Winter is a pretty big deal for our wildlife friends. The temperatures drop so rapidly that the littlest creatures must struggle to keep warm, and the bigger ones must find enough food to get through the night. Fresh water for drinking and bathing freezes over, grasses die off and other sources of food either get buried by huge blankets of snow or freeze solid. Insects hibernate or die off, and as a result, many animals struggle to find enough sustenance to stay alive.

This time of year is indeed very bleak for many animals, but there is a way we can help them – just a few simple yet vitally important actions can mean the difference between life and death during the harsher periods. Some of these tips are absolutely free – such as ensuring there is a source of water for wildlife – and yet they make all the difference.

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1. Feeding the Birds (and Squirrels!)

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While it is beneficial to feed our birds all year round (not white bread, though), the most important time of year is winter, when berries and seeds have all been eaten or have begun to rot, insects are hidden deep under the frozen earth, and extra energy is needed to keep warm both during the chilly days and the sub-zero nights. A good selection of mixed seeds is ideal for almost all birds that will hungrily visit your garden or balcony, and provides a lot of nutrition as well as being pretty cheap to buy. This time of year, birds will also benefit from fat – which can come in a variety of sources. The most common types are plant-based suet, which can be bought as cakes or in balls in many flavors to attract different species. Saturated fat is incredibly important for birds due to their high-energy lifestyles, so you can also leave out fresh coconut – just make sure it isn’t desiccated, as this is not only high in added sugars but actually swells up inside a bird’s stomach, which can kill them. A coconut cut in half and strung up makes a great cheap feeder.

Another great natural source of fat is nuts – peanuts are a firm favorite of blue tits, robins, and woodpeckers if you are lucky. These can either be scattered on a food tray, or can be placed in wire mesh feeders, which is probably a safer option as it further decreases the likelihood that a bird may choke, allowing them to peck away at the nuts in bite-sized portions and preventing some of the greedier birds from simply cramming their mouths full. If you don’t have a feeder, crush the nuts first, and scatter them on the tray. Dried fruit can be scattered on the ground to attract songbirds, and are a very good source of sugars and energy.

For other animals, you want to provide high-fat foods that aren’t going to be too unhealthy for your visitors. Cracked corn is a firm favorite among squirrels and chipmunks, but should only be fed throughout the colder months due to the higher fat content.

2. Checking for Life Before Lighting That Fire

One of the most overlooked issues regarding wildlife in the winter is bonfires, log fires, and other similar constructions. During the winter months especially – but all year round – a pile of logs, dead leaves, twigs, dried grasses, and similar natural debris is like a siren call for small creatures. Mice, hedgehogs, frogs, newts, snakes, and lizards seek out holes and hideaways to stay warm and concealed during the colder weather, and a pile of brush makes a perfect home.

Unfortunately, many people don’t consider this when constructing a pile for bonfire night or to simply stay warm and entertain guests on a winter’s evening. This results in many animals dying or being gravely wounded as the structures are set alight. One simple, free and life-changing way you can help animals this winter is to ensure you have checked thoroughly for signs of life before setting fire to any structure. If at all possible, completely rebuild the structure in a different place, just to ensure nobody is hiding or trying to sleep. The same goes for compost heaps, which make lovely moist warm homes in winter – check them carefully before you turn them with a sharp pitchfork or spade!

3. Provide a Fresh Source of Water for Thirsty Animals

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It may seem cold and wet outside but wild animals need to drink and bathe just as they would in the hotter months. With thick ice locking away vital moisture, many animals struggle to stay hydrated and alive. One free, simple way you can help animals this winter is by providing a source of clean drinking water every day – leave out a bird bath or bowl and check on it throughout the day, pouring hot water and melting away the sheets of ice or placing a small floating object such as a ball to help keep an open hole for animals to drink from.

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Each morning, smash the ice from your bowls or baths to allow animals to drink, bathe and keep healthy. Remember to be very careful if attempting to break the ice on a fish pond – many fish actually survive better by hibernating under the surface of the ice, so you may be better of leaving well alone. Additionally, smashing the ice or pouring boiling water into the pond will harm the fish and animals living in it. Providing a different source of water for thirsty animals instead is a safer option!

4. Consider Planting Fruit-Bearing Trees and Shrubs to Provide a Natural Source of Food

This one takes a bit more effort and dedication, but if this option is available to you, it really does make an amazing difference for wild animals. Not only does shrubbery provide homes for animals and insects all year round, but they are a valuable source of natural food, especially those that fruit in the winter such as holly, apple trees, cotoneasters, and firethorns. The beautiful blossom will cheer up your garden with a burst of color, provide energy for pollinating insects, and keep other animals well-fed and happy with their burdens of fruit.

5. Donate Food and Supplies to Your Local Wildlife Refuge

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Winter is such a busy time of year for wildlife rehabilitators, who often are swamped with hundreds of hedgehogs and other small animals who are too lightweight to be released in the cold weather. Typically, these animals have either struggled to eat enough to safely hibernate in the previous season, or were woken up mid-hibernation and put into danger due to the sudden demands their body and the elements places on them. You can help ease the stress of dedicated carers by volunteering to help care, feed and weigh all of the animals, or by donating canned food, and other delicious titbits that will help underweight animals fatten up nicely. Heat pads are also needed this time of year to keep animals snug, and blankets, towels, newspapers and pillowcases are also highly sought after.

Lead image source: Jim Sorbie/Flickr