How to Get Started with Critter Homes and Why You Should
In this episode, we’re going to look at how to get started with critter homes and why you should. Wildlife needs a place to call home and take shelter. If you don’t have space for wildlife, they won’t stick around. Critter homes are a great option to support wildlife and are simple to create. Plus, these simple structures can provide other benefits such as keeping the soil cool and moist around your plants. Let’s look at how you can get started with critter homes.
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As we often do in these podcast episodes I want you to picture a healthy forest. As you look around this forest you should see a lot of logs on the ground.
While many of our managed forests have been cleared of logs—a healthy old-growth forest is filled with large logs at various levels of decomposition.
There will also be branches, leaves, and other organic materials that together provide a large amount of habitat for wildlife.
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Just last week we talked about the importance of fall leaves for supporting wildlife. But logs and branches are also very important.
But like a managed forest most of our properties are lacking in woody debris—logs, branches, and stumps.
The common practice is to gather this material up and burn it. Sometimes this is necessary for fire safety though often it’s done just to make the land look cleaner.
And even when it comes to fire safety larger downed wood—say pieces of wood that are 6-inches across, or more are unlikely to burn if it’s on the forest floor. Rotten wood tends to stay moist making it a poor fuel source for fires. Though I would always make sure to follow the recommendation of local fire officials in your area just to be safe.
To be healthy the land needs large, downed wood. There is a great book that talks about why forests need large woody debris plus a whole lot more about forests and the research being done to discover their secrets. That book is The Hidden Forest – The Biography of an Ecosystem by Jon R. Luoma. I highly recommend checking it out and I’ve put a link to it in the resources section of the show notes for this episode.
But unfortunately, most of us don’t have large logs on our properties and it will be a long time before they naturally show up from falling trees.
So how can you mimic the important role that large logs provide for wildlife on your property? You can do this by creating critter homes using small logs and branches stacked in a way that mimics a single large log.
Scientists call these structures habitat features in their research and I’ve used that term in the past too. But I prefer calling them critter homes because at their core that’s what they are.
Let’s dive into what a critter home is, how to make one, and a bit more about the benefits they bring to your property. But before we do I want to take a quick moment to read a recent review from Jeff Davis. Jeff says:
Many thanks to you Daron for all that you do to help more people become informed about nature and our own health, wellbeing and influencing humans to have a better relationship with nature.
If more people put effort into restoring nature, healthy foods and spent more time outside we would be able to improve our health and ensure a future for fish, wildlife and humans for generations to come!
Thanks again for your help and influence!!
Jeff Davis - Director of Conservation Policy - WA Dept of Fish and WIldlife
Thank you so much Jeff for your kind review. My wife Michaela and I put a lot of time and effort into trying to help people heal the living world and cultivate abundance for people, plants, and wildlife. And hearing from people like you help to give us the energy we need to keep going.
And if you like what you hear today, then please leave a review on Apple Podcasts or wherever else you listen. Your review will help more people find us.
People like you, who want to bring these skills home, to enjoy wildlife, grow more food, and help heal our living world.
Okay, let’s get started.
Further Listening and Reading: Growing with Nature episodes and blog posts with more information about the topics covered in this episode.
- Why Your Garden Needs Logs and Rock Piles
- How to Create Habitat Features for Pest Control
- Placing Habitat Features to Maximize Pest Control
Books and Other Resources
Plant List: More information about some of the plants covered in this episode.
What a Critter Home is
I’m sure you’re a bit unsure what I mean when I say critter home. We’ve talked a bit about large pieces of woody debris like logs but what exactly is a critter home?
In a natural healthy forest, a critter home would just be large logs resting on the forest floor.
When a tree falls to the ground a whole bunch of things starts to happen. If the log still has bark on it the first thing you might notice is the bark starting to separate from the wood beneath it.
All sorts of little critters like spiders, centipedes, frogs, and salamanders, and many more will take shelter between the bark and wood depending on how much space there is.
And some like certain types of beetle larvae will start to tunnel into the wood. These tunnels in turn provide space for other critters to move into the log. Moisture, fungi, and microbes will also start to move in.
