Garden animals in winter: how to help?

Squirrel sitting in the snow

With a few tricks you can easily support animals in winter [Photo: VOJTa Herout/]

Freezing cold, icy wind and little food – winter presents native animals with a special challenge. Birds in particular flee south for this reason, where conditions are better in winter. The animals that stay in the garden in winter, on the other hand, go into hibernation or adapt to the harsher environmental conditions. Especially the low food supply and the lack of retreat possibilities in the garden present them with extraordinarily difficult problems, which fortunately can be solved by us humans with a few simple tricks. To find out the best way to keep them warm in winter, click here.

In winter, the garden often seems empty and uninhabited. In fact, few animals make the journey south – only migratory birds such as swallows and warblers, and some butterfly species such as the admiral, make the arduous journey. Most other animals, however, stay in the garden and try to brave the winter here.

These animals hibernate in the garden

The most present are probably the resident birds like sparrows, robins or magpies, which present their acrobatic flying skills in the garden even in winter. Squirrels and raccoons can also be seen on the lawn from time to time, when they awaken from their winter dormancy to fill their stomachs. Hedgehogs and dormice are almost never seen in winter, because they hibernate well hidden – nevertheless they are often unnoticed guests in the garden.

If you can offer an old barn or a dark shed, in winter you can also host the bat, which avoids snow and cold as far as possible. Even reptiles, amphibians and insects often hibernate quietly in our gardens: toads and lizards seek shelter in holes in the ground, bumblebees remain in their burrows and wild bees like to spend the winter in dead wood. Only the ladybugs can become really annoying: Attracted by the warmth, they often find themselves in the cracks around windows and infiltrate our homes.

Raccoons actually hibernate, but occasionally make an appearance in the yard [Photo: Phil Lowe/]

Make your garden wildlife-friendly in winter

As different as the various garden animals may be, especially in winter many have the same requirements. A good thing – gardeners who want to make their property wildlife-friendly in winter can make several species happy at the same time. Plants such as the rowan (Sorbus aucuparia) or wild roses (Pink), which also bear fruit in winter, not only look beautiful, but also provide a good source of food for birds and other herbivores.

You make many animals really happy, however, if you don’t keep your garden meticulously tidy: Natural gardens with piles of leaves, dead wood and perennials that have not been cut back are ideal hiding places for insects, but birds or hedgehogs also find suitable winter quarters here. Garden huts and tool sheds are also particularly popular – insects such as ladybugs and butterflies, as well as dormice and bats, like to use these warm places for protection from the elements.

In piles of leaves, many animals find a natural protection from the weather [Photo: Pankratov Yuriy/]

Helping hedgehogs in winter

Hedgehogs are welcome guests in the garden, after all they not only look funny, but also love to eat pests such as slugs and snails. In winter, however, the hedgehog is dependent on our help, because he needs suitable quarters to be able to hibernate. Piles of leaves and brushwood are his favorite place of retreat, so it is worth not removing all the leaves in the garden – so you can provide a suitable shelter for hedgehogs. However, dense hedges or a warm garden shed can also be suitable hiding places for hedgehogs under certain circumstances.

If you want to be on the safe side, you can also buy a hedgehog house from a specialist retailer or build one yourself: The brick house is a perfect protection against cold and weather due to its insulation and can also be integrated inconspicuously in small gardens. However, you should never check whether your house is really inhabited – if hedgehogs are woken up from their hibernation and driven out of their hiding place, this can be a death sentence for the animals. If you find particularly small hedgehogs in late autumn, however, a look at the scales can’t hurt: Animals weighing less than 500 grams will not survive the winter on their own and should be fed up before hibernation in consultation with the wildlife help center. However, milk should not be used – even though it is often recommended as food for hedgehogs, it is not suitable for the animals and can even make them ill. See our special article on helping hedgehogs in autumn for more information.

Hedgehog sits in little house

A small hut provides the hedgehog with quarters for hibernation [Photo: Coatesy/]

Helping birds in winter

Blue tit, robin and wren – not all birds spend the winter in the warm south. But winter also presents the feathered neighbors with some problems, because food in particular is often scarce, even in bird-friendly gardens. Therefore, it is advisable to support the birds that stay here in the winter with some food: A homemade bird feeder in the garden is ideal to provide the animals with some food and at the same time offers the opportunity to observe the interesting creatures more closely. Make sure, however, that the bird house is installed as cat-proof as possible, because otherwise the kindly meant help quickly becomes a death trap. Also tit dumplings in the net are a possible source of danger, because the animals can tangle themselves in these – better is the choice of feed spirals, which can be hung likewise into the trees.

Our Plantura tit dumplings therefore do not require any plastic netting at all. The energy-rich dumplings also consist of pure insect fat as well as valuable nuts, berries and seeds – for rich feeding of wild birds.

