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Brushing Up


Earlier this fall, I had an ash tree that needed some pruning back.  One cut led to another, and soon I had a daunting pile of limbs, branches, and twigs to deal with.  I lopped the bigger stuff into campfire wood (local use only, wouldn't want to inadvertently spread Emerald Ash Borers…) and chopped a bunch of the leftovers up into mulch using my chipper/shredder.  But in a perfect blend of putting off work while helping birds, I heaped the rest into a pile behind my feeder array.

My winter brush pile, providing cover near my feeder array and keeping the photo opps coming!

 A brush pile gives birds a place to stage as they come out to feed and offers a quick retreat from predators such as accipiters- the National Wildlife Federation includes this as an idea to create cover for improving backyard wildlife habitat. Some species of birds just don't like to be out in the open, and having the brush pile around increases the chance of seeing these skulkers.  I have a big permanent brush pile beyond the more manicured part of my yard for birds to roost or take cover in, but in the winter feeding season I plan to maintain the smaller pile by the feeders, with my photo blind set up nearby to take advantage of the birds that visit.  So far this fall I have already reaped the dividend of a couple of new yard birds and some fun photos- thanks, brush pile!!


I love raptors, and Sharp-shinned Hawks like this youngster always liven up my day when they patrol the feeders.  This guy was playing the waiting game with birds in the brush and in my spruces, completely intent on their scuttling deep in the cover and trying to figure out how to successfully get at them.  A brush pile gives small birds cover from predators, but a sharpie won't shy at following birds right into the brush pile or thick spruce boughs if it thinks it has a chance. 



Eurasian Collared-Doves scatter up instead of into cover.  This can be a bad move when an experienced Cooper's Hawk is sharing their airspace, as evidenced by this adult enjoying a plump exotic columbid dinner atop a neighboring building.  Don't worry- despite the intentions of my Super Cooper Troopers I've still got plenty of EuroDos around.


Junco diversity in the west is pretty sweet.  I've had all of the Dark-eyed Junco subspecies in my yard, and having a brush pile increases their numbers and length of their stay.  Here a Pink-sided Junco looks for stray seeds in frosty thyme, a few hops away from shelter under the tangle of branches.



My favorite junco, a spanking White-winged Junco, makes an appearance in the brush pile late last month.


As I scrambled to unobtrusively switch off my focus limiter, the White-winged Junco hopped towards me, unaware or uncaring as I snapped away from my photo blind just a few meters away.


Last weekend  on a lazy morning I scanned the brush pile from our kitchen window after an overnight basting of snow.  Much to my surprise and delight, a big white-bellied immature Harris's Sparrow was working in and out of the branches with the mix of more common birds.


As some of my birding buddies from across the pond might say, What a Stonker!!

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Bill Schmoker

Bill Schmoker

Bill is known in the birding community as a leading digital photographer of birds. Since 2001 he has built a collection of digital bird photos documenting over 640 species of North American birds. His photography has appeared in international nature publications, books, newspapers, interpretive signs, web pages, advertisements, corporate logos, and as references for art works. Also a published writer, Bill wrote a chapter for Good Birders Don't Wear White, is a past Colorado/Wyoming regional editor for North American Birds and is proud to be on the Leica Birding Team. Bill is a Colorado eBird reviewer and is especially fond of his involvement with the ABA's Institute for Field Ornithology and Young Birder Programs. Bill is a popular birding guide, speaker, and workshop instructor, and teaches middle school science in Boulder, Colorado. When he isn’t birding he enjoys family time with his wife and son.
Bill Schmoker

Latest posts by Bill Schmoker (see all)

  • Alexis Marlons

    If I may, the pictures are awesome. I am not a professional photographer but I try sometimes to capture different sceneries with my digital camera and I quite satisfied with it. Thank you for sharing their beauty.

  • idbirds

    What are the cylinders (I see three of them) around the feeder poles? Are they to deter squirrels?

  • Bill Schmoker

    Hi ibirds- indeed, those are baffles to keep squirrels and raccoons from climbing up to the feeders.

    They are part of a modular pole mounting system that I like- you can start with a large screw-in base (which can also be screwed out, unlike pound-in bases), choose a pole height, what kind of connector to use, etc. Several variations exist, but here’s where I got started:

    Best- Bill

  • Kim Allen

    Love the idea of a brush pile very close to the feeders. I have my feeders near blacberry brambles where the birds like to hide including a Red Fox Sparrow lately. Seeing your post is making me think of adding some branches to it it make it even more secure for the birds. LOVE the Harris’s Sparrow photos.

  • Tom Wilberding

    Great tips and photos–enjoyed it. Thanks!

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