The Wild Truth
By Jen Knight
As summer draws to a close, Asheville residents—human and animal alike—are starting to think about winter preparations. For humans, fall is a time to prune back summer growth in the garden, take the winter coats and sweaters out of mothballs and increase the amount of pumpkin spice in their diet. Some folks may be closing up the house to head back to Georgia, Florida or Texas.
Wildlife has its own autumnal regimes to prepare for winter. They, too, are “getting out” their winter coats, preparing burrows and even changing their diets to accommodate the foods of the season and lay on a protective layer of fat. Some of them will also be heading to Florida and warmer climes.
Unlike most Ashevillians, wild critters have a lot to lose if their preparations don’t go perfectly according to plan. If they don’t find just the right spot to hibernate or gather enough food stores, they will die. While some winter attrition is natural, vulnerable wildlife populations can be disproportionately affected by sudden environmental changes—like the weekend disappearance of all the dead annuals in your garden, prime overwintering ground for many native bees.
Interested in helping wildlife overcome the high stakes? Fortunately, there are several easy ways for humans to incorporate critters’ concerns into their fall routines.
LEAVE IT MESSY
A manicured yard may be attractive to human eyes, but dead stems, brush piles and leaf cover are critical winter habitats for wildlife. If you prefer to keep things tidy, use trimmed stems as ground cover in garden beds or designate a corner of the yard for yard clippings. Compost piles are excellent sources of cover and warmth so keep an eye out for opportunistic critters.
ROOMS AT THE INN
Birds and small mammals will shelter in empty nest boxes, so clear out old nesting material once everyone has moved out. Rock walls, gravel banks and decorative stones with sun exposure soak up warmth and provide excellent basking spots for our cold-blooded friends. The faster they can warm up in the morning, the faster they can get to foraging.
DRINKS ALL AROUND
Every living thing needs water so keep birdbaths clean and full. A few stones in the water will allow insects like migrating monarchs to drink safely. The motion of a floating ping-pong ball will keep the surface from freezing overnight during early cold snaps.
SUPPLEMENT YOUR SPREAD
Planting late-blooming flowers and shrubs with fall/winter berries will provide a foraging boost to insects and other animals as they stock their larders and “carbo-load” for winter. Avoid deadheading flowers until late November to allow migrating birds to stock up on fat and nutrient-rich seeds.
PRACTICE GOOD HYGIENE
Birdfeeders support migrating flocks on their long journeys and provide a reliable source of calories to the birds that overwinter. However, the constant stream of visitors from across the country can also make feeders a source of disease. Imagine if the most popular buffets along I-75 were never cleaned! Wash feeders with dish soap and disinfect with a vinegar solution weekly to prevent outbreaks.
Asheville residents are no strangers to offering hospitality and lodging to out-of-towners. This fall, consider making a few small changes and extend the same warmth to our wild neighbors and visitors.
Jen Knight serves on the development committee of Appalachian Wildlife Refuge (AppalachianWild.org) and is the co-education direction and senior naturalist at Balsam Mountain Trust (BalsamMountainTrust.org).