Value Added Agriculture Program Coordinator
Iowa State University Extension and Outreach
When designing beneficial habitat that houses as well as providing a valuable foraging area for wildlife, brush piles are an often neglected and overlooked aspect of any acreage-improvement habitat design, yet the easiest and least expensive to construct.
All wildlife benefits from appropriate shelter during severe weather episodes, but wildlife also needs shelter for that time of day when creatures need to rest after feeding or sleep. One of the simplest shelters is a brush pile.
For a brush pile to be effective, it needs to have a sizeable volume of material. Before the onset of winter, a great addition includes a topping of balsam, pine or cedar boughs. These, just like for a human emergency survival shelter, provide a wind- and snow-stopping layer that also creates a great little labyrinth for our smallest birds. Not only birds, but many butterflies and other insects overwinter in the shelter of a snug brush pile.
Brush piles, because they shelter birds and small mammals, also attract their predators, so you may catch a rare glimpse of the occasional mink, weasel, or an interesting snake in warmer weather. The “woods hawks” of the family Accipteridae, the Goshawks, Coopers, and little Sharpshins, commonly will set up ambushes near brush piles and other dense tangles of habitat. They will watch from nearby mature trees, usually the concealment of a nearby conifer, then darting in when an unsuspecting junco or sparrow leaves cover. All of these predators are beneficial to any acreage by keeping unwanted rodent populations in check.
A great place to locate a brush pile is within ten to twenty feet of your bird feeders. During severe weather, one will have fun watching songbirds move from cover to the feeding stations.
If you have a backyard garden, consider locating a nearby wren house along with a brush or a woodpile. Wrens love brush piles and cord wood for hunting the tiny invertebrates upon which wrens thrive. As biological-control agents, especially when they have little wrens to feed, wrens will zealously comb every inch of your garden, even the undersides of leaves, for pest insects.
If the thought of the occasional songbird succumbing to a predator bothers you, there is a great solution to help our little friends. This rather simple device generally falls into the general category of a “predator excluder.” All one really needs to do is to get some length of old chain-link, sheep, snow, or similar woven-wire or plastic fencing, then shape a couple-foot diameter ring with it. If necessary, double it up to reduce the width of the openings in the barrier; also, it isn’t a bad idea to bury the lower margin a few inches into the ground to discourage digging by rabbits or skunks. In, over and around the wire circle, build your brush pile. The small birds will easily be able to go through the gaps or up over and into center of the retreat. This excluder is particularly effective in protecting roosting songbirds from nocturnal predators, particularly domestic and feral cats that feel right at home hunting shrub-filled gardens.
If the predator-excluder concept appeals to you, but do not want an unsightly brush pile in your yard, a more permanent alternative is to plant some columnar arbor vitaes, junipers or similar thick evergreen shrubs in a ring, preferably in a somewhat sheltered location, encouraging them to grow through the ring of woven-wire fencing. This excluder usually is a very nice addition to your garden landscaping, and the birds will love it too.
Attracting Birds to your Yard, Iowa State University Extension Natural Resource Ecology and Management
McPeaky, Becky, 12 Wildlife Habitat Tips for Small Acreages. University of Arkansas Division of Wildlife Publication MP478
Brush Piles for Wildlife, Virginia Department of Forestry
Brush Piles for Wildlife, Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection
Creating Brush Piles for Upland Wildlife, NRCS & New Hampshire Conservation Practice Job Sheet 645
Brush Piles: Habitat How-To’s, The Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources
Tylka, Dave. 2002. Native landscaping for wildlife and people: how to use native midwestern plants to beautify your property and benefit wildlife. Missouri Department of Conservation. 181 p.
Kelly, Lelia. 2006. Mississippi recreational gardens: establishing a backyard wildlife habitat. Mississippi State Extension Publication 2402. 28 p.
Decker, Daniel J., John W. Kelley and Ronald A. Howard, Jr. 1984. Wildlife habitat enhancement. Cornell Cooperative Extension. 23 p.