By Beth Sullivan
As we wind up our fall cleaning, we often make piles of leaves that will compost, but sometimes we are left with fallen branches and limbs that are too big to compost easily, and we just don’t want to haul to the landfill. In my own garden I can make nice piles of sticks and branches and always notice that those piles are the first places that Sparrows and Wrens seem to choose when the day ends and the weather gets cold.
|A Song Sparrow perches on top of a brush pile but later will find refuge inside it.|
We are doing fall clean up on the preserves as well, but we do not try and get rid of all our woody rough debris. Deep in the woodlands, these branches, some still with leaves, would be left to decay naturally. Those closest to the ground will be affected by ground moisture and start to rot first. A log on the ground provides shelter for numerous life forms, from worms and slugs, insects, spiders, centipedes, millipedes, and on up to salamanders, small mammals like mice and shrews and voles, and even snakes. The tangle of branches that remain suspended above the ground will decay more slowly. They provide shelter and cover for some of the same creatures, but also larger mammals, including rabbits and squirrels and birds, will inhabit the top levels. Think of a small mammal or bird being pursued by a hawk. The tangle of branches protects the smaller creatures while thwarting the predator.
|During the winter, the snow cover helps insulate the pile.|
Brush piles feed the soil
Over time, the leaves, small branches, and pieces of wood continue to decay. Beetles move in, and termites and ants take up residence in the rotting wood. Worms do their part in composting and recycling. Nutrients return to the forest floor and nourish remaining plants.
|In Summer, vines and plants grow in the brush pile.|
Where tree limbs come down on the trails on Avalonia Preserves, it can be a big effort to remove them and open the trails and make them safe. In many cases we are able to make well -constructed brush piles. Instead of loosely arrayed branches just left on the side of the trail, a beneficial brush pile is denser, more solidly piled. Heavier pieces are left closer to the ground to provide support and structure as well as good sized gaps close to the ground. Mid -sized branches are criss -crossed on top next, and the whole pile is covered with smaller pieces, especially evergreen boughs, to fill in the gaps. Think of the pile covered deep in snow in the dead of winter. The smaller spaces within are protected from biting winds and even retain some warmth from the ground in the face of sub-freezing temperatures. Small mammals can stash food-nuts, seeds, grasses-eliminating the need to venture out. Birds also will find protection within. Sparrows and wrens in particular make use of man-made piles.
|While clearing invasive species, the debris is left to cover the ground in many places.|
|To make a good brush pile, put bigger pieces on the bottom, making nice holes.|
|Then pile on brush for shelter.|
Look for brush piles as you walk
As you walk on one of our Preserves, look for man-made brush piles. Paffard Woods has several and Perry Natural area as well. There are piles from Red Oaks and some from White Pine that were toppled by Storm Sandy in 2012 and are still present and providing shelter. The Knox Preserve has been cleaned up and the bigger piles removed to get out of the way of our mowing efforts. You will notice piles along the trails that look messy and off the top of the knoll there is a dense pile of cut limbs. This is quite deliberate. We have cut invasive vines and treated the stumps to prevent regrowth, but the branches were left in place to provide the cover that the birds enjoy. Observe from a distance to see what activity occurs at the piles. Later in the winter, when snow covers the ground, look for tracks and trails leading to and from the piles. Nature does a good job of protecting small creatures, but Volunteers can enhance the effort with great success.
|Woodchucks will make their entry holes at the base of a brush pile for greater protection.|
I suggest making a small pile in your yard and garden where you can watch from indoors and enjoy the activity.
Photographs by Beth Sullivan.
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This post originally appeared November 30, 2015.