Brush piles are wildlife magnets.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
It wasn’t intentional and it didn’t last long.
But as a first introduction to backyard wildlife habitat management, it was pretty cool.
The two neighbors who lived behind us when we were children had orchards. Those grassy, tree-filled expanses perhaps 150 yards wide and 300 deep separated our home from theirs.
A mix of things grew there.
They had a lot of apple trees, a few cherries, some toby trees – we used to build forts and throw their long, hard, sometimes welt-inducing bean-like fruits at one another in an era when kids were left to their own devices outside – and at least one row of cottonwoods. Our neighbors mowed the grass between them all regularly.
Of course, there were always limbs falling to the ground. That’s the nature of things. But usually, they were quickly collected and sent to the burn pile.
This particular summer, though, the neighbors were overwhelmed.
A wind storm blew down branches and sticks of all kinds in all sizes. A few smaller trees were even uprooted.
One neighbor gathered them and piled them into huge stacks. They, too, would be burnt eventually.
But, for whatever reason, it was nearly fall before that happened.
The result in the meantime was a backyard zoo.
Those brush piles – like all brush piles all the time – were wildlife magnets. They provide nesting and escape cover in areas where it might be lacking, such as those otherwise mowed orchards. They provide perches for birds and dens for mammals, too, and even sometimes food.
So it’s not surprising that our local cottontail rabbit population took off. The groundhogs that roamed the hayfield on the side of our home expanded their territory. Songbirds of every shape, color and voice moved in.
As kids, we’d often get out of the pool, sit on a towel with our hand-me-down binoculars, and eat sandwiches while we tried to spot and identify as many different kinds of critters as we could. It was lots of fun, as all wildlife watching is.
And it’s easy to create. Making brush piles is a simple, inexpensive way to draw more wildlife to your corner of the world, no matter how big or small it is.
There are a few tricks to making the best brush pile possible, though.
Sure, you can just heap up some sticks and let things take their course. That’s how nature does it, after all.
But if you build your brush pile like a fort made of Lincoln Logs, you’ll get better results.
First, decide where you want your brush pile. It will get more use if it’s the only cover in an area, so a corner of a mowed lawn might be good.
Just don’t put it too close to your house. Brush piles will attract chipmunks and mice, and you don’t want them moving from the pile into your home. Avoid sticking it right next to your garden, too, at least if you want to actually eat any of your vegetables anyway.
Once you’ve got a spot in mind, it’s time to start construction. Begin with your base. Use logs here, perhaps as big as 4 or even 6 inches in diameter or old stumps. Add a few rocks if you hope to draw salamanders or other reptiles and amphibians. You can even incorporate PVC pipe in here, to create tunnels.
Whatever you choose, arrange it a square or triangle.
Next, use additional logs and build a log cabin-type structure. Any wood can work, though some hardwoods – black locust, cedar and oak are good choices – better resist rot and will last longer.
Don’t make this tight to the ground. Gaps create entry and exit points for rabbits, foxes and other small mammals to get in and out.
Fill the inside of your cabin loosely with some smaller brush, then mound up additional limbs – igloo-style – as you build upward. Use larger limbs to start, going smaller as you go higher.
Occasionally put a larger branch on top of smaller ones to hold things in place, though, and/or weave the larger ends of limbs into the pile to provide structure. You want a pile that has enough integrity to stand, but with pockets or spaces inside for birds and other creatures.
Adapt the size of your brush pile to your situation. If space isn’t a worry, a brush pile 8 feet square by 8 feet tall isn’t too big. If you’ve got a smaller backyard, something half or even one third that size is OK.
As for maintenance, a brush pile can – with care – last 10 years or more. Add structure as needed, and avoid mowing right up to its edges. Allowing grasses and vines to grow around and through it adds stability, cover and sometimes even food for wildlife.
Then, sit back and enjoy your work. And maybe invest in a field guide or two.
Chances are your brush pile will attract all sorts of wildlife. Some you may recognize, some you may not.
Learning to identify what it is coming to your habitat adds fun to things, especially if you incorporate children into your watching. You can make a game of adding to your checklist of species.
Time spent outside together with family and friends is what it’s about, after all. And study after study shows that getting people interested in nature close to home – where it seems always accessible – is key to developing a lifelong love of the outdoors.
Creating your own brush pile is a portal to that kind of adventure.
More on brush piles
If you want to learn more about making brush piles, and even how to make a living brush pile, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has a pretty handy guide. It talks about choosing building materials based on what wildlife you might want to avoid, too.
You can find it here.
The Pennsylvania Game Commission, meanwhile, offers a good video outlining how to construct a brush pile. See it here.
Want to see more? Check us out on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.