This Fall and Winter's Habitat to-do List

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Adam Janke
Extension Wildlife Specialist
Iowa State University

While our growing degree days are now firmly in the rear-view mirror and many of our most lauded phenological events – the serenade of the dawn chorus of birds, the stunning blooms of trees in spring, and the tapestry of prairie wildflowers of summer – have come and gone too, we head now into one of the year’s most important chapters for wildlife, and the people who tend their habitat: it’s time to work!

The frozen ground of late fall and early winter make ideal conditions for landowners, land managers, and even home gardeners to make their pieces of Iowa more hospitable to the wild things with whom we share this land. There’s pruning to do, invasive species to control, summer sunlight manipulations to make, and new prairie to plan and plant. Here’s a few tips for thinking through your fall and winter habitat to-do list.

First, sometimes what’s best for wildlife, is what we don’t do! In this case, it’s important to leave what remains from this year’s growing season out for wildlife to use throughout the winter. Flowers in the garden or landscape, roadsides, old barn lots, hay fields you didn’t get that last cutting in, and more can all provide critical food (from seeds and broad-leaved plants) and shelter for wildlife that either have yet to migrate through the state or will spend their winters here with us! So leave the natural areas alone, if you may, with a few important exceptions.

One of these exceptions is to engage in combat this fall and winter with the woody invasive plants under your purview.  Multiflora rose, autumn olive, European buckthorn, burning bush, and Amur honeysuckle are on my most-wanted list. Each of these plants are native to far away places and without natural pests here in Iowa, outcompete our native plants and make it harder for native plants, and the animals that depend on them, to find food and places for their nests or young. The best control tactic for woody invasive plants is to cut and treat them with herbicide, and winter is an ideal time to do so.  

Fall and winter is also a good time to prune in and around the native trees we want to keep. Pruning during the non-growing season is essential to species like oaks, which can otherwise be subject to disease if they’re cut during the growing season. Plus, fall and winter are a great time to find ways to get more sunlight onto to the canopy of mature oaks or hickories (the nut producers in the forest) by thinning out the competing and less desirable trees nearby. Sunlight drives the production of food in forests, so finding ways for more sunlight to hit the canopy of a healthy tree, or hit the ground, especially along edges, can make next summer and fall and many to come more hospitable to wildlife!

Finally, winter is the time mother nature seeds prairie, and that means it’s a good time for you to do the same! Many prairie plants keep their seeds into the late summer, fall, and even winter and then cast them out onto the frozen ground. Humans can mimic that with a practice called frost seeding. Now, prairie planting often takes planning and site preparation, so don’t go planting into a site where you haven’t already made a few plans. But if you have a corner of an old bean field ready to convert to prairie, or an old grass stand that could use some more wildflowers like milkweeds or coneflowers, gather some seed or buy from a local seed dealer and get it on the ground!

There’s dozens more things you could do to do right by wildlife this fall and winter, but hopefully these tips at least get you started. If you want to learn more, check out the resources on our website for more information, or visit your local NRCS office for tips on how to find cost share programs and even regional wildlife biologists to lend a hand! Happy habitat helping!

Date of Publication: 
November, 2023