Winter cold has hit Indiana and most Hoosiers have already experienced the first snowfall of the season.
With more challenging weather on the horizon and a season of sharing and caring, we’re using this edition of Scrub Hub to offer answers to a common question:
What can you do to help wildlife during the winter months?
We spoke with wildlife experts from Indiana Audubon and the Indiana Wildlife Federation for suggestions on what can be done to help these creatures that overwinter here in the state.
Short answer: Feed the birds
When the snows come early, a great way to help late-migrating birds, as well as those staying all winter, is to prepare bird food.
Birds don’t rely on feeders, but extra food can help, Indiana Audubon’s Sam Warren said.
“When talking about food, we suggest providing a variety of seeds and food and also, if people can, having heated water or water nearby,” Warren said.
Winter finches are a species that likes to stay in Indiana while others fly off to warmer climes. Warren said filling long feeding tubes with Nyjer seed can provide finches with a nice place to snack.
Woodpeckers, chickadees, crested tits and nuthatches will appreciate a suet feeder. The seed variety, Warren said, is ideal, with sunflower seeds and millet being good choices for wintering in Indiana.
For a more natural approach, new Indiana Wildlife Federation executive director Dan Borrit suggested leaving flower heads on native plants in your garden. It won’t be enough to feed the birds, but during the winter months when there isn’t an abundance of food readily available, it all helps.
The Indiana Native Plant Society has a comprehensive website, Warren said, that provides examples of bird-friendly plants for those of you already thinking about spring.
“All the natives are great,” Warren said. “We suggest having a variety in the yard. Even if you don’t have acres to plant a meadow, just place them around bird feeders. These are excellent opportunities to provide some habitat for these birds.
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Long answer: the yard is an insect sanctuary
The first thing Borrit thought of when IndyStar asked about winter wildlife aid: leave the leaves behind.
“Not everyone can do this under the HOA rules, but one of the best things we can do for wildlife is leave dead leaves on the ground,” Boritt said.
This idea is mainly geared towards insects, he said, which use the leaves to lay eggs and overwinter. The leaves provide a layer of insulation, protection so predators can’t find insects, and create habitat for some cool creatures like Luna moths.
“Everything eats bugs,” Borrit said. “Keeping them safe helps ensure a healthy food supply for birds and small mammals. All kinds of creatures need these things to survive the return of spring.
Leaf litter doesn’t have to take up the whole yard either, Boritt said. Just rake part of the yard and let them overwinter.
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Along the same lines, creating snag piles from twigs and small fallen branches can also provide some protection for wildlife. Anything that provides respite or windbreak can be really helpful for survival, Boritt said.
Just think about what a human needs to survive: food, water, and shelter, and you’re well on your way to understanding how to help wildlife.
Another involved way to help some of the native creatures here in Indiana is to properly build and mount bat boxes.
The National Wildlife Foundation provides free, step-by-step instructions for building and installing a bat house on their website: https://www.nwf.org/garden-for-wildlife/cover/build- a-bat-house
Bats are an invaluable resource, not only for controlling insect populations, but also for providing beneficial pollination to the agricultural industry.
Boritt said he saw bat boxes in urban areas across the state with dozens of bats using the space. Sometimes bat boxes go up and go unused, but Boritt said just doing something to protect wildlife is great.
“Even if things don’t work out, but you do it and talk about it with the kids, you raise awareness and pay attention,” Boritt said. “There is great value in interest. If you’re ready to take the plunge and build or buy a bat box, you care and try to do something about it.
For the more daring Hoosiers, bats and some snakes will sometimes find their way into homes to winter camp indoors. Boritt would encourage people, if they can bear it, to leave them alone. Bats and snakes that come indoors will be dormant and if removed outdoors they will likely die, he said.
So whether it’s spreading bird seed, building bat boxes, or sharing a few nooks and crannies of your home with a dormant bat or two, Hoosiers have plenty of opportunities to lend a hand this winter.
Karl Schneider is an IndyStar environmental journalist. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @karlstartswithk
The IndyStar Environmental Reporting Project is made possible through the generous support of the non-profit Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust.
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