Build a Brush Pile for the Birds
As Conservation@Home participants, we all enjoy the fact that our yards attract and benefit wildlife. One simple activity that people (kids too!) can do to attract and help birds during the winter is to build a brush pile.
Simply stated, a brush pile is a bunch of woody material loosely piled on top of each other. To create one, you simply need to place your heaviest logs as a base and loosely build up from there. Still have your Christmas tree around? Cut it into several pieces and add it to the pile. The natural nooks and crannies left between the branches create tiny hiding places for birds to escape predators, provide night-time roosting places, and provide much-needed protection from the wind, rain, and snow.
Where should you create a brush pile? It's most advantageous to build on an "edge" between two habitats, such as between a wooded and an open area. This replicates the natural process that occurs whenever trees fall in woodlands or hedgerows. It's also ideal to have a brush pile within 15 feet of a bird feeder, as many birds will fly to the feeder, grab a seed, and retreat to safety to eat the seed. To provide the most protection, the pile should be 15 feet in diameter and 6 feet high. Places you should avoid placing a brush pile include areas prone to flooding, as well as anywhere that will be regularly managed with prescribed burning. If you want to avoid burning it, wet the pile down and rake a firebreak around it. It's important to realize that non-native, invasive brush piles need to be regularly burned to prevent their spread, so piles containing buckthorn and honeysuckle would not be a great choice for a wildlife-specific brush pile.
Bird species that will benefit from the extra shelter include the American tree sparrow, dark-eyed junco, house wren, northern cardinal, and mourning dove. If you can leave the pile year-round, other wildlife such as tiger salamanders, American toads, small mammals, and insects will also utilize its cover. They provide great wildlife-watching opportunities, and after a fresh snowfall I encourage you to check out the myriad trails of tracks coming out of the pile.
For more detailed information on the benefits of providing "cover" for wildlife, go to the IDNR website. For help identifying birds in your yard, I recommend "The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America" by David Allen Sibley (there is also a newer 2nd edition). For smartphone users, a great bird ID app is "iBird Pro Guide to Birds" ($14.99, available for iPhone and Android users). A free bird ID app that is more limited in species but still very useful is Merlin Bird ID from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Happy birding everyone!
Conservation@Home Featured Property: Carol Rice
Meet Carol Rice, who has lived at her 5-acre property in Barrington for 29 years. Carol has an incredible amount of plant and animal diversity present in her restored oak savanna and prairie habitats. The savanna was her first restoration project, and has 6 species of oaks, 2 species of hickories, 10 species of ferns, 20 species of sedges, and many understory and shrub species in addition to the spring and summer wildflowers and grasses. Every year she works at removing invasive species and continuously pulls out lilies of the valley. They also try to plant several new trees and shrubs each year. The prairie planting is a more recent project and is flourishing. She enjoys spreading the word about conservation possibilities to other homeowners, which is something that attracted her to the Conservation@Home program. She advises those new to sustainable landscaping to watch for an increase in the numbers of species as the years go by and appreciate the improved health of the land. She also coordinates the The Wildflower Preservation and Propagation Committee's "Natural Garden in Your Yard" mentoring program, which is a fantastic local resource for learning more about landscaping with native plants. The WPPC is also hosting their 24th annual Natural Landscaping Seminar on February 27th, so be sure you don't miss this great educational opportunity. TLC will have a booth there, so make sure you stop by and say hello. Finally, remember this...being an environmental steward of your land will make a difference, no matter the size of your property!