Friday, November 25, 2016

Create Shelter: Build a Log Pile for Wildlife

My log pile has attracted an Eastern Chipmunk! I've seen more and more chipmunks around the neighborhood recently, including one foraging in one of my butterfly garden beds. Now I have proof that my log pile is helping provide shelter for this little cutie. Hooray! 
Eastern Chipmunk approves of my log pile.

For years I’ve been tossing fallen branches and stray logs in a haphazard heap in my back yard, hoping I was making good habitat for wildlife. I’ve been watching that pile, though, and don’t see much activity going on in and around it. Birds  land on the highest branches to watch out for predators before hopping down to forage on the ground. But that was about it. I wanted to build a more deliberate (and maybe neater) brush pile for my yard animals—from invertebrates like millipedes to wrens looking for shelter from the frigid winter winds (and maybe snacking on those milipedes too), plus perhaps attracting or at least being ready for new wildlife I’ve always hoped would find my yard hospitable: toads and box turtles. I’ve never seen these in my yard, but we do have at least box turtles in our small neighborhood park. So we shall see.

To figure out how to build a better log pile, I got lots of good information from the National Wildlife Federation’s backyard habitat program and from Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s YardMap project . I also consulted these resources to get ideas before I started:

I sketched the plan in my journal as well, to organize my thinking.

One difference between my haphazard heap of branches and a carefully built log pile is the amount of shelter available in each one. My branch heap really didn’t have much shelter from winds or predators, it was pretty loosely built. A constructed log pile using sturdy logs and some insulating leaves and dried grasses should provide plenty of reliable shelter. Most sites also recommended placing your log pile where your yard meets the forest to provide shelter for critters as they go between the two environments. I don't have any forest on my property, so I put the pile beneath our cherry tree and near the fence at the back of our yard.

To start a log pile, you first lay a layer of logs in parallel lines, about 6 to 8” apart from each other. Logs at least 6” diameter seem best so the resulting tunnels are big enough for ground critters to enter and run down without having to squish. I’m sure whatever size you have would be fine, however. Anything is better than nothing. Anyway, I didn’t have many logs even close to big enough. So I took the most ungainly hunks of firewood from our ancient and decomposing pile and lined them up in parallel lines. You do the best with what you have, right?

Hopefully the crevices between my shorter logs will provide shelter for some of the smallest creatures too.

Most of my reference sites suggested making your log pile size about 10 feet by 10 feet. I didn’t have enough wood or enough space for that, though, so mine is more like 6’ x 6’, and maybe 4’ tall. We’ll probably have to put up some kind of screening soon to make sure my still-ungainly pile doesn’t bother the neighbors. In the summer I’ll add some plantings to screen it naturally, but of course that doesn’t help me right now.

Your next layer will be more logs in lines perpendicular to the first ones. Many sites also recommend partially burying some short logs vertically at the sides to use as framework, and to hasten the decomposition process. Many subterranean creatures and fungi love rotting wood, so you’d be providing habitat for them too. I didn’t do this in my pile, partially because I didn’t feel like that much effort, but also because many of the logs I was using were already well on their way to decomposing. They really don't need any hastening there!

One of my logs was so well decomposed it already had residents!

Keep on alternating criss-crossing layers of logs. You can sometimes make layers where the logs are closer together than you started with, so there are varied size holes and shelters for different size critters. As the pile gets taller you can use smaller branches as well, both to create roofing and to help insulate different areas of the pile. You can even fill in some areas with loose dead leaves or dead grasses to make additional and different types of shelter.

Our younger cat, Callie, inspects my handiwork. Isn't her camouflage amazing?
I put dried grasses in some of the upper corners of the log pile, and later added armfuls of dried leaves in other spots too.

Build your pile as tall as you like. Most of the sites I looked at recommended you aim for 6 feet. That
seemed a little exorbitant for my yard and I was quickly running out of wood anyway. So mine is maybe 4.5 feet high at most. Again, something is better than nothing!

All done!
I’ve already seen a variety of small birds landing on top of my pile, and ducking in and out of the crevices. We have several Carolina Wrens in the neighborhood who will probably love the millipedes already inhabiting the rotten logs, to say nothing of the woodpeckers. Cardinals land on top to survey the yard, like they did my old branch heap. White-Throated Sparrows have crept into some of the lower tunnels to look for seeds and bugs too. I’m eagerly anticipating some light snowfalls this winter, when I can go look for footprints leading in and out of the pile to see the amount of use it’s getting.

Speaking of snow, when you have your pile as tall as it’s going to be, you can top it off with a layer of evergreen branches for additional shelter from rain and snow. I don’t have any evergreens in my yard to harvest branches from, but I plan to ask some of the local Christmas tree vendors for some extra branches they might otherwise discard. After Christmas I’ll clip all the branches from our tree and add them (and the now naked trunk) to the pile.

I love looking out at my log pile each day when I come down to the kitchen for coffee in the morning. It makes me feel so happy knowing I increased my yard’s amount and range of habitat! It only took me an hour or two to build, too.

If you have room in your yard, keep an eye out this winter for fallen branches and downed trees to build a log pile for wildlife. Then let me know in the comments what kind of wildlife visits your yard!

1 comment:

  1. Well, I had hoped by now to have had enough snow that I could look for tracks going in and out of the brush pile. We've hardly had any snow yet though, and lots & lots of rain. It's supposed to get up to 55 degrees F here today-- in January! That just doesn't seem right to this New England girl. The winter isn't over yet, though, so I still hope to post an update with interesting track photos for you all.


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