As the temperatures drop, make your backyard friendly to those critters just trying to survive

Add suet boxes to your bird feeding regimen. These treats are high in fat and often include other nutritious ingredients, such as berries and nuts.
Add suet boxes to your bird feeding regimen. These treats are high in fat and often include other nutritious ingredients, such as berries and nuts. TNS

My neighbors, who are wildlife gardeners, recently lost several chickens they’ve been keeping in the backyard of our west Raleigh neighborhood near the greenway.

So far, members of the flock have been picked off by owls, a fox, a raccoon and a couple of hawks, despite a reasonably secure hen house and near constant supervision.

It seems that some forms of urban wildlife have adapted well to living among us humans. When presented with the possibility of a meal, the hungry opportunist knows exactly how and when to strike.

Researchers have documented the amazing ingenuity of some animals in acquiring their meals. Deer, raccoons, squirrels and many other species have become adept at urban living. Raccoons are wily and persistent as they work to remove trash can lids and empty garbage pails, even those secured with heavy bungee cords. The crafty Barbados bullfinch can swoop down and pluck a sugar packet from a restaurant patio, and urban coyotes demonstrate how to stop, look and wait for cars to pass before crossing busy intersections.

From the human perspective, sharing habitat with wildlife can be a nuisance – and even can have deadly implications for chickens or small pets, as in my neighbors’ case.

But as the City of Oaks continues to shed significant amounts of tree cover and vegetation each year to development, I worry that the region’s wildlife will wind up as the biggest losers.

At N.C. State University, researchers estimate that about 6.5 million acres of forested land in the state have been lost to development since 1982. NCSU’s Going Native website describes certain animals that have suffered most, such as pileated woodpeckers, which need mature forests with tall trees to nest and hunt for their diet of insects.

Other species edged out through development are those that require large contiguous tracts of land for hunting, egg-laying conditions or other migratory behaviors. And when the natural vegetation of forests is replaced by non-native plants, the resources that support birds, butterflies and other local wildlife become exceedingly scarce.

As wildlife gardeners, we can serve a useful role in helping to bridge the gap for wildlife in areas like the Piedmont, which is growing rapidly. By providing wildlife-friendly habitat, we help minimize the disruption for animals trying to meet life’s basic necessities, including food, water and shelter. And this is especially true in the wintertime, when food and water sources may be scarce and freezing temperatures punishing.

So as temperatures drop this month, here are some ideas for making your backyard a place for some of the less adaptable wildlife. Thanks to Kim Schilling of Wild Birds Unlimited on Kildaire Farm Road in Cary for helping construct these tips:

1. Consider leaving your Christmas tree out in the yard after the ornaments are removed. Birds and other small wildlife will welcome the chance to take shelter in its branches. Likewise, hang on to as many leaves as possible to provide mulch for the soil and shelter for small animals. And refrain from cleaning out the dead stalks and seed heads on flowers such as sunflowers, coneflowers, zinnias and other seed-producing plants.

2. If squirrels are a problem at your birdfeeder, consider serving “hot meats,” sunflowers soaked in hot chili peppers. The squirrels will stay away, but birds, which lack capacity for taste, won’t know the difference.

3. Go ahead and clean out the bird house now rather than waiting for spring, so that birds – and possibly other creatures – will have a place to escape the chill.

4. Offer meal worms as a high protein source that provides a boost of energy in frigid temperatures.

5. Corn and peanuts are always welcomed by backyard wildlife, from squirrels to deer.

6. Build a brush pile in the backyard to provide cover for rabbits, hibernating reptiles and ground-nesting birds. Start with a foundation of larger limbs and add smaller branches, brush and grasses on top for a multi-layered effect.

7. Check to make sure that water sources, such as birdbaths and small ponds, aren’t frozen over. Birds also need water for bathing, especially in winter. Clean feathers do better at insulating their sensitive bodies from the cold weather.

8. Add suet boxes to your bird-feeding regimen. These treats are high in fat and often include other nutritious ingredients, such as berries and nuts.