Most of us like a tidy yard. This is the time of year when we rake leaves, pick up dead tree limbs and prune plants into submission.
We like our wildlife, too. You might be surprised to learn how important dead plant matter is to bugs, birds, small mammals and other creatures.
Leaves and dead wood house and feed wildlife, build healthy soil and help provide the foundation of food webs in forests. As you tidy up your yard, there are some things you can do to help our native critters.
Let’s start with dead leaves. Do you have towhees in your yard? Then you probably have leaf “litter.” Towhees and other sparrows spend a lot of time rustling around on the ground, doing a double-hop leaf kick to glean seeds, spiders and other tiny critters by kicking up leaves. Towhees make so much noise in their search that I look around in alarm for a much larger animal. They depend on leaf litter, particularly in fall and winter when food can be hard to find. So do the tiny critters.
Dead or “downed” wood pieces – twigs, branches, root wads and logs – are also vital to a variety of native wildlife. At least 71 Pacific Northwest wildlife species rely on downed wood. Salamanders spend a lot of their lives in and under old logs. Pileated woodpeckers, northern flickers and other woodpeckers forage for insects in logs and snags. Small mammals such as Townsend’s chipmunks and deer mice rely on dead wood. In fact, studies in western Oregon show that deer mouse abundance and survival are closely linked to the amount of dead wood in their habitats.
Now let’s talk snags, or standing dead trees. Snags are critical, with at least 93 animal species in the Pacific Northwest requiring snags for nesting, foraging and the like. Woodpeckers are “cavity engineers,” excavating holes in snags for foraging and nesting. They excavate more cavities than they need, which is a happy circumstance for other animals that can’t excavate their own, such as bluebirds, many owls, wrens, swallows, American kestrels and flying squirrels. I recently had two old pine trees removed from my yard due to a bark beetle infestation. The arborist left snags, and a flicker was on top of one recently.
With a little thought, you can build all of these elements into your still-tidy yard. Here are some ideas to make wildlife feel more at home:
- Don’t rake it all away: Leave some leaves around shrubs and trees, or in that unseen corner of the yard. Leaf piles are beneficial, too.With a little thought, you can build all of these elements into your still-tidy yard.
- Build a brush pile: Instead of putting all the dead branches into the yard debris container, pile some of them up in a corner of the yard. Put larger pieces on the bottom as a foundation so the pile will last longer.
- Leave a log or two: You can incorporate logs as landscape features. For example, logs make nice boundaries between different areas of the yard.
- Consider leaving a snag: Do you have a dead tree, or need to have one removed? Although taller snags are more beneficial to wildlife, even a short snag will provide a home to a variety of wildlife.
Learn more about planting native trees, shrubs and grasses in your yard