Little things, like leaving brush piles and unraked leaves, can provide shelter to animals in a harsh season.
Whenever I look out the window at the tangled state of my now-dead garden beds, and the thick mat of fallen leaves that I never got around to cleaning up or mulching with the lawn mower, I remind myself that the wild animals probably love me, even if my neighbors are less than impressed.
You see, shirking on yard cleanup is probably one of the rare ways in which procrastinating serves a higher purpose. The messier your yard, the more shelter is provided to animals during the winter. In fact, you can take this to the next level by purposely setting up your yard to provide maximal hiding and nesting spots for all the critters in your neighborhood.The first step is not to rake the leaves. We've written about this before on TreeHugger; as leaves break down, they provide a natural mulch that suppresses weed growth and fertilizes the soil. Additionally, they offer a cozy place for small animals to hunker down and hide. This is particularly relevant if leaves are left in flower beds; avoid raking these out until spring.
Leave standing plant stems in the flower beds. Some insects crawl inside these to overwinter. When you do cut them down, Discover Wildlife recommends leaving them in a stack on the ground to allow hibernating insects to emerge. Avoid deadheading plants because some birds and rodents might be able to raid them for seeds. In the future, plant late-flowering species for this very purpose.
Keep an ice-free source of water in your yard, such as a small pond or bird bath. If you see ice forming, break it or pour hot water over top. If you have a pond, put a few tiles in the bottom under which frogs can shelter.
Supplement animals' sparse winter diets with some simple offerings, i.e. pinecones smeared in nut butter, dried corn cobs, suet, and birdseed in a feeder or sprinkled on the ground.
Plant shrubs and hedges on your property – evergreen-type species that offer good shelter when all the deciduous trees have shed their leaves. My home has a hefty ancient cedar hedge along two sides and I see many animals moving in and out of it, especially rabbits and cardinals.
Leave piles of brush if you've trimmed trees or bushes. Woodpiles are another prime spot. An old article from Insteading says,
"Wood piles are equally exceptional as places of shelter and of play for all sorts of animals; wrens seem to be particularly fond of the little cubbyholes and caverns formed by piled logs. Even piles of leaves can become useful for wildlife. All of these provide not only shelter but also food, since insects will congregate–making for an easy harvest!"
If year-round brush piles aren't your style, build some cute birdhouses. The Spruce has lots of detailed ideas and explains the difference between roost boxes, roost pockets, and winter bird houses. (I didn't realize there were such differences!) Position them to face south to get maximal sunshine, paint dark to absorb the most heat and to camouflage from predators.