Winter comes and woodland creatures seek a place, away from predators, away from the cold, away from undue noise, a place to shiver in snowstorms and keep dry. This kind habitat is shrinking in the suburbs when leaves and leftover twigs are flung in to large bags to be discarded.
But there are alternatives to the extra-tidy yard cleanup that will help bunnies in the brush, and other animals like the endangered song birds, mice, chipmunks, even raccoons and groundhogs, those animals that are part of the ecosystem we live with day by day, according to Ricky Kemery, Purdue Horticulture Extension Educator, Retired.
The issue has become more important in the last 10 years, Kemery said.
“Folks are more aware of the issue and they just want to protect the creatures and the insects and everything else that’s out and about in the landscapes, because the urban environment is not that friendly in general for creatures from nature. A lot of that is because habitat is decreasing so rapidly in the United States. So there’s less space for critters that are really hungry a lot of the times.,” Kemery said.
Providing dense, heavy and secure shelter close to the ground “can attract many animals that may not feel comfortable in even the most colorful butterfly garden or thoroughly landscaped yard,” the National Wildlife Foundation advises on its website.
“Flycatchers and dragonflies perch on the tips of branches looking for flying insects, (the kind you may want to control in warmer months). Salamanders and shrews hide under logs at the base. Lizard and butterflies sun themselves on the surface. Rabbits, turtles, juncos and sparrows use tangled branches for temporary shelter. Toads, mice and ground-beetles will come and go as will skunks, snakes and quail that feed on them. Woodpeckers will pick insects out of the more decayed wood while foxes set up dens underneath,” the website said.
Without sounding the alarm as in the case of “Watership Down,” a transformational novel published in the 1970s about a warren of rabbits and the environmental perils they encountered, a website “Choose Natives” advocates building a brush pile as a sanctuary for wildlife.
“Birds, salamanders, snakes, turtles, small mammals all need a helping hand, especially in our stripped-down suburban areas. In winter, it’s particularly vital for protecting our birds…evergreen foliage placed over a brush pile during the winter months will create a dry interior birds can safely roost in,” the website says.
Some of the birds needing protection include cardinals, the Indiana state bird and one dear to people who have lost a loved one. The appearance of the brilliant red bird and its mate, a soft brown with red underneath, is considered a sign that the one who is gone is near.
Brush piles can range from three to eight feet tall and six to 20 feet wide, Choose Natives says. Place the brush in the backyard, near a wooded area or at the edge of the property, away from your home because of the possible danger of combustibility and rodents.
Brush piles can be constructed from logs or stones, using the larger materials at the bottom and leaving a hole for animals to go in and out. PVC pipes can even be used, the site says.
Kemery says some gardeners leave some garden plants untended throughout the winter and fall, thinking that they provide cover and food for woodland creatures. He cautions that it’s a good idea to cut perennials back to six inches in November, but if you want to leave those plants as cover, then wait until March. After that, it’s too late.
“When you cut perennials, yes, there will be some brush. You can put it in the compost pile. You could burn it or put it on top of raised beds if you wanted want to,” Kemery said. But it’s better to cut them back because “disease or insects they might harbor from the previous year might come back, if you don’t get rid of that.”
Disease can strike tomato plants, for instance, because disease can “overwinter” or flowering plants such as peonies that develop mold or a powdery mildew. “If you don’t cut them back, the disease will overwinter,” Kemery said.
What Kemery really wants you to do is save your leaves and use them on raised beds or leave them finely chopped on lawns.
“If you have any left over, wet leaves in the spring…those are great. You can pile them on a raised bed. As they decompose, they turn into compost. If there’s a rain, they’ll leach like a compost tea into the bed,” he says.
With leaves disappearing into big paper bags, so also goes the habitat for many creatures, but in particular many butterfly and moth species that overwinter as pupae in leaf litter, according to the National Wildlife Federation.
“If you rake up and throw away all of your leaves each fall, you’ll be getting rid of these beneficial insects, too,” the NWF website states. “Remember butterfly and moth caterpillars are a critically important food source for birds in the spring when they are feeding their babies. If you remove all the pupae with your leaves in the fall, there will be fewer of these insects in and around your yard in the spring.”