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Fall into Winter: Help Backyard Wildlife Prepare for Cold Weather

Take a break from the raking and fall yard cleanup to help wild animals survive the winter

The Humane Society of the United States

  • Leave those dead stalks, leaves, and seedheads in your garden to help feed overwintering birds, like this tufted titmouse. iStockphoto.com

  • bird bath

    Provide water all winter long by adding a heating element to your existing bird bath. Janet Snyder/HSUS

From a wild animal's point of view, our annual autumn rituals of raking leaves and cleaning up yards and gardens are a major blow: Just when the going gets tough, we're removing prime sources of food and shelter.

So do the animals (and yourself) a favor and skip the raking, bagging, trimming, and other yard chores this fall—it might just help your neighborhood wildlife survive the coming cold weather. Here's what to do (or not do).

Put down the rake

Fallen leaves make a great mulch for your yard and garden. Leave them where they fall, or, better yet, shred and spread them in your garden. This easy (and totally free) mulch will help conserve water and improve soil fertility. (For best results, make your mulch layer about two to three inches deep.) You can also add leaves to your compost pile.

Leave dead flowers and plants in the garden

Hold off on nipping and tucking your garden beds or patio container plantings until springtime: those dead stalks, leaves, and seedheads provide food and protection to wildlife. Critters will go especially wild for large flowers like black-eyed Susans, sedums, purple coneflowers, joe-pyeweed, and sunflowers, as well as zinnias, marigolds, cosmos, phlox, and dianthus. The same goes for hardy ferns, which often remain green well into winter.

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Keep birds happy with plants like bayberries, junipers, and cotoneasters that produce berries all year. Animals will also forage the seeds of dead grasses, and next spring, birds will use old stalks and foliage for nest-building material.

Build a brush pile

Want an easy (and cheap) way to clear your yard of stray branches and twigs? Build a brush pile to provide a safe spot for ground-nesting birds, chipmunks, rabbits, and hibernating reptiles, amphibians, and insects. Put it in an out-of-the-way corner of your property, preferably close to food sources and away from buildings. Start with a layer of larger limbs and stack branches loosely, adding grasses and leaves to create nooks and crannies.

Your firewood pile can also make a good shelter for wildlife, even if you'll be disturbing it occasionally throughout the winter. Pile your logs crisscross fashion in order to create internal spaces that offer small animals a little relief from the cold.

Provide water that won't freeze

As reliable watering holes dry up or ice over, water is one of the most important elements you can provide for wildlife. (Bonus: Anyone anywhere can do this, whether you have a big yard, a small patio, or even an apartment balcony.) Providing water close to home can save animals from wasting valuable energy, which may mean the difference between life and death on the coldest days. Invest in a quality heater for your birdbath or artificial pond to keep water ice-free. More tips on winter water for wildlife »

In return, you'll find a steady stream of wildlife to watch in your Humane Backyard.

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