Tips for Providing Winter Wildlife Habitat

Winter can be tough on all of us, including our native wildlife. During the freezing temperatures and heavy snowfalls, we can swing by the grocery store before a winter storm and stay cozy in our warm homes. But wildlife are out in the harsh weather, trying to survive the season with dwindling resources.


Providing shelter during the winter months is one of the most helpful things you can do for wildlife. Songbirds that live year-round in colder climates have developed adaptations to help keep them warm like fluffing feathers, higher metabolisms, a counter-current heat exchange system in their legs and roosting in groups, but still need safe places to go when the weather gets bad. Insects, amphibians, reptiles and mammals require areas to burrow and hibernate in over the winter that will not be disturbed. Some mammals even mate and give birth in the colder months.

How you can help:

  1. Leave dead trees standing. As long as it is not a safety hazard, leaving dead trees and shrubs erect provides hollow cavities for birds and other species to take refuge.
  2. Plant native conifers. Pines, cedars and hollies are examples of evergreen trees and shrubs that are adapted to our landscape and offer protection to birds from the cold and wind. Placing a bird feeder next to a conifer helps birds stay protected and spend less time foraging!
  3. Leave the leaves. Skip the fall clean up and allow your leaves to stay in place (or use as leaf mulch in your garden). This will provide over wintering and hibernating habitat for insects like beetles, bumble bees, butterflies and their caterpillars as well as toads, salamanders and turtles. In addition, leaving the leaves will help improve soil health by putting nutrients and microbes back into the soil as the leaves decompose.


Aside from having access to shelter, birds and mammals need a steady food supply to get through the cold months. For example, The US Fish & Wildlife Service reports that black-capped chickadees, which weigh less than half an ounce, have to maintain a body temperature of 100F, even when the air temperature is 0 degrees. Black-capped chickadees consume over 35 percent of their body weight every day, so a reliable food source is essential for this species and others like it.

How you can help:

  1. Provide high-energy bird food. This can be as simple as suet or black oil sunflower seeds. Make sure that you are placing your bird feeder in a safe location—away from the driveway and potential window collisions, and that it’s safe from predators. Put your bird feeder either 3 feet away from a glass window or 30 feet away (feeders are actually safer when they are closest to windows or very far away). Choosing a spot that is near shrubs or trees, especially evergreens, is also a good location.
  2. Plant native fruit and nut bearing trees and shrubs. Native trees that provide soft and hard mast are a must for any backyard wildlife habitat. Not only do native plants provide pollen and nectar for bees and butterflies, and act as host plants for caterpillars in the warmer months (caterpillars are the primary food source for most songbirds), but fruit and nut bearing species are a good food source for wildlife in the winter. Check online resources, such as the Virginia Native Plant Society, for a list of native plants for our area.
  3. Leave the leaves and woody debris. Did you know that insects count for 25% of the red fox’s diet? Insects are an important food source for just about every wildlife species in Virginia, from the bluebird to the black bear. In the winter, insects are hard to come by, but wildlife will still forage for insect larvae in downed woody debris and leaf litter. Practice benign neglect, or allow areas of your yard to remain intentionally “messy”, and leave the leaves and woody debris for the wildlife!


Water is crucial for all life, and it can be scarce during the winter. Streams and ponds that normally flow with water can become frozen and wildlife can no longer them. Adding a heated bird bath can help keep birds and other critters hydrated. If you don’t have a heater, you can still remove any ice and refill the bird bath regularly, just remember to keep the water clean!

A Thought for Pasture and Fields….

If you are a farmer or large landowner, there are field maintenance methods that can help grassland bird populations. Fields mowed before July can have up to a 94% nest mortality, so mowing/haying until mid-July or August if possible is recommended. If the field is fallow, mow only once a year to knock back woody growth in late February-early March, after over-wintering birds are done using the field and before breeding season starts.

Additional Resources

Visit these online resources for additional information:

  • Cornell Lab of Ornithology
  • Virginia Native Plant Society
  • Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation
  • Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, Native Plant Database
  • Digital Atlas of the Virginia Flora
  • Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries