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Raking leaves can be a never-ending fall chore. From the time the first leaves begin to turn brilliant shades of yellow, orange, and red to when the last leaves blow away from bare boughs, there can be weeks filled with raking, bagging, and hauling. Yet all that back-breaking work is unnecessary. Leaving fallen leaves to decay naturally in your yard can provide many benefits to backyard birds and other wildlife.
Understanding leaf litter starts with understanding that it is much more than just leaves. Leaf litter goes by many names – litterfall, duff, forest litter, and mast. As the material decomposes, it is often referred to as humus. A wide variety of rich organic materials make up leaf litter. While leaves are often the largest and most visible component of the detritus, it can also include:
The exact makeup of leaf litter in your yard will depend on the plants you have, how you maintain your yard, and what other materials are available nearby that birds or other wildlife might bring to your yard. No matter what its composition, however, leaf litter can be a valuable material for all types of birds.
Different birds use leaf litter in different ways. Ground-foraging birds such as doves, pheasants, turkeys, thrashers, thrushes, and sparrows may root through the material seeking out insects, seeds, or bits of fruit. Corvids such as jays and crows may use leaf litter to cache seeds and nuts, hiding their treats in the loose material and using nearby debris to hide the special spot. Any birds building nests, including warblers, may use different bits of leaf litter as nesting material. Even hunting birds, such as bluebirds, kingbirds, and flycatchers, will study leaf litter as they look for beetles, grubs, and worms. Shy birds like towhees and quail may hide themselves in leaf litter, using the material as camouflage to stay safe from nearby predators.
Birds aren’t the only wildlife that takes advantage of the natural bounty of leaf litter. In addition to the insects that thrive in fallen leaves, many salamanders, toads, snakes, and turtles are right at home in leaf litter. Elk, deer, raccoons, skunks, squirrels, chipmunks, and even bears will also forage through leaf litter to seek out tasty morsels.
With leaf litter providing so many resources to wildlife, it’s a great idea to keep those leaves in your yard. In many suburban areas and homeowner associations, however, it may not be permitted to completely abstain from raking leaves. You could face fines or other penalties for not removing leaves in a timely manner. In that case, you can take steps to use leaves in healthy, bird-friendly ways while keeping a tidier yard.
Whether you use all your leaf litter yourself or share it with others, there are simple ways you can make your autumn debris even more amazing. First, be sure you have a diverse array of plants in your yard, which will create better biodiversity in the resulting leaf litter. Avoid using herbicides, pesticides, or other sprays as much as possible, so fallen material will not be chemically contaminated. Consider sprinkling a little birdseed on the leaves to attract even more birds to the bounty. You’ll be amazed at how many different birds and other visitors enjoy every leaf you leave in your yard.