Attracting Wildlife Through the Winter

Winter is a great time to curl up on the couch and enjoy some cozy relaxation. But for wildlife, it is a three month battle for survival! There are many ways we can help wildlife get through these difficult months. Of course, the best way to attract and support biodiversity is to fill our landscapes with native plants, providing seeds, host plants, shelter, and an active soil biome. But if you missed the boat on planting this past year, there are still some things you can do today to attract furry and feathered friends.

compass plant with snow
Native plants add beauty and shape to the winter landscape (Photo by Brad Guhr).

Food

I am an avid birder, so I love to put out feeders in winter when food is scarce to witness a diverse set of species as they drop by. Make sure your feeders are hanging high, away from potential predators (read: neighborhood cats!) and that they offer high-value feed like sunflower seeds or suet cakes.

spotted towhee bird
Spotted Towhee on a fence post – Photograph by John Reynolds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology-Macaulay Library

Besides birds, I like to see rabbits and other small mammals hanging around. Toss out food scraps like carrot skins or wilted salad greens, either in a compost pile or along a fence line to attract rabbits and opossums. (Opossums?!? Why would you want them around? Here’s why)

I used to live near a small field that is home to deer. Some people in our neighborhood scatter corn on the edge of their yard to draw them out of the woods. They come out just as the sun is going down, peacefully nibbling the grains.

Water

When the temperatures plummet, puddles and streams freeze over, becoming inaccessible to the animals that desperately need a drink. Heated birdbaths do the trick, but an inexpensive option is to frequently refill a cement birdbath, less likely to crack than porcelain ones. I dump a pitcher of water into my birdbath before I head to work, giving the birds at least a little bit of drinking time before it freezes over again. Easily make your own cement bird bath like this one, a similar process to what we do every year in the EPS summer institute for teachers. I keep my birdbath low to the ground so that it is accessible to birds, but also to other passing friends like rabbits and skunks.

Yes, rabbits can be a bit of a pest, but by providing them with a water source you fortify their place in the food chain, thereby supporting the foxes, owls, and other predators that depend on a healthy rabbit population. By Gidzy [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Shelter

A brush pile is a great and easy way to create high-quality shelter for birds and small mammals. Find a forgotten corner of the yard and collect sticks, limbs, leaves, and other brush into at least a 3 foot by 5-foot stack. Forget taking all that stuff to your local dump; save yourself the work and create habitat for neighborhood critters.

Additionally, planting a few evergreens in the landscape protects tree-dwelling animals from the icy winter winds. Though eastern red cedar is Kansas’s only native evergreen, I have a few other favorites that do well in our climate. Look for Taylor Junipers at our sale (a cedar selection) for a pencil-shaped evergreen good for limited space. Arizona cypress and Green Giant Arborvitae are good non-native options.

(Left) Arizona Cypress tree in the Northwest corner of the Arboretum. (Right) Cypress foliage

Plan Ahead

Spring is, remarkably, just around the corner. Start planning now for how you want to improve your landscape with native plants so you are ready when FloraKansas arrives! A garden with food, water, shelter, and a diverse set of native plants will attract wildlife season after season, year after year.

October Richness

Life flies by for all of us and it is easy to miss or forget what happens in a given month. When reviewing recent photographs on my phone, I was pleasantly reminded of all the richness that happened over the last four weeks or so. October in Kansas is that great fall transition period between summer and winter, hot and cold, green and brown, and fast and slow when there is SO MUCH to see. For those that feel that they endure the extremes of Kansas to revel in the moderation that comes with fall, October is your time.

I was reminded from these photos of our Dyck Arboretum of the Plains mission – cultivating transformative relationships between people and the land. Let’s review in the following photos the richness that can be found in that interface between the plants/wildlife of Kansas and the people that enjoy this place in October.

Monarch fallout.

October 1 brought a monarch “fallout” when their migration was interrupted by strong south winds. They momentarily took a break from their journey and sought shelter in our Osage orange hedge row.

Tagged monarchs.

Local monarch enthusiast, Karen Fulk, took advantage of the fallout to capture and tag monarchs with identification numbers that help other monarch observers in Mexico or elsewhere to better understand the speed and location of their migration.

Middle school students measuring tree height with the “rough estimate” method.

Santa Fe Middle School students from Newton were able to witness the end of the monarch fallout on October 2 and also enjoyed various activities on the Dyck Arboretum campus that included insect collecting, plant sampling and measuring tree height. The Dyck Arboretum’s Kansas Earth Partnership for Schools (EPS) Program curriculum has a lesson that teaches students how to measure tree height with five different methods including estimation, shadows, algebra, geometry, and trigonometry.

