By Molly Kirk
When you make decisions about how to maintain your yard and property this fall, keep in mind that there are many different species of wildlife that call your yard home! While raking leaves and mowing tall grass might create a neater “look” for your yard, leaving your yard with a somewhat messier appearance creates valuable food and shelter for not only birds, but also pollinators, reptiles, and other animals. Remember, the outdoors are better together, and that applies to all creatures!
As the weather cools and the leaves change color and begin to fall, think about how you can benefit wildlife by restoring the wild in your own backyard. By leaving habitat in place, birds and pollinators will be more attracted to your property. As the Department of Wildlife Resources’ (DWR) Small Game Project Leader, Marc Puckett explains, “Autumn is a time when birds need cover and seeds, pollinators need the last fall nectar, and insects still need plants as hosts.” All those seeds and insects provide valuable food for birds.
The good news here is that less is more! Restoring the wild in your backyard is really just leaving things where they lie and not making an active effort to clean up.
- Don’t mow
If you have fields or less manicured areas of your yard, don’t mow them in the fall. “Mowing during fall will result in an area devoid of cover all winter long—wait until early to mid-March to mow, if possible,” Puckett said. “And perhaps even more importantly, even if you do mow in fall, don’t mow it all every year. Mow in rotation, either half or one third, annually on a two- or three-year cycle. This way no matter when you mow, you will still be leaving cover on part of the land year-round.”
If you have a smaller property, consider leaving a strip or border of taller vegetation somewhere. The matures grasses will also produce seed-heads that feed native birds.
- Leave the Leaves
DWR’s former Habitat Education Coordinator, Carol Heiser, said: “One of the most important things you can do for wildlife is to allow the leaves to stay on the ground, rather than bagging them up and throwing them away. The dead leaves act as a kind of cover or blanket for dormant insects, and leaf cover can also keep the soil from eroding.”
Leaves on the ground can also be valuable habitat for salamanders, snails, worms, and toads. So leave your leaves or rake them up into your garden beds and use them as mulch, rather than bagging and throwing them away.
- Don’t Garden
Homeowners should also consider taking it easy on the fall garden clean-up, ideally leaving garden beds intact. “When you leave the dry stalks and seedheads standing, they provide a safe place for insects to lay their eggs for next year’s cycle, and for birds to hide from predators,” said Heiser. All those seedheads are also full of seeds that birds can pick on through fall and winter; they are nature’s bird feeder.
- Build with Brush
If wind has knocked a few dead branches out of your trees, consider piling them up into a brush pile (you can even move some of those leaves to here!). The pile will give shelter to small wintering birds along with rabbits and other wildlife.
- Do Plant!
For anyone still wanting some fall chores to do, one helpful action that any homeowner or landowner can take is to plant native shrubs and trees. “Fall is the best time to plant native shrubs and trees because their roots will be going dormant soon anyway, so there’s less trouble with transplant shock,” said Heiser.
Cold weather is also a great time to remove non-native trees and shrubs, like Tree-of-Heaven (Ailanthus altissima), privet, autumn olive and others. “During this time of year, treatments with proper herbicides are highly effective at controlling undesirable trees and shrubs. By eliminating non-native invasive plants, native species that are preferred by birds and other animals are given a chance to flourish,” said Puckett.
- Spray with Care
Refrain from spraying fertilizer or “weed and feed” chemicals on your lawn. They make your yard a less healthy habitat for birds, bugs, and other animals.
For landowners, Puckett does suggest spraying an herbicide if the goal is to eliminate undesirable lawn, such as fescue grass, which provides no value for birds or other wildlife and prevents growth of the native grasses and wildflowers that they do need.
“Fall is a great time to spray sod-forming fescue grass, if it is invading your land and if not in an area prone to soil erosion,” Puckett said. “Fescue can be sprayed with herbicides effectively into early December, if there have not been too many hard frosts and the grass is still green. By spraying at this time, you can kill the fescue without harming other beneficial plants that are dormant.”
However, Puckett is quick to caution about spraying in a wildflower meadow. “Many wildflowers stay susceptible to herbicides even when the flowering portion of the plant is dead,” he said. “So, for a wildflower meadow being invaded by fescue grass, it would be better to use a grass selective herbicide. Remember to follow the label directions–the label is the law.”
Simplifying your routine fall yard and land maintenance practices really can make a difference for birds, insects, pollinators, and other wildlife. Improving your fall and winter backyard habitat can be a significant step in helping to restore the wild for many species.
Additional Habitat Resources
- For private landowners, DWR has a team of five private lands wildlife biologists (PLWBs), hired jointly with Virginia’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), that specialize in on-site landowner habitat evaluations followed by detailed management planning where appropriate. Interested landowners can find out if their area is suitable by contacting their local PLWB or Marc Puckett at 434-392-8328, firstname.lastname@example.org.
- The DWR’s habitat webpage – Find numerous resources for improving habitat
- Habitat at Home© booklet – Find habitat landscaping tips and the best native tree and shrub choices to support birds and other wildlife.
- Information on herbicide application methods for removing non-native invasive trees and shrubs, can be found at https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/accomplishing-forest-stewardship-with-hand-applied-herbicides.
- Managing Land in the Piedmont of Virginia for the Benefit of Birds & Other Wildlife – Find land management recommendations that benefit birds in this introductory how-to guide.
- Virginia Native Plant Society – For a list of nurseries that sell Virginia native plants