Myth: Winter Wildlife Don’t Need Our Help

Mirror, Mirror, Should We Help Backyard Animals?

You probably know that feeding wildlife is for the birds (literally!). In polar vortex-y times like this, though, it’s hard not to feel sorry for the non-homo-sapiens among us, who don’t have the luxury of modern heating or funny YouTube videos to keep them cozy on cold wintry nights.

Little guys like this could use a little extra love in the suitable habitat department. (NWF)
Little guys like this could use a little extra love in the suitable habitat department. (NWF)

Sure, animals can handle a little chill in the air. It’s not like this is their first winter ever. But when you consider the other factors at play (heigh ho, habitat loss and climate change), it makes sense that animals could use a little extra love right about now.

If offering up our bread crumbs and last night’s leftovers is off the table, though, what are wildlife well-wishers to do?

To find out how to help local animals without disturbing the peace, we turned to the pros: The Nature Geek, aka David Mizejewski, of the National Wildlife Federation, and Bill Zeigler, senior vice president of animal programs at Chicagoland’s Brookfield Zoo—who both agree that helping animals who live outside your home can be a very good thing, as long as you take your cue from Mama Earth.

A Grimm Tale of Reduced Habitat and Extreme Weather

You may be wondering why wildlife need our help, when the whole point is they’re well, wild (read: they live their lives without our intervention). Well, we humans have been populating the world for so long now that it’s easy to forget how much we can alter the environment by building a neighborhood—from home-building itself to the way we so often replace native trees and shrubs with non-native plants and turf grass. The result of our tinkering is often a reduction in their food supply as well as sheer physical space for wildlife to hide, sleep, and raise their young.

That shrinking habitat is compounded by the “trickle-down negative effect of climate change,” as Mizejewski puts it, with extreme weather consequences like fire, drought, and severe storms adding extra pressure to already declining wildlife populations. So even though animals are indeed adapted to live in different seasons without our assistance, he and Zeigler agree that survival is just plain harder when we’ve removed the natural shelter and food sources from a given area, and extreme weather only makes what is available even scarcer.

The good news: The solution is strikingly simple, when you think about it. The NWF’s Certified Wildlife Habitat program recommends providing animals with natural sources of food, water, cover, and places to raise young.

Whistle While You Work…to Plant a Good Habitat

Have a nice tidy lawn? Chances are it’s not exactly a haven for wildlife. Making room for a few natural features can give wild critters “the potential for shelter and food, and ultimately improves the environment in our own backyards,” advises Zeigler.

WalkingtheTalk-BrookfieldZoo-EcoMythsStep one: “Take a look at the environment around the habitat that hasn’t been disturbed,” he suggests. Try to mimic it with things like native shrubs and brush, which create micro-niches, aka good habitat, during the winter. “A good example,” Zeigler mentions, “was last month’s minus 40-degree wind chill, when those micro-niches were especially important for wildlife survival because they helped keep them from being directly exposed to the wind.”

The key, according to both experts, is to provide your services naturally—and the simplest way to do that, is to start at, ahem, ground level…

Yes, a huge part of the solution comes down to the plants you have or can get. According to Mizejewski, tree cavities are a major shelter, so, if you have a dying tree or one that’s snagged with nooks and crannies, do what you can to save it. Got a wooded lot you’ve been meaning to clear out? Try to keep some trees in place for shelter.

Similarly, many native plants serve as great natural fences; try meadow or prairie flowers, and dense groups of shrubs. If you’ve got ’em, keep ’em. If you don’t, start shopping for spring plantings. “Living fences can provide cover in a natural way,” remarks Mizejewski, “and if you pick the right species, you can provide food, berries, or nectar for wildlife at the same time as cover and shelter.”

Why native plants? If you have a landscape that is mostly planted with native species, Mizejewski points out that you could end up with 60 percent more beneficial insects than conventional American lawns and yards that are planted with non-native (i.e., exotic) species…which is a good thing, he adds, because upward of 95 percent of birds rely on insects as food.

Some of the Midwest's natural beauties (Chicago Botanic Garden)
Some of the Midwest’s natural beauties (Chicago Botanic Garden)

If you’re not sure how to determine if something is native, Zeigler suggests learning your climate zone, which can help you identify plants that are indigenous to those regions. He also urges exotic-plant fans to open their hearts and minds to mixing their colorful imported plants with native species. “If you take the time to learn about them, there are a lot of native species that can give you a yard with as much color and cover as you like.” Another bonus, he adds, is that once they’re established, native plants typically require less money and maintenance time than non-natives. This is because native plants are acclimated to the local environment and are accustomed to growing there without human help.

Once Upon a Frigid Time

What’s that you say—you wanna act now but can’t exactly plant anything in frozen ground? Here are a few ways to achieve near-instant gratification in the helping wildlife department:

  • Try brush piles, which Mizejewski says are a great way to offer shelter for wildlife. His handy how-to book has instructions on how to build them with little chambers, maximizing space inside for different kinds of wildlife.
  • Pile up rocks or branches and sticks in a corner of your yard to give critters like chipmunks a place to get out of the elements, or leave a pile of fallen leaves for insects to burrow under.
  • Leave some leaf litter or ground cover in your lawn, advises Zeigler, to provide moisture for amphibians.
  • Fill bird feeders with seeds and thistle, which Zeigler says are good energy and nutrient sources for cold, tired birds.

Supplying water is a trickier topic. The simplest way to check this off your NWF certification checklist is to put out a birdbath. To keep it from becoming a mosquito breeding ground in summer, dump any pooled water and fill with fresh water every three to four days. For more water-related tips, visit NWF’s habitat-certification page.

Charming Overload?

For anyone worried that helping animals will make them too dependent on us, both Zeigler and Mizejewski agree it won’t—as long as you’re helping them naturally by increasing habitat in the ways listed above.

Ahem. Still got your Christmas tree? Zeigler recos setting it up in the yard to add temporary shelter for birds, especially if your yard doesn't have any evergreens. Psst: same applies next year if you're already tree-free.
Still trying to figure out what to do with your Christmas tree? Zeigler recos setting it in the yard as temporary shelter for birds, especially if evergreens aren’t already growing there. Keep it in mind for next year if you’re already tree-free.

“It’s not making them dependent to make your outdoor space friendlier to wildlife,” explains Zeigler, “it’s just duplicating what happens in the natural environment when you see shrubs, hedges, and deadfall protecting wildlife from the wind and creating spaces where snow may not be as deep.”

A big caveat: It can definitely be harmful to provide wildlife (other than birds) with artificial food. “Never feed wildlife,” warns Mizejewski. “Let them find food naturally. Help them instead by restoring their natural habitat and putting native plants back in.”

Things are a bit different when it comes to feeding birds, which we’ve previously learned is a-okay. “The correlating myth is birds will die if we stop feeding them,” notes Mizejewski. “But that’s not the case. They rely on natural food in the landscape, so if you stop feeding them, it’s no different than if a shrub produces its berries all at once and an animal eats them all, then moves on to its next food source. If you go away for a week or two and feeders are empty, it doesn’t mean you’ve killed all the birds.”

In addition to the fuzzy-feel-good experience of helping animals, adding more plants to your yard, especially trees, offers big benefits to us. For one, it helps us all have cleaner air, points out Zeigler. And supporting a diversity of plant and animal species helps bring the whole ecosystem into balance.

PersonalSide-NatureGeek-EcoMyths“There are lots of thing you can do when it comes to how you manage your own little piece of the environment,” enthuses Mizejewski. We have a choice. We can create communities with thriving biodiverse ecosystems right in the middle of cities and towns.”

EcoMyth Outcome: Myth Busted

You can help wildlife make it through the long cold winter by making your yard a healthy habitat.