As monarch butterflies and hummingbirds headed south this fall, I dreamt of following my favorite snowbirds to Mexico and Central America. But I stayed home instead, where I have a window onto the spectacular world of winter wildlife: northern flickers tossing maple leaves with their beaks in search of frozen beetle treats, mockingbirds guarding snow-ripened fruit on winterberry hollies, squirrels standing up to nibble flower seeds, deer browsing sumac sprouts I leave just for them.

There wasn’t always so much cold-weather action. But one year as I watched sparrows feast on switchgrass seeds in an otherwise bleak landscape, it dawned on me: Animals need plants in all stages—live and dead, green and brown, upright and fallen—all year. What we do (or don’t do) outside affects whether they live to see another spring. This winter, use this checklist to cultivate a year-round home for your wild neighbors. 

Do you have leafy blankets?

Too often, leaf blowers and rakes destroy winter habitat, where bumblebees, hummingbird moths, fritillary caterpillars and toads seek shelter. Many insects and amphibians, including wood frogs, produce antifreeze substances to survive the cold, but they also need protective layers of decaying plants. Leaving leaves around trees, shrubs and perennials provides winter refuge for them, a snack bar for foraging birds, and even nesting sites for rabbits in spring.  

Rather than rake up acorns, leave them for hungry squirrels to find and stockpile for the winter.
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Is your outdoor pantry stocked with all-purpose plants?

Letting flowers go to seed and leaving them over the winter nourishes many birds, but “not all birds eat seeds,” says Kim Eierman, author of the upcoming book The Pollinator Victory Garden. “We’ve got nectivores and frugivores and omnivores and carnivores, so we really need to think about making our landscapes more of a buffet for wildlife.” Hollies and sumacs serve as emergency food in winter and feed bees in spring; fallen persimmons draw autumn-flying butterflies, and opossums enjoy the remains. Squirrels and deer rely on acorns in cool weather, and oak leaves offer more baby bird food—caterpillars!—than any other plant during nesting season. Native roses provide fruit for birds and a thorny refuge for small mammals.

Do you leave stalks for insect nurseries?

Look inside a seedpod, and you may find an Eastern-tailed blue butterfly larva, notes naturalist Mary Anne Borge, creator of The Natural Web website. “One time I saw a spider nest in an empty beechnut husk that was still clinging to a tree,” she says. “Everything gets reused. It’s a place to hang out, it’s a place to survive.” Stalks and stems harbor bee larvae inside and chrysalises on the surface; Borge once found a promethea moth cocoon wrapped tightly around a spicebush branch and returned in spring to watch it hatch. 

Do you furnish your garden with decaying wood?

Line beds with logs and rocks to protect terrestrial salamanders, lizards and beetles. Let eye-catching fungi overtake stumps, where woolly bear caterpillars disappear into the crevices. Plant shagbark hickory and other trees with peeling bark to shelter mourning cloak butterflies; build brush piles for birds, raccoons, foxes and moths like the American dagger, who cocoons in rotting wood. Let native shrubs and trees spread for hungry browsers.

Many of our wild residents can’t fly south as temperatures dip. What they really need is an abundance of plants—and the courage on our part to let those plants sprout, flourish and decompose naturally into permanent, lifelong homes.

Nancy Lawson is the author of The Humane Gardener.

From our magazine

This story originally appeared in our award-winning magazine for members, All Animals. Get informative and inspiring content like this delivered right to your door.

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All Animals Fall 2020 magazine cover showing Adam Parascandola and dog