Bunnies in the Bush Pile: Creating natural habitats can provide shelter for small animals

Winter is coming and forest animals are looking for a place away from predators, away from the cold, away from excessive noise, a place where they can shiver in blizzards and stay dry. This friendly habitat dwindles in the suburbs when leaves and leftover twigs are hurled into large sacks for disposal.

But there are alternatives to extra tidy garden cleaning that will help rabbits in the brush and other animals like the endangered songbirds, mice, chipmunks, even raccoons and marmots, those animals that are part of the ecosystem we live with day to day , according to Ricky Kemery, Purdue Horticulture Extension Educator, retired.

The issue has become more important over the past 10 years, Kemery said.

“People are more sensitive to the issue and just want to protect the creatures and insects and everything else that’s moving around the countryside because the urban environment is generally not that friendly to creatures from nature. Much of this is because living space is declining so rapidly in the United States. So there’s less room for animals, which are often really hungry,” Kemery said.

Providing a dense, heavy, and secure shelter at ground level “can attract many animals that may not feel comfortable in even the most colorful butterfly garden or carefully landscaped garden,” advises the National Wildlife Foundation on its website.

“Flycatchers and dragonflies perch on the tops of branches looking for flying insects (the kind you might want to control in the warmer months). At the foot, salamanders and shrews hide under tree trunks. Lizards and butterflies bask on the surface. Rabbits, tortoises, juncos and sparrows use knotted branches as temporary shelter. Toads, mice, and ground beetles come and go, as do skunks, snakes, and quail that feed on them. Woodpeckers pluck insects from the more rotted wood, while foxes dig burrows underneath,” the website reads.

Without sounding the alarm as in the case of “Watership Down,” a transformative novel published in the 1970s about a rabbit den and the environmental hazards they encountered, a website “Choose Natives” advocates building a bush pile as a haven for rabbits wildlife.

“Birds, salamanders, snakes, turtles and small mammals all need a helping hand, especially in our run-down suburban areas. During the winter, it’s especially important to protect our birds…evergreen foliage placed over a pile of bushes during the winter months creates a dry interior for birds to sleep safely in,” the website reads.

Some of the birds in need of protection are cardinals, Indiana’s state bird and one held dear to people who have lost a loved one. The appearance of the bright red bird and its mate, a soft brown with a red underside, is taken as a sign that the deceased is near.

Brush piles can be anywhere from three to eight feet tall and six to 20 feet wide, Choose Natives says. Place the brush in the backyard, near a wooded area, or on the edge of the property away from your home because of potential flammability and rodent hazards.

Brush piles can be built from logs or rocks, using the larger materials at the bottom, leaving a hole for animals to climb in and out of. Even PVC pipe can be used, the website says.

Kemery says some gardeners leave some garden plants unkempt throughout the winter and fall because they believe they provide shelter and food for woodland animals. He cautions that it’s a good idea to prune perennials back to six inches in November, but if you want to leave these plants for cover, wait until March. After that it’s too late.

“If you prune perennials, yes, there will be some undergrowth. You can put it on the compost heap. You could burn it or put it on raised beds if you wanted to,” Kemery said. But it’s better to cut them back because “diseases or insects that they might be harboring from the previous year could come back if you don’t get rid of that.”

Diseases can affect tomato plants, for example, because diseases or flowering plants like peonies that develop mold or powdery mildew can “overwinter”. “If you don’t cut them back, the disease will hibernate,” Kemery said.

What Kemery really wants is for you to save your leaves and use them for raised beds or leave them finely chopped on lawns.

“If you have any leftovers, spring wet leaves…that’s great. You can stack them on a raised bed. When they decompose, they become compost. When it rains, they seep into the bed like compost tea,” he says.

With the leaves disappearing into large paper bags, so does the habitat for many creatures, but especially many species of butterflies and moths, which the National Wildlife Federation says hibernate as pupae in leaf litter.

“Each fall, if you rake up and throw away all your leaves, you’ll also get rid of these beneficial insects,” the NWF website says. “Remember that caterpillars of butterflies and moths are an extremely important food source for birds in the spring when they are feeding their babies. If you remove all the pupae with your leaves in the fall, there will be fewer of these insects in and around your garden in the spring.”

https://www.wane.com/top-stories/bunnies-in-the-brush-pile-creating-natural-habitats-can-provide-shelter-for-small-animals/ Bunnies in the Bush Pile: Creating natural habitats can provide shelter for small animals

Dais Johnston

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