Prepping for winter


An important work in fall is getting our yards ready for winter

All through spring and summer we carefully tend our wildlife areas. 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, we now should turn our attention to prepping a good winter habitat. Fortunately, there’s only a bit more to be done.

Have all your bird nesting boxes been cleaned out, disinfected, repaired, if necessary, and stored away? It’s very important to do this. But, don’t do it indoors because of the possibility of releasing parasites, such as fleas and mites, into your house. 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.

Don’t apply insecticides or other pesticides to nest boxes. For disinfecting, use only 1 part bleach to 9 parts water. Rinse and let them dry completely. Some people wrap ready-to-store birdhouses in plastic to prevent winter critters from finding their way inside. 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.

Feeders and birdbaths must be cleaned year-round, so fall is a good time to do it once again while the weather’s still nice. (Move the job to your garage when 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. Make sure they’ll be safe — 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. Or, you can use a summer birdbath with a separate heater.

Nearly hidden in leaves, a Northern Cardinal. (Kelsey L / Flickr; cc by 2.0)

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.)

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.

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 leaves to your compost pile.

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.

Illustration at top of page: © iClipart