Winterize for Wildlife

Do Less, Not More to Winterize your Yard for Wildlife

We have all heard the phrase “In the Dead of the Winter,” but a better phrase might be “Winter Slumber.”

Leaves on groundLife continues throughout the winter, it is just less active. While some birds and insects migrate south for the winter, most wildlife stay put. Like us, they simply hunker down when the temperatures drop. Our yards can provide a safe place for them to wait out the winter if we resist the impulse to rake the leaves and tidy up the garden.

On chilly days when we turn up the heat in our homes, wildlife must find a warm place to take cover outside where they can hibernate or lie dormant until spring. Some mammals and reptiles will look for tree cavities, underground burrows or the openings under wood piles or rocks. Frogs and turtles may bury themselves in the mud underwater, or under rocks and logs along the shore.

Even insects have several ways of surviving the cold. Some insects, such as the Monarch butterfly and a few species of dragonflies fly south. Many insects die in the winter, but not before they lay their eggs in the leaf litter or underground. Other insects remain where they are but burrow in the ground where they lie dormant. Just like you may use an extra blanket to keep warm in the winter, nature provides a “blanket of leaves” for the insects and other wildlife that spend the winter underground.

So, what can you do to ensure the thousands of insects and other wildlife in your yard survive the winter? Well, the answer may surprise you, because sometimes the best thing to do is nothing:

Resist the impulse to rake leaves and tidy up the yard in the winter.

1. Don’t rake the leaves. When you rake the leaves in your yard you may be destroying thousands of insect eggs. The same insects that will hatch in the spring and provide food for birds and their young. Leaf litter also insulates the soil from snow and ice, protecting dormant seeds, eggs, and wildlife that spend the winter underground.

Snags, or dead trees, provide protection from the cold for birds and small mammals.

2. Leave the deadwood. You should leave dead trees standing unless they pose a risk to your home. If you must cut it down, leave the trunk on the ground or create a woodpile. Snags, or dead trees, provide food and shelter for many animals. Animals often hibernate in the tree cavities, while birds that remain active in the winter will feed on the insects that take refuge under the bark.

Many native trees and shrubs provide nuts, seeds, and berries for wildlife.

3. Plant natives. Many native trees, shrubs, grasses, and wildflowers provide food and shelter for wildlife in the fall. Oak, beech, hickory, persimmon, and dogwood are a few of the trees that produce nuts or fruit in the fall. Winterberry, beautyberry, and holly are shrubs that retain fruit in the winter. There are several native asters and grasses that provide seeds in the fall, while goldenrod and liatris provide nectar for the bees and butterflies. Native evergreens will provide winter shelter for birds.

For more information on what natives to plant and where to buy native plants visit And if you’re wondering what to do with all the time you used to spend raking leaves, consider joining us to learn more ways you can help us Heal the Earth, One Yard at a Time.

Contributed by Donna Bollenbach, November 2018.