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Creature Comfort: Helping Animals Survive Winter

Do animals actually need help in winter? Yes. While it's true that animals who overwinter in cold places are remarkably well-equipped for the frigid temps, habitat loss and climate shifts have forced some animals into zip codes for which they are ill equipped. Here are 10 ways you can help animals in your neighborhood this winter.

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bird Steven Russell Smith Ohio/Shutterstock

Put Up Roost Boxes

For many small animals, finding a safe, warm place to sleep is even more precious than getting enough calories. A black-capped chickadee, like the one shown here, can remember more than 1,000 sites where it cached food during the summer. But to find a snug bird bedroom for the night, it must create holes in rotting or soft wood, or find ready-made shelter in rotten tree trunks, knotholes or abandoned woodpecker nests. But you can help passerines (perching birds) by adding roost boxes. These are similar to birdhouses, but with a few key differences.

  • Birdhouses have entrance holes near the top, whereas roost boxes have entrance holes near the bottom to prevent rising heat loss.
  • Well-designed birdhouses and roost boxes are secure, with latched doors and predator guards over the entrance holes, but roost boxes have fewer ventilation and drainage holes.
  • Well-designed birdhouses are compact with open space inside for nest-building whereas roost boxes are considerably larger with interior perches. A good roost box can accommodate lots of birds without the risk of smothering.
  • Birdhouses can have relatively thin walls whereas roost boxes have thicker, insulated walls. The interior walls of a good roost box are either scored or covered with bird-safe mesh to allow for clinging and climbing.

You can convert a birdhouse into a roost box with some modifications, you can also build one from scratch or buy them ready-made. Add a layer of wood chips or shavings to the bottom for extra insulation.

Learn to how to make a bird feeder wreath with seed heads and grapevine

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Build a Hibernaculum

Many reptiles spend the winter below the frost line (for warmth), but above the water table (to prevent drowning.) Some natural hibernacula (a shelter occupied during the winter by a dormant animal) include bedrock fissures, animal burrows or rotten tree stumps. You can help the reptiles in your neighborhood survive winter by constructing hibernaculum for them. The Long Point Basin Land Trust in Ontario has detailed instructions.

If you are especially concerned about frogs, here are instructions for building a place for them to overwinter.

Discover 12 ways to combat winter dryness.

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Brush Up Your Habitat

Brush piles are sirens songs to dark-eyed juncos, northern cardinals, squirrels, overwintering butterflies and chipmunks. From a critter’s perspective, a big jumble of leaves, upturned roots, vine tangles and branches looks like an extravagant hotel of safe hidey-holes. The most exquisite brush piles are relatively dry and warm and include rotting logs with insects and grubs. Place yours in a sheltered area, such as behind a hedge or next to a fence. Then add a top layer of thorny branches to deter predators.

When brush piles are in short supply, many animals will make do with a compost pile. If you turn your compost in winter, do it very carefully. You don’t want to pitchfork some critter that’s just trying to find safe harbor. And on that note, be extra careful when lighting winter bonfires. That stack of wood may be acting as a critter refuge, so check it carefully before splashing on the lighter fluid.

Learn the basics: See our winter composting 101 guide.

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Robin (Erithacus rubecula), taking a bath in winterclarst5/Shutterstock

Offer High-Fat Food and Non-Frozen Water

If birds can’t clean their feathers, they become less waterproof and less able to keep warm. That’s why clean, un-frozen water is so essential.

Fill bird feeders with high-oil-content seeds such as sunflower and thistle, and other high-fat foods such as suet dotted with peanuts. You’ll likely be rewarded with less-common avian visitors such as waxwings, redwings and bullfinches. Don’t forget to add some food at ground level, for squirrels and chipmunks.

How to clean a bird bath the right way.

