University of Vermont Extension 
Department of Plant and Soil Science

  Fall News Article


Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont
Now that fall is here, most gardeners, myself included, are clearing out undergrowth and unwanted vegetation around their garden and homes. However, plants we may not want may be wanted, and even needed, during the winter months by wildlife.

To have a landscape attractive to wildlife, you'll need to make sure they have water, food, and cover.  Fall is a good time to think about where they can get water in winter.  If you don't have a pond or stream, a heated birdbath might be on your shopping list if you don't already have one.
Food varies with animal and bird species, and can change during the season.  Some birds, for instance, may just eat seeds while others may prefer fruits at one season and seeds at another.  Wildlife, especially birds, prefer to eat plants from their habitats-- plants native to your area.
Remember that wildlife can't come inside as we do in storms and winter weather, so they need cover-- a place of protection from the elements.  Evergreen plants are most effective for this.  They also need cover from predators. This includes a safe place come spring to raise their young.  Since birds fly, they often live at different levels depending on species, so it is important to leave not only tall trees but lower understory ones, and shrubs as well.
Even if you are clearing brush, or need to, leave some piles in a back corner or out of sight for smaller mammals. Of course if you leave tall grass for the smaller mammals, you may not want this area near your gardens, or they'll have a place to live and feed!
If you are clearing out "weeds", consider an out-of-the-way patch of wildflowers like the fall asters and goldenrod.  These provide food for pollinators like bees, as well as many insects.  Many of these are beneficial insects, attacking the ones we don't want, others provide food for the birds.  Even the ragweed most consider a vile weed in our manicured landscapes, and to which some are allergic, has seeds rich in oil which provide a late fall and winter food source for the likes of mourning doves, pheasants, blackbirds, and sparrows.
Other weeds, or wildflowers depending on your perspective, that have high wildlife value include the common milkweed, goldenrod, smartweeds, and staghorn sumac.  The milkweed is noted as a main source for monarch butterfly larvae, but it also attracts many pollinators and insects.  So does the goldenrod, plus it provides cover for songbirds, rabbits, and small mammals.  Smartweed, that low creeping plant with small pink flower spikes through the season, makes many oil-rich seeds which migrating fall birds look for.  The staghorn sumac seeds are eaten by many birds in fall and winter, including robins, bluebirds, and cardinals.  Rabbits, small mammals, and deer will feed on the sumac bark.
When considering clearing out plants, keep in mind that cherries, whether wild or planted, provide food for about 70 different species of song and game birds. Crabapples supply food for birds, particularly the purple finch, blue jay, northern oriole, cedar waxwing, and robin.
White cedars, so prevalent in the northeast, are an excellent source of food and shelter for many birds. They eat the seeds, and in winter, the evergreen branches provide cover, a place to escape the fierce winter winds.
Brambles, especially blackberries and raspberries that are a good food source for birds and small animals in summer, also provide a protective haven for wildlife in the winter. Alders, one of the first trees to reappear on land that has been cleared and allowed to regrow, offer twigs and buds for munching by beavers and rabbits, and a protective cover for these animals,
Most people are familiar with the red-osier dogwood. This native twiggy shrub is found growing along streams and in abandoned fields and has brilliant scarlet stems in mid-winter. It provides browsing for deer, bear, beaver, and rabbit. Many species of birds enjoy its bluish-black fruit, found in clusters on the ends of the stems. Ruffed grouse, pheasant, and wild turkeys especially like it. Its low growing branches provide good cover for many of these birds.
Many other plants are useful to wildlife for food and cover. Deer will browse on the ironwood tree, maples, and what is perhaps their most favorite, the mountain ash. The hophornbeam, another native tree, has fruits in the fall that are a secondary food for grouse. In winter, the tree buds are this bird's primary food.
And who hasn't seen squirrels gathering acorns from oak trees for winter? Not only squirrels, but other game animals and mammals eat acorns, as well as the small red fruits of the low growing partridgeberry.
So, this fall as you clean up some of the brush around your yard, why not leave some for the wildlife this winter. They'll be glad you did.  Look around too while you are cleaning up to make sure you're providing water, food, and cover for the wildlife you want.  Any one of these factors, if not present can limit who lives with you in your landscape and would be a great starting point for choosing new plants for planting now or next spring.  

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