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Wildlife in Your Winter Garden

by Marci Hayden

Silicon Valley doesn’t exactly have true winter weather, but due to the many micro-climates and hills and valleys, we find occasional pockets of frost in our yards this time of year, and partially iced-over ponds and lakes are bound to crop up at higher elevations in the Sierra foothills. Any degree or duration of winter presents challenges for wildlife.

Think About the Critters

Most everything we do has a positive or negative effect on wildlife. Growing berries and fall fruiting plants isn’t enough; there are other important factors to consider. On wildlife excursions during the winter months, the place to start is in your own backyard.

When the weather is really bad, humans stay indoors. A lot of animals avoid the worst weather, too. Chipmunks, skunks, raccoons and opossums don’t hibernate, but they do stay under cover and will nap during the coldest parts of winter. Their naps might even last weeks. Then as soon as the weather warms up, they venture out.

If you go looking for wildlife during wintertime, remember that even the best-intentioned environmental enthusiasts can harm or kill animals just by observing them. Coming up close to animals to get a better look at them usually causes animals to run. This flight reaction uses up their valuable energy and fat stores during the season when food can be scarce. The movement to escape from us, as a potential predator, or even the fear generated by human disturbance, speeds the loss of fat reserves and decreases the chances of an animal’s survival.


  • Be especially sensitive to the needs of animals during wintertime. Stop, and then go around them or wait for them to move. Avoid any close contact with wildlife. Minimize noise.
  • Help animals conserve their food supplies. Avoid damaging brush, bushes, trees and even grass. Less nutritional food is available in the winter when some California plantings go dormant.

Other Ways to Help Wildlife

  • Respect wildlife’s privacy. Stay on established paths. View birds and other animals from a distance.
  • Keep dogs on a lead or in your yard.
  • Put a bell on your cat and keep inside (most especially at night).
  • Check your chimney for opossums before lighting a fire.
  • Fall and early winter are the best times of year to sow a packet or two of wildflower seeds. Birds love wildflowers.
  • Grow California native plants which provide food and shelter for nature’s animals.

Remember in December:

  • Buy red cedar, holly or pine for your Christmas tree now and to plant later on.
  • It’s the best month for waterfowl watching on wetlands, lakes and prairies.

Washington State Parks Winter Wildlife
California Fish and Game
Las Pilitas Nursery

Wildlife Center of Silicon Valley
3027 Penitencia Creek Road
San Jose, CA 95132
1-408-929-9453 (929-WILD)

Hours: 9 am to 5 pm, 7 days a week
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