Help Birds Survive the Winter by Skipping Yard Work This Fall

October 1, 2021 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.