By Katie Finch

I recently moved into a new house. Big changes like that bring turbulence to the routines of life, but things slowly start to settle into place again. Now it is starting to feel less strange and more comfortable, more like my own.

In this time of settling down, I look around at my new space, outside of the immediate house. My new habitat is more country than town. My neighbor is a cornfield and my yard is mostly lawn. There are a few medium to large trees: one Honey Locust, one Box Elder, two Crab Apples, three American Elms, and four White Pines.

It is not the yard of my dreams. I think of it more as a desert with its lack of plants and accompanying animals. But that’s not very fair to a desert, which is an ecosystem that supports an array of living things in its own way. In my lawn, I expected White-tailed Deer and mice to cross over from the field and House Sparrows from the large open building next door, maybe even a rabbit or a robin.

Hopeful, I put out bird feeders near a line of forsythia bushes and watched. It took two days for birds to find the proffered food. First the Black-capped Chickadees flew in. (They always seem to be the first to arrive somewhere new or return after a disturbance.) Dark-eyed Juncos, Northern Cardinals, and, as expected, House Sparrows arrived next.

Fox Sparrows visit only during the spring and fall migrations. Photo by Jeff Tome.

For two days, a single Fox Sparrow fed on the ground. I watched it below the feeders doing its typical two-legged hops, one forward then one back, as it looked for seeds. This bird’s presence pleasantly surprised me. They nest farther north into Canada and are usually seen in our region in winter or as they are passing through to warmer scrubland and forests.

Soon, more of the regular winter bird feeder visitors showed up. Three Blue Jays, raucous and pushy appeared one day, shoving the smaller birds away. A few Mourning Doves stopped, but only for a bit. Two House Finches and the next day, two Goldfinches monopolized the squirrel proof feeder perches. I dropped my fork full of mashed potatoes on Thanksgiving when a Coopers Hawk flew into the yard and landed on the broken bird bath next to the feeders. It chased after the smaller birds but ended up with empty talons.

I know and can report all this because I started writing it down. When I sit to eat breakfast or have a few moments to pause, I record what I see in the yard. I want it for baseline data. I want to know what I’m starting with. I don’t plan on leaving my yard a lawn with a few trees. I want to grow it into more of a habitat and a place, not only for myself but for the other creatures I share the world with. I’m recording what happens now because I want a measure of the effects of that change.

I am predicting, with quite a bit of research and experience to back me up, that as I change the plant life in my yard, the animal life will change too. Plants are the foundation of the food chain. In the small bit of space I have, I predict I can invite more insects and more birds into my space. Some creatures may visit for a short time to get a part of what they need to survive, like the Fox Sparrow. For others, such as some moths or butterflies, it may be for their entire lifecycle.

It seems daunting at times. Is it possible to have the yard look cared for while also providing habitat? What plants are best in this location to achieve this goal? How many resources – time, money, knowledge, and effort – will this take? Do I have it? What do I do first? What will grow? What will fail? What will the deer eat down to the ground?

It seems a strange time to talk of yard work and planting as we enter into winter. However, every big idea needs a plan. And way to start with something manageable while keeping the big ideas. And winter is a great time to plan. In the world of gardening, winter is a time for researching, dreaming and planning.

I like to browse through the bright blooms of flowers and ripe fruit in seed catalogs during these early nights. I find pleasure picking through the shelves of the library to bring home books on landscaping. There is comfort in curling up with a blanket and my computer to look through web resources such as the National Wildlife Federation. Their Wildlife Habitat program provides the knowledge and resources for homeowners to improve the quality of habitat in their yard. (Visit for more information.)

As a new homeowner, I want to care for my home, but also those we share the world with. To everything there is a season. There is a season for change and new things. There is a season for holding on to the old. In this chilly, dark season, I want to plan for a brighter growing season. Starting small, but dreaming big. In winter, gardening is not over. It is just a time to look forward.

Audubon Community Nature Center builds and nurtures connections between people and nature. ACNC is located just east of Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails are open from dawn to dusk and birds of prey can be viewed anytime the trails are open. The Nature Center is open from 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. daily except Sunday when it opens at 1 p.m. More information can be found online at or by calling (716) 569-2345.