One of the essentials for a welcoming environment for birds -- and other wildlife -- is shelter. They need shelter from the elements and predators. Selection and placement of plants throughout the landscape can provide both food and shelter. Another form of shelter to consider is a brush pile. Brush piles are also dual purpose. Besides shelter they provide a way to dispose of tree trimmings and shrub clippings without adding them to landfills. Both benefits can be realized to some extent by just placing the trimmings on a pile as they become available, but some planning and proper preparation will result in a pile that provides a more attractive habitat for wildlife and looks more presentable to your neighbors.
The first thing to check before you begin building a brush pile is to see if your municipality or homeowners association has any restrictions or requirements that you need to take into account. The next consideration is determining the best location for your brush pile. You'll want to place it where you can observe it on a regular basis without disturbing the activity you are encouraging. You will also want to think about your neighbors. Don't place the pile in an area that will detract from their enjoyment of their yard or be an eyesore for passersby.
The size of your brush pile will depend on how much space you have and how much material you have for pile construction. On smaller properties or those with limited materials, a pile five to six feet in diameter may be the best fit. If you have the space, an ideal pile is about 10 to 15 wide and 10 to 25 feet long. Most piles will be about five to six feet high. If you have lots of space you might want multiple piles spaced 200 to 300 feet apart. If possible, place least half the piles in full sunlight to allow a place for the inhabitants to bask in the sun.
Now that you have decided on the location(s), you can start the building process. The pile should be dense enough to provide shelter with adequate openings of various sizes to allow ease of movement throughout. You will also want the pile to last several years without major renovation. The best way to add to a constructed pile is extending its length or breadth.
The first two layers should be made of logs at least six inches in diameter. The bottom layer should have the logs placed parallel to each other about six to ten inches apart. For the second layer place the same size logs on top of the first layer, running perpendicular to the logs in the first layer. If you have enough of these logs you can add another layer or two or build a larger pile. For better longevity use rot resistant woods such as cedar, oak, locust or other hardwoods.
After the base is laid you are ready for the brush part of the pile. For this use smaller branches, twigs, small trees, or even old Christmas trees. These should be piled most densely in the center and more loosely at the edges of the pile. Don't put grass clipping, piles of leaves, or other small types of plant debris in the pile. These materials can plug up escape routes and hasten the decomposition of the other materials.
Do not place your piles too close to the house or other structures where they could be a fire hazard. To make a better looking pile, plant flowering or fruiting vines close by and allow them to grow over the pile. These may need trimming from time to time to prevent over growth.
Now sit back and see how many new birds and other critters are sharing your space.
Steve Trusty has a degree in horticulture from Iowa State University. He has been helping gardeners receive more enjoyment from their lawns and gardens for years through radio, TV, books, magazines and websites.