The Buzz

The best trees to plant to attract winter wildlife

A northern flicker sitting in the branches of a crabapple tree dusted with snow.
(Photo via Shutterstock)

Spring may be the time for planting, but if you want to keep your yard a top destination for wildlife all year long, you need to think about how to meet their needs in winter when planting this spring. 

Winter can be a quiet time in our yards, but it doesn't have to be if landscaping is designed with the season in mind. Wild animals need the same things we do for survival: food, water and shelter. When planned properly, adding trees and other plants to your landscape can help you meet two of these three needs — food and shelter — all year long. 

In winter, it's mainly birds we are going to be attracting, but a yard full of trees and shrubs may attract other wildlife as well. Once trees become established, squirrels may use their branches as part of their neighborhood highway or may even build a nest high above. Mammals like raccoons may use them as a safe place to escape from potential danger by crawling up the trunk out of harm's way.

When it comes to providing food, trees that produce fruit and nuts can be a bounty for birds and other wildlife. We know squirrels will eat acorns from oak trees and walnuts from walnut trees. Some birds eat these nuts as well, along with seeds and fruit from other trees. However, oak and walnut trees typically grow very large, so they are not always a good choice for our yards. Here's a look at some tree varieties that are suitable for home landscapes and will help keep your yard full of wildlife all year long.

American hornbeam

Among our common native trees, the hornbeam isn't as well-known as some others, but it can be a good choice for yards because it's a small tree, topping out at 30 feet tall and 30 feet wide in the canopy. It can also tolerate full sun or full shade, the Morton Arboretum reports. One drawback for yards, though, is that it is a slow-growing species. Similar to other native trees, it will draw both birds and small mammals throughout the seasons. 

Crabapple trees 

Crabapple trees are a common choice for homeowners looking to add trees to their landscape that flower each spring to add an early pop of color to their yards. Because crabapple trees easily hybridize, hundreds of cultivars are available for purchase, the Morton Arboretum reports. Only a few crabapple species are truly native, however, including the prairie crabapple and American crabapple, also called the sweet crabapple. Both will provide food, shelter and nesting spots for birds and other wildlife. The fruit ripens in summer or fall, but the crabapples will stick around through winter in many cases, providing a reliable food source for many birds.

Downy serviceberry

The downy serviceberry is a good native tree that can add some color to your yard throughout the year while also attracting birds and other wildlife. It's a good choice for residential areas because they don't get too large, topping out at between 15 feet and 25 feet, according to Morton Arboretum. In the spring, their blooms have white flowers, and these transition to small red berries in the summer. Many birds are known to eat the fruit, and the trees can also be a draw for small mammals looking for a meal or a place to take shelter. 

Eastern hemlock

Hemlocks are evergreen trees, which won't lose their leaves — or needles, as the case may be — each winter. This makes them a good choice for including in your home landscape where possible because they have the added benefit of proving a place for shelter — be it for slumber or escaping a predator — all year long. Eastern hemlocks require quite a bit of space, growing to be 40 feet to 70 feet tall and between 25 feet and 35 feet wide, according to Morton Arboretum. They can attract both birds and mammals all year long.

Maple trees

Another common choice for home landscapes are maple trees. They often line the parkways of cities and neighborhoods, providing a splash of fall color before the leaves fall for winter. Many maple species are native to Illinois, and two of the most common are sugar maples and red maples. Both get quite large — up to 80 feet tall for red maples and 100 feet tall for sugar maples, according to the Arbor Day Foundation. Birds and squirrels will use the trees for nesting and shelter, although they aren't commonly used as a food source for wildlife in winter.

River birch

River birches are fast-growing trees, so they are a popular choice for homeowners looking for a tree that will quickly have an impact in their yard. They can grow to be 30 feet to 40 feet tall, with canopies up to 30 feet wide, Morton Arboretum reports. Throughout the year, they can attract songbirds and small mammals, and they also attract pollinating insects at warmer times of the year. 

Washington hawthorn

If you're looking to feed the birds without filling your feeders all winter, a tree like a Washington hawthorn is a good choice. These trees produce small red fruits that typically last into fall, so you'll likely attract birds looking to make an easy meal of the fruit. They are medium-sized trees, reaching heights of between 25 feet and 30 feet with canopies that can be up to 25 feet wide, according to Morton Arboretum.

Planting tips for trees

When planting a tree in your yard, there are a few things to take into consideration, according to the Arbor Day Foundation. First, make sure to check the hardiness of the plant to ensure it is suitable for planting where you live. The USDA maintains a Plant Hardiness Zone Map (Will County is in Zone 5B), and the tree should be tagged or labeled with its hardiness level.

Make sure you also consider how much growing space and sunlight the tree needs. A tree that requires full sun needs at least six hours of sunlight a day, the Arbor Day Foundation advises. Make sure to check how shadows from buildings, trees and other structures may affect sunlight at different times of day. Trees often need more room to grow than we think, and if they are planted too close to buildings, fences and other structures the roots and branches could become problematic. Many trees are labeled with their space requirements, and you can also ask the nursery where you buy the tree how much space it needs to grow properly.

When you're at the nursery selecting a tree, check the trunk for damage and make sure the roots are not exposed, the University of Illinois Extension advises. You should also ask if it has been watered regularly.

The Morton Arboretum maintains a Northern Illinois Tree Species List on its website. There you can look up tree species to determine whether trees are native to Illinois as well as their light and soil requirements, when they flower and what planting spots they will grow best in.

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