Help Birds Survive the Winter by Skipping Fall Yard Work

November 26, 2018 at 11:38 pm

Forget manicuring your lawn this fall. Endangered birds need messy yards to survive the winter.

There are a billion fewer birds in North America than there were 40 years ago, and a fifth of the bird species on the continent are listed as “vulnerable” to population collapse over the next few decades.

You can help many of them survive the winter by putting down the garden tools and going easy on yard work this fall, the Audubon Society says.

“Messy is definitely good to provide food and shelter for birds during the cold winter months,” says Tod Winston, Audubon’s Plants for Birds program manager.

Here are the Audubon Society’s top 5 tips for helping them make it ’til spring:

Save the seeds. Some tidy gardeners might snip the stems of perennial flowers in the fall. But the seed heads of coneflowers, Black-Eyed Susans, and other native wildflowers provide an excellent source of winter calories for birds.

“They’re almost invisible, those seeds, but birds eat them all winter long,” Winston says.

Native grasses—like bluestems or gramas—also make for good foraging after they go to seed.

Letting dead plants stick around can fill your property with protein-packed bird snacks in the form of insect larvae, such as the fly and wasp larvae that inhabit goldenrod galls.

Leave the leaves. Put down the rake!

“Those leaves are important because they rot and enrich the soil, and also provide places for bugs and birds to forage for food,” Winston says.

Leaf litter isn’t just free fertilizer—it’s also a pretty happening patch of habitat for a variety of critters such as salamanders, snails, worms, and toads. “If you’re digging in the garden and come upon these squirmy little coppery-brown dudes, and you don’t know what they are—those are moth pupae,” Winston says.

A healthy layer of undisturbed soil and leaf litter also means more butterflies and moths, which in their caterpillar phase are a crucial food source for birds.

Build a brush pile. Blustery fall days also tend to knock down tree branches. Use them to build a brush pile that will shelter birds from bad weather and predators.

American tree sparrows, black-capped chickadees, and other winter birds will appreciate the protection from the elements. Rabbits, snakes, and other wildlife also will take refuge there.

(It’s also a great place to dispose of your Christmas tree.)

Skip the chemicals. You might see your neighbors spreading “weed and feed” mixtures in the fall to fertilize their lawns and keep crabgrass at bay. Chemical fertilizers encourage non-native plants to grow, making the space uninhabitable for birds.

Native grasses, shrubs, trees, and flowering plants don’t need chemical fertilizers. Grass clippings and mulched leaf litter provide plenty of plant nutrition.

Hit the nursery. Although laziness is the rule of thumb when it comes to creating a bird-friendly backyard, it’s worth the one-time investment to plant native shrubs and trees that won’t need much tending in the future.

Native dogwoods, hawthorns, sumacs, and other flowering shrubs produce small fruits that not only feed birds during the colder months, but can also provide a welcome pop of color when winter gets drab.

Planted in the right place, evergreens like cedars and firs give birds something to eat and a cozy shelter.

Fall is also a great time to liven up your property with late-blooming perennials such as asters or sages.

To find species suited to your yard, just enter your ZIP code in Audubon’s native plants database.


  1. I recently resurfaced a gravel driveway/parking lot and noted a huge increase in birds prsaent pecking on the small stones.

  2. We have a half dozen bird feeders, and lots of visitors (birds, squirrels & chipmunks) in our back yard. Winter arrived before I could get Fall cleanup projects underway, but will limit the extent of my cleanup down the road.

  3. And all that leaf litter and brush piles are the PERFECT home for TICKS, which are now ACTIVE year round. Ticks pass a multitude of infections. Usually 3 or more at a time. One bite gives all that the tick is carrying. Which, btw, are being spread by white footed mice and BIRDS. Most people will never see the tick that bites them, and only 40% will get a rash that helps to identify Lyme Disease. Testing for Lyme is no better than a coin flip, and only a Lyme Specialist knows to test for the co-infections, or how to properly treat them all.
    Lyme Disease will destroy your life. It’s not an easy to treat, no big deal infection. It is a very SERIOUS DISEASE that can lead to paralysis, seizures, cancer, death.

  4. Cynthia Hill says:

    So I live on Long Island, what month should I do my cleanup in the spring?

  5. Thomas Schwarz says:

    Excellent! We live on a farm (presently fallow, a 200+-year old orchard inherited from my great uncle) that we have strived to create an all-critter sanctuary. Sadly, we’re ageing out and moving sooner or later, probably sooner… We’re moving to a new,tiny mobile home on Cape Cod– abutting the south Wellfleet Audoban sanctuary! Birds r’ us!!
    Thanks for your terrific advise.

  6. Cindy J Spencer says:

    what a great article… I love my birds in the spring and summer but they do tend to disappear in the winter. I wasn’t aware of how to keep them around and healthy in the cold months. I have the perfect spot to build the brush pile and not having to rake the leaves – that’s an added bonus

  7. i had no idea how important it is to leave the leafs. I read just the opposite in a garden article.

  8. Great article ! Thank you for thinking about birds during the winter months and educating people on the importance of helping them survive. These easy steps can really help our bird population.

  9. Sharon Crasto says:

    Excellent article !!!

  10. So impressed and will defintely follow all of it.Thank you very much for writing up this little guide book.

  11. Thanks for this information. I haven’t raked my backyard leaves as yet – now I won’t.

  12. Great article! I plan on making my yard more bird friendly this winter.

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