stay through the winter, whether that means in storage or outdoors to be used.

Does winter bring freezing temperatures to your area? If so, is your birdbath heated? Heaters use very little electricity because they warm the water only enough to keep it liquid. Water is as essential 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. Separate heaters can be added to unheated ones.

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 (5 to 8 cm) deep in your 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 collection 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. (It will be used in spring and summer by ground-nesting birds and other wildlife.)


Once you’ve prepared your yard, it’s an excellent time to evaluate your landscape and make plans for next spring and summer. Consider this:

    • Several, if not most, of the plants, shrubs, and trees in your yard should produce food for wildlife in one form or another throughout the year. Do they?
    • Do at least some varieties provide places for hiding and nesting?
    • Evergreens are valuable for year-round shelter. Consider adding one or more.
    • Can you convert an area of turfgrass into a butterfly or hummingbird garden?
    • Do you have a suitable spot for a small frog pond or water feature?

*Photo: American Goldfinch, Spinus tristis, © Al Mueller / Shutterstock

More reading:

How to design a backyard wildlife habitat  
Food sources for wildlife   
How to clean birdhouses and feeders  
If you see this, it must be fall