Measuring tree height.
Lorna Harder teaching a 5th Grader about plant identification.

On October 6, former and current Dyck Arboretum board members hosted tours of their homes and land near Hesston for Arboretum Prairie Partners. Lorna and Bob Harder gave a tour of their solar photovoltaic-powered home and surrounding prairie landscape and LeAnn and Stan Clark hosted everyone for dinner on their patio surrounded by extensive native plant landscaping.

Lorna Harder leading a tour of the native prairie she is helping steward.
Director, Scott Vogt, welcoming Arboretum Prairie Partners to a meal on LeAnn and Stan Clark’s patio.

Hesston Elementary students took a field trip to the Arboretum on October 10 to conduct a leaf scavenger hunt, learn about monarch migration, observe different seed dispersal mechanisms and study insect diversity in the prairie.

Hesston Elementary students search for insects in the Arboretum reconstructed prairie.
Finding seeds, grasshoppers, beetles, flies, spiders, true bugs, and more.
Insect sweeping.
Students found a female striped wolf spider carrying its newborn young on its abdomen.
Grasshoppers are plentiful in the prairie during October.
Initial insect skittishness turned to fondness during the field trip.
Beehives at Earhart.

Earhart Environmental Magnet Elementary in Wichita, a Kansas Earth Partnership for Schools participating school, engages their students in environmental education with hands-on activities such as beekeeping. Students tend the bees, grow and maintain native plant gardens as nectar sources, and regularly camp on their grounds to learn more about the natural world around them.

Earhart students check a birdfeeder while searching for insects in one of their courtyard native plant gardens.
Earhart students found a preying mantis egg casing or ootheca.

On October 17, Walton Elementary (another Kansas EPS School) students came to the Arboretum to collect seed and study how seeds disperse. They each had a target plant they were searching for and from which they were aiming to collect seed. They did the same last year, germinated the seed in their greenhouse over the winter, and had a successful native plant sale in the Walton community.

College students observing a garter snake.

Bethel College environmental science classes visited the Arboretum on October 24 to learn about the native plants and wildlife of Kansas, natural resource management, and ecological restoration. When students become interested in and well-versed about the natural world around them, they will turn into more informed and better-educated environmental decision-makers of the future.

Bethel students found a Pandorus sphinx moth caterpillar crossing an Arboretum sidewalk.
‘Tiger Eyes’ sumac from an Arboretum plant sale was in autumn splendor on October 26 at my house.

Part of establishing a rich sense of place for people in any one location involves not only natural history connection cultural enrichment through the arts. The Dyck Arboretum’s Prairie Window Concert Series (PWCS) features eight live music performances each season. Our 2019-20 season was kicked off with October bookend performances featuring Mark Erelli on September 29 and recently The Steel Wheels on October 26.

Mark Erelli – the first show of the 2019-20 PWCS.
The Steel Wheels – the second show of the 2019-20 PWCS.

On October 29, a stunning cold front rolled through Kansas and chilling temperatures caused delicately-held leaves on trees like ash, maple, Osage orange, and ginko to fall within hours. Social media posts were featuring leaves dropping quickly that day all over Kansas to make for a memorable fall day.

Ginko leaves and ‘iron butterfly’ ironweed.

The 2019 Eco-Meet Championships will be held at Dyck Arboretum in early November. In late October, organizers and high school teams from around the state were visiting the Arboretum to prepare for the big event. The competition will allow some of the brightest science students from around the state to showcase their knowledge on subjects including prairies, woodlands, entomology, and ornithology.

Students from Smoky Valley High visited the Arboretum on October 31 to prepare for Eco-Meet.

The cold nights and relatively warm days of late October have allowed the grass and tree leaves to show off their bright colors that have been hidden all growing season by the green pigments of chlorophyll. Seed heads are opening and dispersal mechanisms that catch the wind or lure animals are on full display. Good ground moisture and warm temperatures are still even allowing for a bit of late-season flowering from some species.

Sugar maple.
Little bluestem.
Seeds dispersing from a common milkweed pod.
The fall prairie is loaded with seeds this season which is good for seed-eating mammals and birds.
It has been a mast year for trees and the ground under this burr oak was covered with acorns.
Late season flowering by Leavenworth eryngo.
Aromatic aster ‘Raydon’s Favorite’.

I’ll leave you with a video (sorry for the terrible camera work) of one of my favorite sights of every October – when the aromatic asters are in full bloom and late-season pollinators belly up to the nectar bar on a warm fall day. Enjoy.

Video of Pollinators nectaring on aromatic aster ‘Raydon’s Favorite’