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Laissez-Faire Fall Yard Care

A “less is more” approach to fall yard care can help birds thrive in and survive winter!

Fall is a season of change and beauty. We gaze upon the vibrant colors of changing fall leaves, drink in the cool, crisp morning air and observe the migration of some of our favorite backyard birds that adorn our yards. As the brilliant reds and golds of leaves dim and plant life fades to grays and browns, many homeowners and gardeners begin an annual fall rite of raking leaves and cleaning out other dried plant matter from their lawns and garden beds. But perhaps it’s time to reconsider this practice.

A 2019 Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology study ( conducted by an international team of scientists from seven institutions revealed that the North American bird population is down a staggering 2.9 billion in breeding adults since 1970! The so-called common backyard birdfeeder birds represent the greatest losses of birdlife. Ken Rosenburg, a senior scientist at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and lead author of the study, stated that “these bird losses are a strong signal that our human-altered landscapes are losing their ability to support birdlife.”

Are there things we as homeowners can do to our landscapes that can help our distressed bird populations? You bet! One of the easiest and simplest ways is to minimize our fall lawn care practices and learn to embrace a “messy” lawn and garden area – in other words, a welcoming fall and winter haven for birds! How?

Stack Your Sticks!

Limbs, branches and twigs that fall into our yards are perfect for creating a brush pile that will provide shelter for birds from the winter weather and protection from predators.

Don’t Deadhead!

No, we’re not referencing fans of the Grateful Dead, but we are talking about the benefits of savings seeds. Many of the birds we observe in our yards in the fall and winter not only eat seed from our feeders but also rely on the seeds, nuts and berries that are produced on many of your landscape plants and shrubs. If we weed whack or trim everything down for the winter, we remove valuable sources of calories for birds. For example, goldfinches love to perch and feed on native grasses, black-eyed Susan and purple coneflower seed heads during the winter months as do cardinals on the withered red berries of winterberry holly. Many species of native bees and butterflies also use “messy” garden spaces to overwinter. So wait to snip the stems of those perennials or other dried or dead plants until springtime.

Leave The Leaves!

Mowing and mulching your leaves right into your lawn naturally enriches the soil and eliminates the need for chemical fertilizers. In other words, leaves are free lawn food! Leaves that remain in or are raked into gardens and mulched areas not only add winter insulation for plants and bulbs but can also establish cover for birds and create space and habitat for beneficial insects and caterpillars to overwinter. In turn, these bugs provide food for birds during the cold winter months.

As a bonus, leaving or mulching your leaves into your yard or garden bed will also help keep them out of storm drains, which in turn helps to keep them out of our streams and lakes where the phosphorus and nitrogen contained within the leaves can act as fertilizer for aquatic plants and algae. Even if the leaves don’t make it into storm drains, leaves left on the curb or swept into streets can block storm drains and cause or exacerbate flooding problems.

Need even more reason? You’ll also save yourself time, backaches and blisters by skipping the leaf raking this fall! And, if you are a village or city resident, it can also help keep municipal costs down by reducing the amount of leaves your local public works department needs to haul away.

(photo by Stephen Bonk)

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