For many gardeners, fall means it’s time to clean up the yard and get it ready for winter. While you are raking leaves and putting the patio chairs away, you can also make the yard ready for wildlife. Many of our native animals live here year-round, and many birds move from mountain nesting areas to spend winter in more moderate conditions. With a few tweaks to your fall clean-up routine, you can provide good habitat for them in your backyard.
It’s easy and fun to get started creating habitat in your yard. Here are some resources to help along the way.
The Backyard Habitat Certification Program helps urban gardeners provide native backyard habitat. The program offers discounts to native plants and other resources.
Local soil and water conservation districts provide lots of tips on naturescaping, native plants, rain gardens and more. The districts often offer workshops, plant sales, yard tours and other resources.
Messy can be good: Tidy yards make satisfying views for people, but wildlife thrives when things are a bit messier. Look for opportunities to spread the leaves you’ve raked under trees or in flower or vegetable beds. Enjoy watching the “leaf turners” work through them in the winter, finding worms and other invertebrates to eat. American robins, varied thrushes, spotted towhees and song sparrows will take advantage of the leaves. Native shrubs with berries or other fruit help wildlife store fat for the winter.
Plant evergreens: We live in a relatively mild climate, but wildlife appreciates shelter from wind and rain. Evergreen trees and shrubs provide cover to hide from predators, too. Native plants range from tall firs and cedars to small Oregon grape and sword fern. If your yard lacks evergreens, consider planting some for wildlife.
Create piles: Small piles of rocks and brush provide refuge from the elements, too. Beneficial wildlife like garter snakes will curl up in the spaces within these piles to spend the winter.
Remove, clean food sources: Some undesirable animals, like non-native mice and rats, will use this habitat, too. You can discourage them by removing easy food sources. Keep your compost bin closed, and the ground around your bird feeder clean. Speaking of bird feeders, it’s important to clean them at least twice a month with boiling water to limit the spread of disease among birds in close quarters.
Avoid rat bait and other poisons: It’s tempting to deal with pests by putting out poisoned bait, but native wildlife will eat it, too. Songbirds can be poisoned when they eat bugs that feed on bait. Because these poisons are persistent and bioaccumulative, hawks and other predators will eat poisoned animals and die from it, too.
Leave down wood in place: Many people don’t realize they have amphibians like salamanders and frogs in their yards throughout the year. If you have to cut a tree down or take out large limbs, find room to leave them on the ground. The ground under the wood remains moist, and the small spaces on the side of logs and large limbs near the ground provide cover from the weather and from predators. The invertebrates that help decompose the wood can be important food for wildlife, attracting more species to your yard. If you can leave a tall stump or snag, watch for woodpeckers that forage on the wood and excavate cavities in snags.
Once you’ve made the yard ready for wintering wildlife, sit back and enjoy the view. See how wildlife uses your habitat. Look for opportunities to make the yard even more welcoming for them next year.