Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

brushpile © Mary Kay Salwey

Brush pile
© Mary Kay Salwey

February 2009

Creature comforts

Give me shelter.

Kathryn A. Kahler

It may be too late in the season to start thinking about providing winter shelter for your furred and feathered friends, but it's a perfect time to get a head start on planning for next winter. For do-it-yourselfers, there's no shortage of plans online for shelters and houses. So dig out those safety glasses and fire up the table saw – your heart will be warmed by the experience.

Share the warmth

Birds that overwinter in our climate zone are specially adapted to fight the cold. They fluff up multiple layers of feathers to insulate their tiny bodies, have circulatory systems that cut heat loss in their legs and feet, and shiver to maintain body temperature. Small birds like chickadees, nuthatches, juncos and woodpeckers crowd together to share and conserve body heat, especially at night. In natural settings, they seek out hollow tree cavities or dense evergreens during winter storms, but those can be few and far between in many urban and suburban neighborhoods.

You can help by erecting roost boxes on your property. If youíre a member of a neighborhood association, why not suggest this as a joint winter project?

Several websites offer free plans and advice. Check out Attracting Birds with Roost Boxes, or How to Make a Winter Roosting Box.

If youíre an old hand at birdhouse construction, here are some things youíll want to consider in designing your own roost box:

  • Put the entrance hole near the bottom (so body heat is trapped near the top) and make it small enough for only small birds to enter – about 1 Ĺ inches in diameter.
  • Hinge the top or one side to allow easy cleaning.
  • Insert 1/4" to 3/8" dowels staggered at varying levels throughout the box where birds can perch, but leave head room and space to maneuver.
  • Small drainage holes in the bottom are fine, but otherwise it should be as airtight as possible.
  • Size doesnít matter – the bigger the box, the more birds it can accommodate.
  • Cut grooves in the inside front and rear walls, or cover them with hardware cloth so woodpeckers can cling to them.
  • Mount the box in a sheltered, south-facing spot, on a metal pole, wooden post or tree, or attached to a building.
  • Coat the exterior with linseed oil to make it last longer, or dark paint to attract and trap heat from the sun.
  • Never paint or oil the inside – birds wonít use it!

Back to nature – in your own back yard

Now that youíve found a way to help your feathered friends through the winter, why stop there? Lots of small critters would benefit year-round from wildlife brush shelters you can easily construct in a corner of your yard, or scatter throughout your rural property.

Chipmunks, rabbits, turtles, lizards, toads, juncos and sparrows are but a few of the species you can attract with a few basic materials. Find a place in your yard thatís at least partially sunny so wildlife can bask. If your property is large enough, try to position it between two kinds of habitat to attract the most wildlife. Plan on a shelter about 10 feet across and five feet high if you can spare the room.

Start with a base of large logs several feet long, stacked and crisscrossed, and interspersed with a few old pipes or downspout sections. Small mammals, toads and snakes will use them as tunnels. Pile stones and scatter rocks around the perimeter for animals to bask in the sun.

Next, add several layers of branches of gradually smaller diameter and plant native vines to intertwine and provide flowers and fruits. Songbirds and butterflies will flutter and perch among them. Top it off with evergreen branches to provide added shelter from winter snow and ice.

Of course, not everyone may be as thrilled with visiting wildlife as you are, so check community and neighborhood regulations before getting started. You may also want to be sure your neighbors donít mind.

For more complete instructions, check out Rabbitat: Brush Piles for Wildlife.

Kathryn A. Kahler writes from Madison.