Be Your Own Birder

Leave Those Leaves!

I’m no fan of most gardening chores, and whenever I find a good, legitimate reason to avoid the mind-numbing, back-breaking labor of keeping up a perfect garden or lawn, I’m happy to embrace the logic. In that spirit, there’s no better logic than helping birds when it comes to neglecting yard work, and autumn is a wonderful time to start (or rather, stop!).

Fallen Leaves
Fallen Leaves – Photo by Michael Podger

The Richness of Fallen Leaves

Autumn’s fallen leaves lead to one of the top-dreaded lawn care chores, hours and hours of raking, bagging and otherwise collecting and disposing of leaf litter. Leaf litter is much more than just leaves, however. This crunchy, crinkly outdoor carpet includes not only leaves, but also small twigs, dead plant stems, and fallen nuts, berries and fruits. In many communities, this material is collected and discarded to keep landscaping “neat” but leaf litter is vital to birds’ habitat and survival needs throughout the autumn and winter.

  • Many insects, including flies, beetles, and spiders, thrive on leaf litter, and insect-eating birds can feast on the bounty. Earthworms, salamanders, and toads also enjoy leaf litter and can be food for birds, as can the berries, fruits, and nuts that collect with the leaves.
  • The moisture that collects in fallen leaves can be an important water source for ground-dwelling birds. If enough water collects, the birds can drink from puddles in the leaves, and many birds will bathe in the dew that collects on leaf litter.
  • Fallen leaves provide important shelter and camouflage for ground birds. This helps protect birds from predators, and a layer of leaf litter provides insulation against storms and temperature changes that can be fatal to exposed birds.
  • Ground-nesting birds prefer areas rich in leaf litter to raise their young because of the shelter and food available in the fallen leaves. Many other species also pick through leaf litter for nesting materials such as twigs, leaf stems, and mosses.

Birds That Love Fallen Leaves

In North America alone, more than 120 bird species have been observed feeding in or otherwise making use of leaf litter, such as:

  • Common yellowthroats, ovenbirds, and other ground warblers
  • Dark-eyed juncos, white-crowned sparrows, and other ground-feeding sparrows
  • Towhees, including the spotted, eastern, and green-tailed species
  • Northern mockingbirds
  • Thrashers such as California and crissal thrashers
  • Jays and other corvids that eat insects and cache nuts
  • Large thrushes such as the American robin, hermit thrush, and veery
  • Game birds such as wild turkeys, quail, and pheasants

In other areas, similar bird species – thrushes, corvids, game birds, etc. – also thrive with healthy leaf litter.

Hooded Crow in Fall Leaves - Photo by hedera.baltica
Hooded Crow in Fall Leaves – Photo by hedera.baltica

Why You Should Love Fallen Leaves

In addition to being useful to birds, letting fallen leaves lay can be a great help to the yard and garden (how’s that for even more great logic to avoid raking…).

  • Instead of buying mulch and fertilizer, leaf litter can be a free, natural soil supplement for gardens, flower beds, and landscaping.
  • Save hours of labor involved in raking and disposing of leaf litter by simply letting it decay naturally.
  • Leaf litter helps insulate and nourish the roots of plants and trees, keeping them healthier and stronger.
  • Thousands of tons of decaying leaves are added to landfills every year, but using leaf litter instead helps recycle material naturally.

With benefits to birds, landscaping, and the environment, not to mention saving our own time, energy, and sanity, leaf litter is a valuable material that will attract birds, meet their basic needs, and encourage them to stay in bird-friendly landscaping. Put your rake away, don’t bother buying extra trash bags, and just enjoy how beautiful and natural your landscape is with the leaves and the birds that love them.

White-Throated Sparrow Loving the Leaves - Photo by Melissa Johnson
White-Throated Sparrow Loving the Leaves – Photo by Melissa Johnson

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