As we enter the winter months, the temptation for us is to retreat into our homes and stay warm. But for our outdoor animal friends, keeping warm and safe during the winter looks very different!
Gwendolyn Hoogendoorn, Vice President for the Ohio Wildlife Rehabilitators Association, shared some tips on how we can help outdoor animals–cats and birds in particular– as we proceed through winter.
For domestic cats, the safest place to be is indoors year-round. However, if that’s not possible, or you are caring for stray or feral cats, Hoogendoorn offers this insight.
“Shelter is critical in the winter months. Equally important is accessible water and food,” she said. “There are several useful ways to provide inexpensive, yet suitable shelter whether you have covered space or open area.”
If you have the means to purchase and support a canvas, heated home, you can find options at Chewy.com and Amazon. These require a covered area with an electric source and Hoogendoorn said cats love them. However, there are lower cost options using materials you have at home.
If moisture is not an issue, and you have a barn, open-door shed, covered porch or deck that is well-protected from the elements, a cardboard box can be used.
“Close the box and tape it to stabilize. Then cut an opening in the side; large enough for an adult cat, and stuff with plenty of straw. The cats will make a nest and pack down the straw. Feral cats are shy and don’t like to be in wide open spaces especially when they are at their most vulnerable (while sleeping). So, place the boxes in corners, near escape routes or an area where they are less likely to feel threatened. If there are multiple cats, use multiple boxes. If they don’t care for each other, place the boxes as far apart as possible to avoid unnecessary confrontation. This goes for feeding as well,” said Hoogendoorn.
If a moisture-free area is not available, she suggests making a shelter out of plywood (you can have the hardware store cut it into six pieces if you don’t have a large saw). Construct a simple box by nailing the pieces together, and cut a hole big enough for a cat to get through on one side. She emphasizes that filling these shelters with straw will keep the animals warm. If blankets/towels are used, they can freeze. Then cover the shelter with a tarp to keep the wood from soaking.
Styrofoam and plastic tubs are also options, but make sure to anchor them and try to place them in covered areas. She said styrofoam is by far the warmest, but make sure to really anchor it down, and use packing/duct tape to secure the lid of the styrofoam container. Don’t forget to cut an opening in the side.
While plastic tubs work, they can get very cold, so Hoogendoorn said that lining a plastic tub throughout with styrofoam will insulate it.
“If putting a cat house outside, try to place it in a protected area. Take notice of which way the wind blows (typically from West to East) and position the opening away from that. Also, make certain to place on higher ground versus low areas where water accumulates. If I worry about flooding, I will place it on a pallet or 4×4 wood blocks to keep it up off the ground,” she said.
For outdoor feeding, Hoogendoorn offers this advice:
“Place food in a protected area from snow and rain. Staying warm burns up a lot of metabolic energy so animals tend not to move around needlessly in the winter months. This is difficult when you’re hungry. Offering a little help to get through the misery of winter can make a huge difference in the life of an animal. Dry food is usually your best choice for much needed calories. When you are supplemental feeding, just remember… ALL animals are cold and hungry, not just the ones you specifically want to feed,” she stressed. “Don’t get upset when that skinny little raccoon has found an easy meal. He’s not trying to make you mad (by) eating the food you set out for the cat, he’s just trying to survive.”
Hoogendoorn said their center gets a lot of calls about visiting raccoons eating outdoor cat food. She recommends putting cat food out in the morning and taking it in at night if you want to keep raccoons at bay.
While raccoons will seek shelter in your garage or shed, she explained she doesn’t often see them getting into cat shelters since they prefer to be up high vs low to the ground.
However, she has seen another familiar critter taking refuge in her shelters: the opossum. Neither the opossum nor the raccoon hibernates, and the opossum is susceptible to frostbite because of their delicate ears and bare tail. Because they eat ticks, grubs and even venomous snakes, she welcomes them into her shelters, even providing additional boxes for them.
For those who like to watch birds throughout the winter, Hoogendoorn suggests options to keep them well fed.
“I like to wait until after the holidays and stock up on left over holiday walnuts, pecans and almonds. These bags are usually 50 cents after the holidays and are great for marauding squirrels. Going into winter, I ‘leave my leaves.’ Decomposing leaves not only provide much needed nutrients to the soil, giving your lawn and gardens fertile space but, they harbor insects which help support migrating birds stopping for a quick meal and resident birds through the winter,” she said.
She adds that not all birds are seed eaters (such as Robins and Blue Birds), so she leaves her native plants standing for the birds. If you do wish to use a feeder, make sure it is cleaned regularly.
“Birds congregate at feeders where sickness spreads. Think about when you go to a heavily populated area and everyone is passing around colds… it’s the same for birds. Conjunctivitis is a common issue with finches and sparrows. Simply washing the feeders in soapy water goes a long way to reducing the spread of germs/disease. Spacing feeders helps too,” she said.
While bird houses – which should be up high enough away from predators, and facing away from prevailing winds – can be helpful, she said not all birds prefer to use them.
Toni Stahl, a National Wildlife Federation Certified Wildlife Habitat program volunteer, trains people on how to care for wildlife in their yards by teaching them about native and invasive plants, and how to care for the yards sustainably. Her Nature Scoop newsletters are full of helpful information on taking care of wildlife. (To subscribe check out www.backyardhabitat.info.)
Recently she highlighted tips for taking care of birds this winter, such as brushing snow away from leaves so birds can scratch around and find winter food and covering the tops of bird feeders to keep seed dry and accessible. Additionally, she notes, a Robin’s soft beak makes it difficult for the bird to break through ice, and crack seed shells. In the winter, berries are either scarce or frozen. To help the birds, Stahl recommends putting ice-free water 10-15 feet from cover and offering sunflower seed chips with shell removed, cranberries, or broken up suet.
Stahl stresses the importance of feeding birds high-fat foods until insects return. Birds can only feed their babies insects (even Hummingbird babies need insects), since baby birds can’t eat seeds, she explained. Both black-oil sunflower seed chips (without a shell) and pieces of suet are high-fat foods according to www.backyardhabitat.info.
Keeping water sources available to birds (and mammals) is critical, too. Duncraft and Wild Birds Unlimited offer heated bird baths to keep birds comfortable all winter. Stahl recommends keeping snow off of the edges of the bird bath with a soft brush.
According to Hoogendoorn, for those who live near waterfowl, cracked corn and waterfowl pellets are good food options. Visit your local feed store for cracked corn, which will be less expensive than a grocery or hardware store.
However, “feeding bread is extremely unhealthy and has zero nutrition. Not only does it lead to malnutrition and birth defects of ducklings but, moldy breads can lead to death,” she said. Also, because domesticated and wild ducks cohabitate, keep in mind the domesticated ducks do not have as much experience foraging for food.
Lastly, both Stahl and Hoogendoorn promote planting native plants to help encourage insects and help wildlife thrive.
“Robins tend to be one of those birds I worry about. When I was a kid, it was a huge deal to see the first Robins of Spring. Now they never seem to leave. Robins are not big seed eaters… When unexpected snow storms hit and the birds cannot get to the ground for many days to search under the leaves for bugs, we tend to see emaciated, dying Robins,” Hoogendoorn said. “I encourage people to forgo those non-native plants which look pretty but do nothing to support our wildlife. Instead, plant a crabapple or two, some native holly bushes, hackberry, serviceberry and dogwood. These help sustain our native birds.” —Liz Hosfeld