Winter gardens for wildlife
A winter garden for wildlife is different from an ornamental garden because we do not clean up the former by chopping down the old stalks and removing the litter layer. The old stalks contain seeds that provide sustenance to birds through the most difficult season. The stalks also provide cover that is much appreciated by birds such as Juncos. The leaf litter protects the soil from the extreme cold and encourages the development of fungi beneficial to perennials in the garden. The leaf litter also feeds many ground dwelling insects that may in turn support other animals. Leaf litter also provides a habitat for the pupal stage of butterflies. I rake the leaves off my grass onto my beds. The permanent winter source of leaves is much appreciated by squirrels who consistently add leaves to their dreys to make them larger and more insulating.
Winter gardens for wildlife are a very important food source for wild birds. When I lived in England, I read a startling statistic that claimed up to 80% of wild birds relied on bird feeders for food in urban areas. My message to readers is that wildlife gardens should always provide food, water and shelter. This is no less true in winter. On the contrary, it is more so as winter is the time where other food sources may not be available.
You can feed peanuts, sunflower seeds and suet cakes in winter. These are all fatty foods that birds need at this time of year. Many shrubs have bitter berries which are eaten throughout the winter and can be a lifesaver to birds in early spring before other plants become food sources.
If you have the money, then try a heated bird bath. This is rather an extravagant item but the birds really appreciate it. I felt really guilty one day, when I forgot to turn on the heater and saw the goldfinches pecking away at the ice to try and get a drink. Now I have the bird bath on a timer outlet. Change the water almost daily to prevent disease.
More information is coming. Birds lack winter shelters and it may be a factor that limits bird populations in your area. The shelter differs from a nesting box in that the hole is near the bottom and there are no drainage holes because you want the birds to be as insulated as possible. Birds that cannot find shelter on cold winter nights have a chance of freezing to death. If you want to provide a more natural cover, then you can plant Eastern White Cedar or Eastern Red Cedar. You can also build a brush pile to help certain insects, amphibians and small mammals overwinter.