By Joshua Rose Gazette Contributing Writer
Even though winter is upon us, the Valley is still feeling the effects of the October 29 nor’easter that dumped more than a foot of snow across the area. Most of us lost electricity—some for days when tree branches snapped from the combined weight of leaves and snow and took power lines down with them. For many weeks, Amherst’s streets were lined with long piles of brush gathered by cleanup crews, and the local transfer stations stayed open more days than usual to allow for this sudden glut of “yard waste.”
Some people have no choice but to truck their fallen branches to the landfill. However, the rest of us have a better option: build a brush pile.
Brush piles have long been used to improve wildlife habitat. A dizzying variety of species may use them. This is not news to fishermen, who often dump brush and even old Christmas trees into lakes and ponds to create hangouts for bass and other sport fish. Larger brush piles on land may become the den site for a weasel, fox, or even bobcat.
Many bird species are reluctant to venture across open spaces where they are exposed to predators. A feeder or bird bath surrounded by a lawn will attract only the most aggressive bird species: blue jays, blackbirds, starlings.
Build a brush pile to provide hiding places, and the shyer birds will start to visit: chickadees, wrens, towhees, maybe even warblers. Any time a hawk passes, these birds will zip into the shelter of the brush pile until they feel safe again. However, some experts recommend keeping the brush pile at least 10 feet away from your feeders, so cats and other predators cannot use the cover to ambush birds while they are eating, drinking or bathing.
Some butterflies also use brush piles, especially for hibernation sites. The mourning cloak and Eastern comma overwinter as adult butterflies, squeezing into hiding places in the wood or leaf litter in the autumn, coming out to fly again in the spring or even on warm days in late winter. Other species overwinter in the brush as chrysalises, caterpillars or eggs.
Many other insects join the butterflies in the brush. It doesn’t just provide shelter, but also food for a good number of them. The beetles especially stand out as a diverse and interesting group of wood-eating insects. While some landowners might not see any loss to have beetles trucked off to the landfill with their fallen wood, a closer look reveals an amazing array of beautiful colors, amazing textures, impressive shapes and surprising behaviors. One family of wood-borers is commonly referred to as “jewel beetles” because of their often glittering appearance; another group is known as “long-horned beetles” because their antennae may be longer than the entire rest of their body. Bess beetles live in groups, feed and care for their young, and communicate using scratching noises. Several other beetle families are voracious predators, hunting and eating those that feed on the wood. You may even find fireflies spending the daylight hours in your brush pile.
The insects, in turn, become food for the birds. Especially in winter, when active bugs may be impossible to find, insect-eating birds like kinglets and woodpeckers will poke through brush piles finding dormant eggs or pupae, or hibernating larvae or adults.
Good for the garden
The brush pile can be a menace to gardeners if it becomes home to rabbits. However, other residents will benefit your vegetable garden or flower beds. Insect-eating birds will hunt from brush to garden and back again. Insects overwintering in the brush include beneficial predators like mantises and ladybugs. Frogs, toads, salamanders and snakes will hide out in brush piles after eating snails, slugs and other pests from the garden.
Not all brush piles are created equal. New brush piles, with a lot of holes and empty spaces inside, provide the best shelter for birds and mammals escaping predators or harsh weather. Older piles tend to collapse, subside, and fill in with leaves and other debris, providing more shelter for insects and other invertebrates, providing birds with less shelter but more food. You can provide both by either piling new brush on old piles, or by having multiple piles of different ages.
Brush piles are easier and cause less environmental damage than dumping. They are less work than collecting and processing the brush, and there’s no noise from chainsaws or wood chippers. There is no need to burn fossil fuels to carve up or transport the wood, and the danger and pollution caused by burning is reduced. Just pick a spot in your yard that’s out of the way and away from your house, grab some sticks and pile them up. You’ll be surprised at how fast it grows, as well as how fast the wildlife shows up.
Joshua Rose is a naturalist and educator in Amherst who regularly leads programs for local nature- oriented groups. He is a member of the board of the Hampshire Bird Club.
Earth Matters, written by staff and associates of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment at 845 West Street, Amherst, appears every other week. For more information, call 413-256-6006, or write to us.Click here to return to full list of Earth Matters articles.