Most people don’t like to entertain the word “Messy” or even be associated with “Messy,” but if we are wildlife activists and dedicated conservationists, we might need to rethink that term. It turns out that the survival and reproductive success in the spring for birds and mammals that we enjoy and love, are largely dependent upon the conditions of their winter habitat. It is crucial that all wildlife be able to forage during the winter on seed-heads, shriveled fruits, dried plants, insects (that feed on dead and decaying plant life), fungi and bacteria, and what better place to do that than in a messy, unkept yard! Maybe it’s time to put down the garden tools and go easy on yard work this winter. If you’ve had a garden in your yard, that is a bonus to wildlife. Gardens are alive, no matter what time of year. Whether resident or migrating, finches, sparrows, chickadees, buntings, blue-jays, nuthatches, blackbirds and grosbeaks will be stopping by an unkept garden, and the messier the better. Bird feeders that are kept full and clean are nice and a little extra, but a messy yard or garden provides the opportunity for more natural foraging. Insect eating birds or mammals will discover a smorgasbord in the “galls” of plants, which are bulbous swellings created by insects, such as beetles, flies or wasps, who move in to lay eggs and allow the eggs to incubate until spring. That is unless a hungry woodpecker or mammal finds the plump larvae first and makes a hearty meal out of them! This is a glorious and nutritious find during a bleak winter, which is a great reason to leave our yards messy. Bees also use messy yards to provide habitat and protection during the winter. Piles of dried leaves, decomposing logs or cavities in hollowed out sticks or fallen limbs attract a variety of bees for overwintering. Bees might be accompanied by butterflies who will be encouraged to overwinter as well, if they are offered thick mounds of leaf litter or other cavities to crawl in to weather the cold and harsh elements presented during winter. If butterfly presence is not convincing enough, hundreds of other critters can overwinter in gardens; assassin bugs, praying mantises, lace wings, wolf spiders, minute pirate bugs, damsel bugs, ground beetles and ladybugs. All these insects and arachnids are beneficial to birds as a food source which means that, as a gardener, you benefit from having them around. Most birds are predators because many eat insects, as well as, seeds. American Robins, Brown Thrashers, Eastern Towhees, Crows and White-throated Sparrows routinely flip leaves over in search of food. Leaf cover improves their odds of finding protein-rich invertebrates such as beetles, earthworms and millipedes, which seek shelter under the security of leaves. So, birds are taking out insect pests that, if left unchecked, could become problematic in flower and vegetable gardens in the spring. Also, leaving layers of leaf litter for animals, such as opossums to burrow under in the winter, allows them to get a jump-start on minimizing pesky insect infestations in the spring and summer. Let’s see, how do we encourage messiness in our yards? Here are a few tips; put down the rake and leave your leaves in your yard (in mounds or as a blanket because leaves will rot, enrich the soil and provide places for bugs and birds to forage), create patches of habitat for critters such as salamanders, snails, worms and toads with leaf litter, allow dried flower heads to remain standing (save the seeds and refrain from snipping the stems of perennial flowers. Coneflowers , Black-Eyed Susans , and other native wildflowers provide an excellent source of winter calories for birds), don’t mow your grass as often (allow it to be a little taller), build brush piles with fallen branches rather than remove them which will serve to shelter birds, as well as other beneficial wildlife, from bad weather and predators, do not use chemicals in your yard for they will render the space uninhabitable for birds and other critters (besides, native grasses, shrubs, trees and flowering plants don’t need chemical fertilizers. Grass clippings and mulched leaf litter provide plenty of plant nutrition), leave snags on your property and just delay the whole garden clean-up until spring. Now, if mammals are more your focus, be assured that squirrels, rabbits, raccoons, opossums, deer and others will also enjoy the end of season bounty in the form of dried seeds, unharvested vegetables, or the hardy leaves left widespread for them. So, a messy yard can be a very good thing when you consider the food and shelter it offers birds and other visiting critters during cold winter months. Don’t forget the bonus of a spent garden that will provide nourishment at all levels of the food chain. Besides helping our wildlife survive in our messy yards, we need to focus on continuing the growing awareness of the value of supporting native biodiversity. What is truly beautiful? You decide; is it a clean, tidy yard or the amazing birds and other wildlife that pass through your property or take up residency within your view? That’s what I thought, too! Let’s be okay with feeling a little lazy and celebrate the abundance of activity and beauty that can emerge from a messy yard!
author of “SAVE THEM ALL“