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One of the nicest gifts you can give the birds in your yard won’t cost you a dime. It’s a brush pile. While we might like to think that birds can eat safely at our backyard feeders, the birds we feed are in turn are often eaten by predators who come to feeders to find them. Brush piles give birds a quick place to flee when a hawk soars through the feeder area or a neighborhood cat saunters by.
Benefits of a Brush Pile
Birds can use brush piles in a variety of ways:
- Retreat from a perceived threat. This could be a predator, more dominant birds, human activity or other loud noise.
- Source of bugs to eat.
- Potential nesting spot.
- Cover during heavy rain or snow.
- Staging spot to land first before heading over to a nearby feeder.
When birds eating at feeders are startled by something, many will flee to nearby cover. In my yard, if what startled them is a person or a cat, they often hunker down there until the coast is clear. If it is a hawk, they typically fly for higher trees and vines in the back of the yard until the hawk has left.
(Note: There are always a few birds who instead use a freeze in place strategy. They will sit very still at a feeder, not eating, but watching intently until the threat has past.)
I’ve had a number brush piles in my yard over the years. The birds that especially like them tend to be those that spend a lot of time on the ground. Birds in my yard that are in the piles most include:
- Carolina Wrens
- Northern Cardinals
- All types of Sparrows
Keep in mind that brush piles can become home to some birds. Other critters may decide to hang out there as well, some of which birds will eat. Lots of tasty insects will make the brush pile home too. As many birds make insects a big part of their diet, you are actually expanding what you are offering them. You may even attract some birds who don’t otherwise come to bird feeders.
How to Build a Brush Pile
A brush pile is easy to make. If you can, aim for a pile of maybe eight to ten feet wide and four or five feet high. (But even a much smaller pile can be helpful to birds and will likely be popular.)
Collect logs, branches and sticks that fall naturally from trees in your yard or that you cut off when pruning trees and shrubs. (If you don’t have enough in your own yard, you might find neighbors willing to share.)
Start with small long logs if you have them or the largest branches you’ve got. Lay them out with about a foot between them. (I usually don’t have eight foot long logs, so I lay shorter ones end-to-end to create the length.) Cover with another layer going perpendicular over the first. Work your way up, putting smaller branches and sticks over the top.
Remember that it doesn’t have to be built in a day. Start with what you have and gradually add to it as you find new branches.
Keeping Cats Out of Piles
In my neighborhood, there are a lot of wandering cats who are drawn to all the birds in my yard. A year or so ago, a few cats tried a new strategy of hiding inside the nearest brush pile to catch unsuspecting birds.
To keep cats out of this pile, I used two strategies of my own. First, I stood branches along the edges tepee-style to screen larger openings. Aim to leave gaps large enough for birds to get into but not so large that a cat could hide inside. This only partially works though. As birds and squirrels land on the pile and cats try to push in, branches shift. So you need to keep an eye on it.
Second, I eventually surrounded this particular pile with green metal mesh garden fencing. Birds could zip in and out of the mesh but cats stopped getting into the pile.
Topping Off the Pile
If you include some evergreen branches over the top of the pile, maybe from a Christmas tree or wreath or from fallen pine branches, it makes the cover a little denser and more protected inside. But don’t use things like fallen leaves or garden refuse that will mat down and fill in the openings. You want it to be honeycombed with open spaces.
The pile will settle over time. Leaves will blow in, and squirrels may gnaw on and/or move around some of the branches. Just continue to add branches over time as you find them fallen in your yard. Eventually after a few years, the pile will probably have settled too much. Then you may want to tear the pile apart and rebuild it.
Locating the Pile
You want the pile to be a short flight away from feeders, but not so close that a predator can lurk right next to a feeder, unseen. My nearest brush pile was very close to feeders. This eventually caused some problems with predatory cats and aggressive House Sparrows.
This taught me not to build a brush pile immediately next to bird feeders. Be especially careful about putting them too close to ground feeders or areas where birds are often on the ground eating spilled seed. Several feet away is good, but I’d aim for about ten feet or so away from feeders. That is enough space to make a lurking cat more obvious. And it would make it just a little less tempting for House Sparrows to get too comfortable.
Keep in mind that some communities might not allow brush piles. And some neighbors might not like them in view of their windows. I like the rustic look of a brush pile, but if your yard is more manicured or you don’t want to offend neighbors, you might plant native vines to cover it.
Other Types of Natural Cover
In our yard, we’ve struggled with invasive Japanese Wisteria for decades. (It was there when we moved in.) This plant is incredibly aggressive. It puts out rooted runners that will try to take over every inch of space, strangling trees and shrubs in the process. (If you see it in a garden center, trust me, DON’T be tempted!)
The wisteria does have its benefits to backyard birds though. If left unchecked, wisteria (and other invasive or, much better, native vines) can create a natural tangle that creates cover for birds. In my yard, Northern Cardinals, various sparrows and finches in particular seem to love wisteria for that reason. We keep trying to pull it out and get rid of it regardless, but it goes to show that everything has its up side.
House Sparrows and Brush Piles
Brush piles, while popular with birds, do have their downsides. Our yard is full of mature trees that are always dropping branches. So we’ve had a number of brush piles over the years. This was always a very positive thing for birds . . . until this past winter.
We’ve never had a lot of House Sparrows in the yard over many years of feeding birds. But last winter, several discovered the yard and told all their friends. House Sparrows can be very aggressive about taking over feeders and pushing other birds out. I started noticing fewer of the over-wintering White-Throated Sparrows that I love because of the increasing numbers of House Sparrows. And I was worried about them attacking bluebirds in the spring when nesting started.
House Sparrows seem to be very cover dependent. To get rid of the House Sparrows, I sadly eventually had to get rid of the brush piles nearest to my feeders.
One large brush pile still remains in a back corner of the yard. I still have a few much, much smaller open piles of branches less than a foot high near feeders and edging pathways in more wooded areas. While they don’t provide much cover, they still are very attractive bug hunting spots for backyard birds.
It is important to realize that nothing stays the same forever. Things change in the back yard and you need to adapt and change with it.
Learn More About Brush Piles
Here are a few good articles on brush piles you might find interesting:
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