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.

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 in a crisscross fashion 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. 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. 

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