Small tip: A good basic food, which is eaten by almost all species of birds, are sunflower seeds. But not only food is lacking for many birds, also natural retreats such as caves and niches are scarce. Remedy create here Nistkasten, which are used by the birds not only gladly for brooding, but also as weather protection in the winter. Who wants to create new quarters for its garden birds, should not wait with it until the spring, but already in the autumn a suitable location look for.

Robin sits in feeder

In winter, many birds rely on supplemental feeding [Photo: AdamEdwards/]

Help squirrels in winter

Squirrels are especially in autumn great co-inhabitants in the garden: In search of food, the lively animals flit from tree to tree and can be observed particularly well. Reason for the elaborate search for food is the approaching winter. Squirrels don’t hibernate in their cavity, only hibernate, so they need to stock up on energy-rich food to get them through the cold season. Already a walnut tree (Juglans regia) or a hazelnut bush (Corylus avellana) can help the small animals replenish their food reserves. Even better, however, is a food box for squirrels: Stocked with nuts and seeds, it helps the cute animals over shortages in winter and ensures a sufficient food supply.

Squirrel sitting on feeder

A bird feeder can help squirrels a lot in winter [Photo: Katrin85/]

Bees help in winter

Bees are probably the best known beneficial insects that can be found in a garden, and are therefore gladly supported by gardeners. Especially in winter, the animals are dependent on the help of humans: While honey bees can return to their hive, wild bees often lack natural retreats. Since many wild bee species hibernate in hollow stems or dead wood, it’s worth skipping the fall garden cleanup for once and allowing faded perennials and old wood a place in the garden.

Also suitable for overwintering in the garden are insect hotels – these should ideally be located as sheltered from the wind as possible. By the way, you can tell if the individual tunnels inside the insect hotel are occupied by the seal the insects put on at the entrance to their cabin. But you can also do something for wild bees before winter: ivy (Hedera helix) is ideal for offering bees a last feast before the exhausting winter due to its late bloom.

TipMore about what bees do in winter, you can read in our special article.

Insect hotel on snowy meadow

Insect hotels are also popular in winter [Photo: Uellue/]

Help butterflies and ladybugs in winter

Butterflies in Germany have very different tactics to survive frost and cold in winter. Some species like the thistle butterfly make their way south, others overwinter as eggs or larvae and some even as adult moths. In order for butterflies like the swallowtail, which hangs as a chrysalis close to the ground, to survive the winter, it is worthwhile not to cut back a few plants, but to leave them standing over the winter.

The peacock butterfly, which hibernates as an adult butterfly, is just as happy to have a warm place as the ladybug: piles of brushwood or leaves offer the animals protection, but the garden shed is also a popular place of retreat. In order for the animals to find shelter, it is advisable to leave windows or skylights open a crack in spring and autumn. The lemon butterfly, on the other hand, needs no special help – thanks to its natural frost protection, the delicate butterfly can even survive temperatures as low as -20 °C. For detailed information on how butterflies overwinter, see our special article.

In winter, the peacock butterfly likes to seek out warm places like the garden shed [Photo: oFFsoRRy/]

Helping amphibians in winter

Even though toads and frogs are definitely not everyone’s favorite, they are a real asset in the garden, after all, they eat all kinds of pests. To make sure that these useful animals survive the winter well, you can help them with a few tricks. Toads crawl into frost-free piles of leaves and compost as well as burrows in winter. Who can offer these elements in his garden, ensures that the survival chances of the animals increase considerably.

Unfortunately, the search for suitable accommodation is also the greatest risk of danger for the small animals: during the so-called toad migration, numerous animals die while crossing roads in their search for suitable winter quarters, others crawl into cellar shafts and do not manage to free themselves under their own power in the springtime. Remedy can be special catch fences, which either separate the street from the property or close possible cellar hiding places.

In winter, toads retreat into holes in the ground [Photo: samray/]

Many frog species, on the other hand, hibernate in water, for example at the bottom of a garden pond. It should be noted that the pond must be at least one meter deep – this is the only way to guarantee that it will not freeze over completely, even in severe frost. A good oxygen saturation in the water is also important, which can be achieved by a running filter pump or by reeds or special underwater plants when the water surface is frozen. Breaking up the top layer of ice, on the other hand, should be avoided, as this causes stress to the animals and can thus mean their deaths.

If you are now further interested in the protection of animals in the garden, here are our 8 tips for nature conservation in the garden.

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Garden animals in winter: how to help?


I studied agricultural science and am a real village child. At home, I have a small vegetable garden that I tend and enjoy spending time outside. When I’m not outdoors, I’m passionate about writing. My love is not only for plants and writing, however, but also especially for wildlife.
Favorite fruit: currants and raspberries.
Favorite vegetables: salsify, savoy cabbage and potatoes.

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