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Put Away Those Clippers and Rakes

Fallen leaves suppress weed growth and fertilize the soil. They also offer a cozy place for small animals and insect pupae during the winter. A few insects even fly in winter and rely on the few sources of pollen still available, such as ivy blooms. Bumblebee nests die out, but the queens hibernate in holes or under grass clumps. Ditto for butterflies and moths who hide just below the soil at the base of food plants or grasses. Other insects overwinter in the hollow stems of herbaceous perennials. Long story short: don’t rake and don’t deadhead. There are many living things that have winter plans for all that unsightliness.

Learn how to attract birds who don’t use standing bird feeders.

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Plant With Overwintering Critters in Mind

As you plan for the spring planting season, remember the critters. Plants and trees that produce seeds, nuts and berries are much appreciated. As are dense evergreen shrubs and trees.

You can make these sheltered areas even more attractive by adding roosting pockets made from woven thatch. You can buy roosting pockets or make them. If you make them, add an interior layer of straw or dry grass to the inside and you might get a winged tenant. Robins, wrens, finches and bearded tits have all been known to take advantage of roosting pockets nestled in evergreens. Discarded Christmas trees make excellent sheltering sites, too.

Here are 20 ways to attract winter birds.

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Be a Pond Protector

Some amphibians are so adapted to the cold they actually replace the water in their bodies with glycerol, a type of antifreeze. But even these hardly souls could use a little help. Place a some tiles, bricks or flat stones at the bottom of your water feature and frogs and newts will likely burrow under them for protection in winter. Frogs can breathe through their skin, but if the pond freezes over, noxious gasses, caused by rotting plant material, can become trapped in the water and poison the frogs. Remove decaying plant material from your pond’s surface, and float a tennis ball on top, to keep it from freezing over completely.

Read 13 foolproof tips for attracting birds to your yard.

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Don’t Forget the Minibeasts

Insects and other invertebrates mostly rely on rotting wood and leaf piles to survive the harsh months. But human-made “insect hotels” or “bee hotels” can help. These are birdhouse-like structures filled with reeds or cardboard BeeTubes that can protect overwintering bugs or bee pupae.

Entymologists caution, however, that poorly designed insect hotels can actually harm beneficial insects. When the holes are too big, for instance, kleptoparasites such as parasitic wasps and parasitic flies will lay their eggs in the tubes. When the parasitic larvae emerge, they eat the stored pollen and kill any bee larvae hidden inside. Poorly designed commercial bee hotels can also harbor toxic mold. Whether you make your own or buy them, be sure that all of the tubes are disposable or can be removed for cleaning. Each new season requires fresh nesting tubes.

Here’s more on where bugs go in the winter.

Read 14 winter survival tips from the coldest part of the country.

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Be on the Lookout

In winter, animals seek out shelter wherever they can—including dryer vents, chimney flues, car engines and wheel wells. Before starting your car, make a loud racket, and thump your fist on the hood to startle away critters who may have stowed away.

Pets should never be out in extreme weather. If you see a pet in distress, contact the police or animal control authorities in your area. Remember: if you’re cold, they are too.

How you can avoid chimney fires this winter.

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Buy Antifreeze and Deicer That Doesn’t Harm

Antifreeze has a sweet smell and taste that can be attractive to hungry animals, but it is highly poisonous. Look for antifreeze with denatonium benzoate, a bittering agent that won’t attract wildlife. On the same note, calcium magnesium acetate is considered to be the most wildlife-friendly deicing agent, especially when compared with agents containing chloride. The worst option, from an animal’s perspective, is rock salt. Rock salt includes the poison cyanide, which acts as an anti-caking agent.

Twelve things you need to check before winter sets in.

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Alyssa Ford
Alyssa Ford is a long-time freelance journalist in Minneapolis. Her published credits include the Star Tribune, Utne Reader, Crain's,, Minnesota Monthly, Midwest Home, Experience Life, Artful Living, Momentum, Minnesota, and many others. She is a past president of the Minnesota Society of Professional Journalists.

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