I wish I could say that the brush pile on the side of my driveway is the result of an intentional desire to provide shelter for wildlife. In reality, it is the result of having been too lazy in the fall to borrow a truck and cart the stuff to the city's dump. Nevertheless, this winter I have been enjoying the fruits of that laziness.
When snow settles down on the top of my wildlife refuge, it forms a roof that keeps further precipitation from trickling down into the tangle of branches. I wish I were small enough to get inside and explore all the nooks and crannies created by this happy accident.
So, who is using my brush pile? Birds for sure. Sometimes when I drive in or walk past on my way to the garage, I startle a small mixed-species flock that head for the branches of the trees overhead. As soon as they realize I'm not going to attack, they retreat into the pile again.
If we get a fresh snow at just the right time, I will find footprints that show the comings and goings of mice, squirrels, chipmunks and rabbits. I haven't yet found the footprints opossum, raccoon, or skunk, though I know these critters have been spotted in my suburban neighborhood.
If you are lucky enough to live in a more rural or wooded area than I, your brush pile may attract even more species. Build one in the woods and maybe a ruffed grouse will use it for shelter, in addition to the species you find in suburbia.
Any haphazard pile of sticks and branches will be helpful. With a little more engineering, though, you might create a refuge that is truly a magnificent shelter. Place some rocks or logs on the ground to start that will hold up the branches and arrange them so that they provide ground-level entryways. Then, get creative. Use a log cabin style, or a teepee style to pile up branches. That's all. So simple. If you place it in the sun, animals will benefit from the warmth. If you are willing to let it stay through all the seasons, consider planting something that will grow up over it and provide food.
Brush piles aren't the only way to invite wildlife into your yard. In June, Audubon will be offering a SHARE workshop. SHARE stands for Simply Have Areas Reserved for the Environment. SHARE is a concept promoted by the Pollinator Partnership and the workshop will be about landscaping to encourage native pollinators. I like the acronym and would like to see its application broadened. We can design our backyard landscapes to benefit all kinds of wildlife in all seasons of the year. And while we are providing them with shelter, food, and a place to raise their young, they provide us with delight and a source of learning.
A pamphlet available from the Penn State Cooperative Extension has a sidebar with this beautiful explanation: "Landscaping for wildlife can restore critically needed habitat and beautify your yard at the same time. Many excellent native trees, shrubs, and vines offer four seasons' interest with their fragrant flowers, eye-catching fruit, brilliant fall color, and sculptural forms in winter. The same plants can attract a diversity of wildlife with the food, cover, and nest sites they supply."
Critically needed habitat. That part is so important. As residential and commercial development by people expands, habitat for wildlife is often lost. Our own backyards may provide a partial solution. Researchers are so convinced of the value of backyard habitats to wildlife that lots of programs have sprung up all over the country encouraging people to landscape for wildlife. Many organizations have put together backyard habitat certification programs, each with a different focus. You might landscape for butterflies or birds, for example. Those kinds of landscapes may take a bit of work to get started, but the Virginia Cooperative Extension website suggests that natural backyard habitats ultimately require less maintenance, conserve energy, and increase biodiversity. So, be lazy like me. Mow less. Leave the brush pile - if only for the winter. Enjoy the wildlife.
Jennifer Schlick is program director at Jamestown Audubon.
The Audubon Center & Sanctuary is located at 1600 Riverside Road in the town of Kiantone, a quarter-mile east of Route 62 between Jamestown and Warren, Pa. For more information, call 569-2345 or visit jamestownaudubon.org.