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Out in the Cold: Make Your Yard Safe for Wildlife This Winter

And don't forget the food and water

The Humane Society of the United States

  • Once you start feeding the birds, try to keep your feeders full all winter long. iStockphoto

  • Treat your backyard birds to a heated birdbath. Janet Snyder/The HSUS

  • String together popcorn, peanuts, and dried cranberries into an outdoor decoration for the birds. Janet Snyder/The HSUS

Your neighbors' inflatable reindeer aren't the only wildlife you might spot this time of year. There are plenty of real, live wild animals out there trying to survive, with only fur or feathers to shield them from the cold. Help them out by making sure your holiday decorations are safe and animal-friendly, and share the holiday love by offering a few basics—food, water, and shelter—to get them through the winter. Here's what you can do.

Be careful how you string your lights

Ready to put up your annual holiday light spectacular? Prevent deer from getting tangled in your lights: wait until after the first week of December (the peak of the deer rut, when they are most actively scraping their antlers), and don't put lights on trees less than six inches in diameter.

Attach lights firmly, rather than stringing them across open areas, and use multiple short strands that will be less trouble for any animal who might get caught in them. If an animal does get entangled, contact a wildlife rehabilitator or your state wildlife office.

If you have windows birds might hit, place snowflakes or other decorations 4" apart on them.

Store your summer stuff

Put away hoses, tomato cages, netting, stakes, ties, hammocks, and swings when not in use, and add flagging to clotheslines. Remove volleyball nets, rather than wrapping them around the post, as deer may rub their antlers on the pole and become entangled.

Create a Humane Backyard

Winter eats (and drinks) for the birds

Keep your bird feeders full. If you leave home for vacation, ask a friend or neighbor to fill your feeders, especially when extended cold temperatures and snow cover are expected. Here’s what to offer:

  • Sunflower seeds—black oil, striped, and hulled—safflower seeds, and white proso millet
  • Vegetarian suet and suet mixes
  • Peanut butter mixed with cornmeal, pressed into cracks of bark or spread on a pinecone and rolled in seeds
  • Pumpkin seeds (washed and dried in the sun or oven)
  • Cut pumpkin shell in pieces
  • A straw feeding wreath with wild flower or grass seed heads (sunflowers, purple coneflowers, grass, wheat, rye, barley, safflower)
  • Dried, untreated corn on the cob or whole or cracked kernels
  • Unsalted popcorn and cranberries, threaded onto cotton string and draped on trees
  • Don't forget the water! In winter, water can be hard to find. Make sure your wild neighbors have plenty of water available.

Give your Christmas tree back to nature

Choose a living Christmas tree to bring into your home this holiday. They may be smaller and need a little TLC, but you can enjoy it for years as it grows to provide food and shelter for wild critters. If you go with a cut tree, set it outside after the holiday as a gift for wildlife. 

Winter is the perfect time to start seedlings of native plants, bushes, and trees to plant for your wild neighbors in the spring. Check online or at a local garden center to find the best native plantings for your region. 

If you have trees in your yard that are beginning to die, leave them standing (unless they present a safety risk, of course). Their cavities can supply food and shelter for animals large and small. 

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