The cashier at Lowe's clearly thought I was crazy. "How do you cook these?" She asked. "They're hard as a rock. And they don't look very tasty." She was eyeing the 20 pound bag of dried corn cobs I'd just bought.
"I don't cook them," I told her. "I put them out in the backyard for the squirrels to eat. They love them."
"You feed the squirrels?" she asked in amazement. She literally took a step backwards, as if such insanity might be catching.
"Yes, of course, and the raccoons, and the possums and well, anyone else who wants to stop by." The truth is, I try to make my yard a wildlife refuge, especially in the cold winter months here in the northeast, where woodland creatures have a hard time finding food.
I realize a lot of people don't agree with my project, especially when deer from the neighboring state park invade us during the summer. Do they eat my shrubs and flowering plants? Yes, sometimes. Do I care? Heck no! The animals were here way before the developers so I figure they're more entitled to the land than I am. My name may be on the deed, but they've been here for hundreds of years.
I'm fortunate that our lot is very "woodsy," and we've let the backyard go "natural." The soil is clay, not dirt and there are so many drainage problems, it's almost impossible to grow anything. So I decided to turn a negative into a positive. I turned my backyard into a wildlife haven!
Since my 8 rescued cats are all indoor cats, we have raccoons, squirrels, rabbits and mice as regular visitors. They really have no natural predators and my cats love to sit on the sun porch and watch their antics. Some of the braver "critters" come right up on the deck and peer inside. And if I'm late putting out their "buffet" (nuts, berries, peanut butter crackers, apples and dried corn) they cluster in front of the glass sliders waiting for dinner time. (The food's good and it's free, no wonder they like to eat at my house.)
I also save Christmas trees, potted plants and tree branches to make "shelters" for the outdoor animals. You'd be surprised how rabbits and squirrels love to burrow inside and make a warm den for their babies.
If you'd like to do the same with your backyard, here are a few tips to get you started.
*Don't follow the typical gardener's advice to "cut back, cut back!" in the Fall. Let it go, you can clean it up in the Spring. In the Fall garden, there are plenty of tall stalks topped with seeds, and trees drop nuts and fruits on the ground. The birds will thank you! You can make a cool bird feeder with a coat hanger and some fruit slices. And keep the bird bath filled with water, preferably warm water it so it will freeze less quickly.
*Migrating birds flying along the Atlantic coast rely on fruits and seeds to sustain them on their way. Native birds need the same nutrients to help them survive the bitter winter. Asters and goldenrod make great food sources for songbirds, so please leave them until the Spring.
*Dying plants provide shelter for small mammals, so please leave them. To you, they may look "messy," but to a small woodland creature, it's home. Mammals and small birds use these withering plants as a place to hide and keep warm. Insects use them for hibernation.
*Plants with hollow stalks can shelter native bees and other insects.
*Instead of bundling and disposing of branches and debris, try stacking them out of sight in the garden. Piles of brush give small animals place to hide from predators and a cache to store their food. Squirrels will hide their seeds and nuts in brush piles so they can find them later, when the yard is covered in deep snow.
Try these simple tips and more animals will make it through the winter. After all, you like having a cozy home and they do too!
by Mary Kennedy