With frost sparkling across the morning landscape, Ohio’s wildlife is hunkering down for the approaching winter. Many birds and bats migrate, while others stay put; birds such as nighthawks, doves and chickadees deal with bitterly cold nights by going into torpor, a state similar to hibernation. The deep slumber of hibernation is also a favored strategy of insects, amphibians, reptiles, and mammals such as groundhogs. Even animals that don’t fully hibernate, including squirrels, skunks, raccoons and opossums, deal with an Arctic blast by holing up for a few days and entering a mini-hibernation.
While wildlife has no shortage of strategies for surviving the cold, the bad news is that we have increasingly placed demands on the natural environment, by clearing forests and replacing wild areas with roads and parking lots. This makes it more difficult for wildlife to find food and shelter, travel throughout their territory, and in general do what they need to do to get by in winter.
Fortunately, there are a number of things you can do to be a friend to winter wildlife. As an added bonus, many of these tips require you to skip out on your normal fall chores! With winter just around the corner, follow these tips to help your local wildlife.
Leave the leaves. Mulch fallen leaves into your yard with a mulching mower, or shred and add them to your garden beds or compost pile. You can even just rake them into an out-of-the-way corner of your yard. As they decompose, they’ll nourish the soil and provide food and cover to a variety of wildlife along the way. Insects such as butterflies lay their eggs in the leaves, and they provide a hiding place for spiders, toads and salamanders. In spring, birds use the remnants of leaves to build their nests.
Resist the urge to deadhead. Although the remnants of dried out flowers and stalks in your flowerbeds may look like a gardener’s nightmare, leaving them there throughout winter provides a vital source of food for wildlife. Birds such as goldfinches will go nuts for the seeds from purple coneflowers, black-eyed Susans and prairie docks, while joe-pye weed draws chickadees and juncos.
You can’t go wrong with native plants. Not only are they hardy and low-maintenance, they are also a valuable source of food and shelter for Ohio wildlife. In addition to the aforementioned flowers, plant evergreen trees and shrubs; their dense branches will provide cover during the coldest months. The common juniper, for instance, is a plant that does it all, offering shelter to birds as well as winter berries. Because the berries are less than tasty, birds often leave them till the heart of winter, when any food source is readily gobbled down. Consult this list by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources for further planting suggestions.
Build a brush pile. When you’re cleaning up twigs and branches in your yard, relocate them to a brush pile on the corner of your property, away from buildings. Small animals such as chipmunks, snakes and rabbits will use the cubbies the pile offers to find relief from the cold. You can even use your firewood to provide shelter, by laying logs in a crisscross pattern.
Water is life. Wildlife will consume ice and snow for water, but melting it requires their bodies to burn a significant amount of energy. By providing an unfrozen source of water all year round, you offer wildlife a welcome drink, saving them a potentially dangerous trip to find it elsewhere. Birds also rely on frequent baths to keep their feathers in tip-top flying and insulating condition. To keep water from freezing over, use a commercial birdbath heater or aerator, and enlist the sun’s energy by locating the bath in a sunny and sheltered spot in your yard. Position it several feet from any cover, where neighborhood cats may be lurking. Refill the bath daily, and clean it once a week using a solution of one part bleach to nine parts water.
Watch for bats. In the colder months, Ohio’s bats either migrate or hole up in caves to hibernate. Since 2006, however, white-nose syndrome has killed millions of bats across eastern North America. The condition is caused by a white fungus that grows on hibernating bats’ muzzles, waking them up early and sending them out into the freezing cold, where they die from exposure or starvation. To help, follow this U.S. Fish and Wildlife protocol for entering caves, as the fungus can be spread through spores attached to shoes or clothing. And if you see bats out flying during the winter months, report it to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.
Feed the birds. Foods such as sunflower seeds, suet and peanut butter provide birds with a dense source of energy that’s important for maintaining their body temperature during cold days and nights. As they may come to rely on your backyard feeder as a food source, keep it well-stocked throughout winter. Early morning and evening are popular feeding times, as birds either refuel or store up energy for the long night ahead. Because diseases may be spread by birds visiting dirty feeders, clean yours out several times each winter using hot water. To prevent birds from colliding with your windows, situate the feeders at least 30 feet from your house.
Save the bread for your sandwiches! As thrifty and thoughtful as it may seem to share your old bread with birds and waterfowl, it is a poor source of nutrition for them. Too much of it may even cause diseases such as angel wing. Instead, feed the birds seeds such as those recommended by the Humane Society of the United States, and create natural boosts to the environment by planting native food sources.
Although wildlife can survive without our generosity, we can help those whose habitat has been compromised by human activity. When the temperature drops, don’t forget about the many small ways you can make a difference for your wild neighbors. – Meredith Southard
An animal lover since she could shriek the word “doggie,” Meredith Southard has written for national and statewide publications on topics such as wildlife rehabilitation and rescue, conservation dogs, and the animals of Ohio’s wetlands. On warm spring nights she can be found traipsing around vernal pools with a flashlight, looking for salamanders and frogs.