When we built our home in East Sonora 10 years ago, there was an existing brush pile. It consisted mostly of dead manzanita branches. We added to this pile as we removed more dead wood from other manzanitas on our property. We could see that it provided shelter for some of the many quail we had then and so left the pile undisturbed. In time we saw fewer quail and blamed feral cats for this. We had the large pile removed when we became concerned that it posed a fire danger.
However, it wasn´t long before we had another brush pile. Throughout the year we gather mounds of yard waste including twigs and branches and have decided we like the wildlife habitat this creates. This pile is not close to any structure or under a tree canopy.
According to information from Alabama´s Auburn University, if you want to attract wildlife to your property one of the easiest ways is to build a brush pile. The California Forest Stewardship program tells us that one study found 29 species of birds in brush piles in California oak woodland. Other animals known to inhabit brush piles include rabbits, squirrels, other rodents, and various types of reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates. Songbirds are known to make use of them too.
While haphazard piles of limbs, leaves and twigs, like mine, may be used by wildlife, a carefully constructed brush pile will provide more useful habitat. The idea is to create ground level pathways into the brush with internal spaces where creatures can find a quiet corner or perch safely off the ground. If building a brush pile appeals to you, the best way to start one is with rocks, logs or even pallets. This type of base will elevate the brush, allowing animals to move more freely as they enter or depart. Chances are strong you´ll see quick results when birds of many varieties start using the brush pile. Once completed the pile should be undisturbed. One of my many fall projects will be to build another one using this method.
The Humane Society of the United States offers the following tips for creating a better brush pile. Choose an area with good drainage near a forest edge, along a stream or at the edge or back corner of a property and close to food sources and shrubs. Ideal piles are four to eight feet tall and from 10 to 20 feet in diameter. Brush piles are flammable. They should never be built near structures or under tree canopy. Be sure that the piles are discontinuous, with adequate clearance around each to protect from wildfire.
On larger properties with little natural cover, create three or four brush piles per acre. Plant a pretty vine as an attractive cover for the brush pile or border the pile with wildflowers. Rot and decay are a normal process of brush piles. As they rot, they attract more insects, providing additional food for birds. The piles should be inspected yearly to see if the state of decay is such that a new brush pile should be constructed.
Brush piles should be situated near grassy areas or cultivated lands so that food and nesting habitat can easily be found near the protective cover of the piles. Along woodland borders, one brush pile every 200 to 300 feet will provide adequate cover as well as travel lanes to other areas.
Even at a residence in town, a small brush pile in a corner of the yard will attract birds without being a nuisance or an eyesore. A few square feet in the corner or in a flowerbed can work well.
Raking up a small amount of leaves for the brush pile can add to its versatility. Bugs grow in decaying leaves. Birds feed on the bugs. Some grass clippings on the ground, along with the leaves, may bring red worms and night crawlers.
I hope you will be inspired to use the brush pile method of attracting wildlife to your home. See you in the garden.
Nina Bynum has been gardening in the foothills for 12 years. She became a master gardener in 1996.