Brush piles

Photo © Eli Sagor

Brush Up Your Habitat

Wildlife need snug hiding places like those found in log or brush piles, and we don’t just mean birds. Butterflies overwinter in them, rabbits seek shelter there, snakes hunt for rodents and invertebrates in their cover, and chipmunks conceal their seed cache in their depths. If snags are nature’s apartment buildings, then brush piles are her hotels. If you embrace the rustic look of a brush pile, or you want a clear view of the birds hopping in and out of it, try locating yours as a “bridge” between two different habitat features (for example, halfway between a pond and a woodland edge). You can also locate your brush pile near a feeder, which works especially well for safe cover when the branches are thorny.

Song Sparrow in a Brush Pile

Many birds enjoy the shelter of a brush pile

Photo © Doug McAbee

Feeder birds like Dark-eyed Juncos, Northern Cardinals, and sparrows, as well as some flycatchers, are particularly attracted to brush piles. If the thought of a decomposing brush pile seems too untidy for you, stack logs in a pyramid and plant a climbing vine to grow over it (many vines are butterfly host plants- perfect for when the caterpilllars emerge!). Or, put your pile in a discreet corner of the yard, perhaps behind some mature shrubs. Don’t be surprised if other creatures, like snakes, amphibians, or small mammals, find them within days of their construction 1, as many kinds of wild animals will use brush piles. Snakes benefit people by controlling rodent populations; however, don’t place brush piles next to nest boxes (or vice versa) if tree-climbing snakes (e.g., ratsnakes) are abundant in your area.

Make a "Living Brushpile"

Make a living shelter by slicing halfway through the underside of conifer branches (left) or through the trunks of deciduous trees (right). Adapted from The Audubon Society Guide to Attracting Birds by Stephen W. Kress.

Photo © Used by permission of the publisher, Cornell University Press


Have a tree that needs to come down in your yard? Why not cut it into pieces and create a brush pile; it’s great for the environment to return those nutrients back to the same soil rather than sending them away. Maybe an old Christmas tree cut into several pieces would serve the purpose? Or, check with a local tree care provider for sources of unwanted wood. Remember to use untreated wood, and avoid moving logs across county lines (you could accidentally introduce an exotic pest). It’s also not a good idea to remove fallen logs from a forest because they are already being used by other creatures for shelter. Rather, build your pile’s foundation by starting with ceramic drainage tiles, large rocks, or big logs. Continue building it by adding fallen branches throughout the year. A brush pile will last about 10-15 years, or longer if you keep adding to it.

Bases For Brushpiles

Adapted from The Audubon Society Guide to Attracting Birds by Stephen W. Kress, this diagram shows you how to build a superior brushpile.

Photo © Used by permission of the publisher, Cornell University Press

You can also use brush piles as a way to shelter seeds or saplings of desirable species from deer, cattle, or other large herbivores. Just build your brush pile around a seedling that you wish to protect, stacking limbs loosely enough that light will reach the seedling. Aim for 15 ft wide and 4-6 ft tall, but do not cover the top of the seedling. While this method may not protect against small mammal damage, it can increase the growth rate of saplings so that they are beyond the reach of small mammals sooner 2. As the pile breaks down, invertebrate recyclers return energy to the target tree. And that, in turn, will provide cover and food for your birds!