When most people think of shelter for the birds, we think of birdhouses in spring and perhaps roosting boxes in winter where birds can escape cold, windy nights. Birdhouses and roosting boxes are wonderful additions to any backyard habitat.
However, there are other ways to provide shelter in your yard that benefit the birds and other wildlife. One of these ways is by building a brush pile. A brush pile is nothing more than a collection of branches, twigs, grasses and the like, piled up about four feet high and about four feet across. Start by gathering larger branches that have fallen in your yard (ask your neighbors for theirs, too!) and “criss-cross” them as you loosely stack them. This creates open spaces within the brush pile where birds and small creatures can take refuge. Then pile on smaller branches and sticks, grasses, spent flower stems, corn stalks or anything that will filter through a bit, while some material stays on top. Over time, some of the material will decompose, so keep adding to the pile as it settles.
Birds, chipmunks, squirrels, mice, toads, frogs, salamanders and a host of other wildlife will take shelter within the brush pile. They’ll use it to escape wind, snow and rain. They’ll find plenty of insects to eat under the pile, too. Insects will be attracted to the wood, and also to the compost developing on the floor of the pile. When predators such as hawks and owls threaten, the brush pile is an impervious fortress these larger birds can’t penetrate.
If you’re unsure about the brush pile’s appearance in summer, you can make it more attractive for your yard, the birds and wildlife by planting vines around it that bear fruits and flowers. Some good examples would be trumpet vine, wild grapes and raspberry vines. Ask your local nursery for advice about planting native varieties. These plants will attract hummingbirds and fruit-eating birds during the summer and fall. In winter, the vines will strengthen the pile. And feel free to sprinkle seeds over the pile for the birds to eat. If you have slightly wrinkled apples or other fruit (not moldy), cut it up and throw it into the pile. You can be sure these treats will be found and eaten. If there’s a sure-fire way to get wildlife activity in your yard, it’s with a brush pile!
Another way to provide food and shelter for birds is to leave a “snag” instead of taking dead trees down completely. A snag is what’s left when only the top of a dead tree is removed, the part which may be dangerous should it fall near your house. Snags give insects places to live and in turn, they feed the birds. Woodpeckers will often create cavities for nesting in snags. When they’re done nesting, other birds will take shelter in the cavities during the winter and build their own nests there in spring.
Enjoy this video on feeding the birds–note the brush pile in the background!