As the transition from autumn to winter in Ohio is soon upon us - some may wonder What makes a wildlife friendly yard or landscape in the winter? What can I do to enhance habitat for wildlife in the winter?
The School of Environment and Natural Resources (SENR) had the opportunity to visit with Marne Titchenell, an OSU Extension wildlife specialist
to learn a bit more about wildlife in Ohio during the winter.
SENR: Can you share a bit about what kinds of wildlife Ohioans can expect to observe and/or see in the winter months?
MT: Quite a few of our wildlife species are active year-round. Many birds like chickadees, cardinals, blue jays, and white-breasted nuthatches overwinter in Ohio. Most have spent the fall packing on some extra pounds or storing food, especially blue jays, to help them get through the winter. We even have some birds that travel to Ohio to spend the winter, like the dark-eyed junco. Others, like the great-horned owl, begin nesting during winter, with eggs laid as early as January! Thankfully, female great-horned owls can keep those eggs nice and toasty, despite below freezing temperatures. Deer, rabbits, and tree squirrels also remain active during the cold winter months. In truth, only a few mammals, such as bats, chipmunks, and groundhogs, actually hibernate in Ohio. The rest are out and about, braving the cold!
SENR: What do wildlife do in the winter in Ohio? Does their activity vary depending on the conditions, type of wildlife?
MT: It depends on the species, but many are simply trying to stay warm, safe, and fed. For smaller species, staying warm during winter can be quite challenging, so they adapted strategies to help them cope. For example, flying squirrels abandon their solitary life in favor of sharing tree cavities (and body heat) with other flying squirrels. Some of these aggregate nest cavities, as they are called, are home to as many as 10 unrelated squirrels! Other small mammals, like voles, mice, and shrews, live and move about under the snow, in a space called the subnivean layer. This open space is often warmer than air above the snow, and more protected from fluctuating temperatures.
On enhancing winter habitat
SENR: Are there things that people, especially those that have yards or manage landscapes do to enhance conditions for wildlife in the winter? Any tips to enhance habitat for wildlife in the winter?
MT: Oh yes, there is a lot that people can do in backyards and managed landscapes for winter wildlife. Perhaps the most familiar would be putting out bird feeders. Stock feeders with high quality and nutritious foods, such as black oil sunflower seeds, safflower seeds, thistle seed, and suet.
A fun post-holiday activity is to repurpose a Christmas tree (or a neighbor’s if you don’t celebrate the holiday) as a more natural bird feeder. Hang suet on the tree, mesh bags of sunflower seeds, and garlands of dried or fresh fruit.
There are also important things people can do for winter wildlife during the other months of the year. For example, incorporating berry-producing trees and shrubs into the landscape that hold fruit into the winter months, such as chokeberry, hawthorn, crabapple, and holly.
Water is also important for birds during the winter months. To keep bird baths from freezing, and to offer birds a warmer source of water, consider a heated bird bath. A good rule of thumb for all bird baths is to choose one that is shallow and has a rough (and not slippery) surface.
If folks already have a pollinator garden in their yard or landscape, they can rake fallen leaves into the garden to provide natural organic material and places for birds to hunt for overwintering insect prey. Leave species like coneflower, black-eyed Susans, and other native perennials standing to provide a seed source for birds during winter. Right before spring, cut these same native perennials back, leaving varying heights of 8-24 inches behind. These will serve as potential nesting sites for solitary, stem-nesting native bees.
SENR: Thank you Marne for sharing with our audiences about winter wildlife and some ways to enhance habitat, not only in the winter, but all year long!
If you are interested in learning more about winter wildlife, Marne shared a few additional resources (linked below) to check out:
- The Ohio Woodlands, Water, and Wildlife Newsletter article, "Winter Wildlife Signs"
- Project FeederWatch to learn all about bird feeding and more
- The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation publication, "Nesting & Overwintering Habitat for Pollinators & Other Beneficial Insects"