If you've ever spooked a cottontail in an old field, you probably watched it zig and zag and then suddenly disappear into thin air. It probably dashed into the safety of a brush pile.
When cabin fever strikes next month, get outside on a mild winter day and build a brush pile for wildlife. It's easy to build, and it provides valuable habitat to a variety of wildlife including everything from mice and chipmunks to snakes, skunks and many song birds.
The best place to build a brush pile is on the edge of a wooded area. Place it as far from houses as possible because some of the species attracted to brush piles can become backyard pests.
Begin a brush pile by laying a foundation of large rocks, concrete blocks, old tires, plastic pipes of various diameters, and pieces of downspouts to provide refuge for a variety of species. This base layer elevates the first course of logs above the ground, creates escape lanes for small mammals and keeps the base logs off the ground so they rot more slowly.
The next step is to place alternating criss-cross layers of logs or old fence posts, 4 to 6 inches in diameter.
Now the foundation is ready for the brush, which can include small trees, broken branches and used Christmas trees. If several conifers are used, tie them together so they don't scatter in the wind.
A backyard brush pile might measure 8 feet in diameter and 4 to 5 feet high. If you live in a rural area, more and bigger brush piles are better and will attract more wildlife. On state wildlife management areas, for example, brush piles can stand 10 feet high and extend for 20 to 30 feet.
Even a well constructed brush pile eventually collapses under its own weight. To extend its life, add material every year. When the pile disintegrates into a mass of organic matter, build a new one right next to the old one.
The success of a brush pile can be evaluated by simple observation. When it snows, look for tracks of critters coming and going. And at first light, watch for song birds leaving the brush pile after roosting there for the night. This is especially true when brush piles are covered by a blanket of snow.
Biologist, author and broadcaster Scott Shalaway can be heard 9-11 a.m. Saturdays on 1370 AM WVLY (Wheeling), and noon-2 p.m. Sundays on 1360 AM WMNY (Pittsburgh). He can be reached at http://scottshalaway.googlepages.com, and 2222 Fish Ridge Rd., Cameron, WV 26033.