What to do with all those fallen twigs and branches? Build a brush pile!

Ask The Conservancy: Brush piles

Wed, 11/21/2018 - 6:30am

A delight of late fall mornings is to linger over breakfast as day finally breaks — around 7 a.m. If you are lucky enough to have a window on the dawning day that takes in the edge of your yard, or a hedgerow, or a brush pile, you may be equally delighted to note a tawny sprite flitting among the twigs and branches. A Carolina wren.

But what do Carolina wrens do on blustery, rainy, or snowy days on Block Island? Birds, and all types of critters, need cover for protection from weather and predators, and for rest. (Contrary to popular belief, birds’ nests are used for incubating and raising young, generally not for sleeping.) You can help Block Island’s animals make it through the winter by building habitat in your backyard. It’s actually very easy to do at this time of year.

Hardly a week goes by in the fall and winter without a windy storm on Block Island. Gusts cause a great deal of blow down, from twigs to trees to branches. Even if you don’t have large trees in your yard, you may have aging shads, or bayberry, or choke cherries at the edges that will break and shed large stems and small limbs. Or, you may be trimming along the driveway (to maintain access for emergency vehicles) and end up with a small stack of woody material. The next question is what to do with all the brush.

Create a brush pile! A brush pile is structurally complex habitat that provides cover and food for wildlife, such as Carolina wrens, meadow voles, robins, garter snakes, and slate-colored juncos. It’s also where the material can break down over time and return the component nutrients to the earth.

November and December are the perfect time to start your brush pile. Start a pile with large branches on the bottom and smaller twigs on top. Don’t forget a few large rocks mounded together on the south and west sides to provide structure for gathering heat, and to allow a good place for garter and little brown snakes to slide into for a winter’s sleep. At holiday time, festive greens and trees can be added to the pile. Over time the brush pile may grow with annual additions, and perhaps become good habitat for beneficial insects, like native bees and praying mantids, to deposit their eggs and egg cases. When a brush pile becomes too big for your particular setting, simply start a new one and let the original one shrink as it decomposes back to the earth.

Care must be taken not to place a brush pile too close to your home for safety reasons, and not to introduce twigs and stems that may contain invasive plant seeds. Watch out especially for oriental bittersweet seeds, black swallowwort pods, multiflora rosehips, and mile-a-minute berries.

For more information about how-to, and the value of building a brush pile, check out one of these online resources:,



Or, join us at the next “Crazy as a Coot” walk on Tuesday, Dec. 4 at 8 a.m. for some brush pile birding and invasive vine identification.


“Ask the Conservancy” is a series of outreach activities provided by Block Island Conservancy and The Nature Conservancy that will offer advice and assistance to landowners that will help them make thoughtful land management decisions on their property that, in turn, will benefit the whole island’s ecosystem. These activities will include everything from occasional articles in the BI Times, to walks on example properties, to advising about and identifying invasive and native plant species.

Most especially, we welcome the opportunity to speak with you about your property “housekeeping.” Whether you have questions, need help with species identification or research, or just want feedback and an opportunity to discuss options and approaches to best steward your property, please give us a call or send an email: Clair Stover: (860) 808-9867/stover@biconservancy.org; or Kim Gaffett: (401) 595-7055/kim.gaffett@tnc.org.

Everyone — regardless of how small an area we oversee — can make a difference and have a role to play in keeping our Block Island beautiful and ecologically diverse.

Clair Stover is the Executive Director of the Block Island Conservancy; Kim Gaffett is The Nature Conservancy’s OVF Naturalist.