All these critters will start to attract other hungry critters like flickers which often get food from logs on the ground.
The action of flickers and other larger critters help create more openings in the log which allow for more wildlife to move in and more moisture to get into the log. This helps the log start to break down which opens up more areas for wildlife and starts to build healthy soil.
Here in the Pacific Northwest several types of native plants like our red huckleberries, and western hemlock will even grow out of these old logs. Often these plants struggle to grow without these nurse logs to support them.
We tend to view downed wood as being dead and even a waste of good wood. But those logs are filled with life—and can even have more biomass in them (the weight of all the life in the log) than a living standing tree does.
This is why downed wood is so important. But as I mentioned earlier most of the places we call home are lacking in downed wood. And if there is any it’s likely just small logs and branches. Not big old-growth logs 3+ feet across.
That is where critter homes come into play.
How to Build a Critter Home
The basic idea is to take those small logs and stack them together in a way that mimics the habitat provided by an old-growth log.
A simple critter home can be made by taking 2 small logs or large branches. First, place them on the ground parallel to each other. Get them as close to each other as possible so their sides are touching.
Sometimes it helps to dig them into the ground a bit so they don’t move around.
Then place the 3rd log on top of the first 2 so it covers the gap between them. From the end of the critter home, it should roughly look like a triangle.
There you go—you’ve built your first critter home.
By placing the logs together in this way you’re providing similar habitat that a single larger log would. Since most places are lacking large logs this is a way to use small logs to create the habitat that is lacking.
And you don’t have to stop with just 3 small logs.
You can easily expand your critter home by adding another log on the bottom, the 2nd log on top, and then the 3rd log on top of it all. So 3 logs on the bottom layer, 2 logs on the middle layer, and 1 log on the top layer.
You can repeat this pattern to make as big of a critter home as you want. And you can make another critter home right at the end of your first to make one even longer critter home.
When figuring out where to place your new critter homes there are several options. One is to put them out in the open. This works fine but I find a lot of people don’t like the look of piles of logs. So a great option is to place them under and between your trees and shrubs. You can easily hide your critter homes this way.
And you can also place your critter homes along the south side (north side in the southern hemisphere) of your trees and shrubs to help keep the ground cool and moist. This can help your plants get through droughts and heatwaves in our warming world.
As you build your critter homes you will notice a bunch of gaps between the logs. All these gaps work just like the gaps that form in a large log as it rots. And over time the small logs in your critter home will also break down and eventually make a mass of rotten wood that is just like what you would get from a single large log.
Which are the perfect conditions for red huckleberries!
And just as a single large log supports more wildlife than a small log the larger you can make your critter homes the more wildlife it will support.
But a mix of sizes is always a good thing. When I make these I like to create a small number of really big critter homes and then a few medium-sized ones and then a bunch of small ones.
And you can add on to existing critter homes as you collect logs and large branches. You don’t have to build it all at once.
The main thing is to just start making critter homes and placing them in and around your growing areas. All the wildlife that call your area home will thank you. And you can even place them in your garden—a while back I did an episode all about why your garden needs logs and rocks. There is a link in the show notes to that episode that looks at how you can add critter homes to a kitchen garden.
What to do if You Don’t Have Woody Debris Where You Live
So I hope I’ve convinced you of how important critter homes and downed wood are for wildlife. But what should you do if you don’t have any logs or large branches on your property to make critter homes?
This is my situation.
Our property was mostly a degraded pasture when we bought it. There are a few trees on the fence line but otherwise, it was mostly devoid of trees.
But as I created hedgerows, food forests, and planted native trees I wanted to add logs and create critter homes.
My solution has been to bring the logs and branches to my property by reaching out to people in my area that want to get rid of their woody debris.
Transporting woody material can cause issues with spreading disease and harmful insects. To avoid this I only collect wood from places that are roughly within a 30-minute drive or less of my place. I’m assuming that any diseases or insects that may be in the wood will already be present where I live.
It’s okay for insects and fungi and bacteria to be in the wood. Those organisms play an important role in breaking down dead wood and making the nutrients in the wood available for plants and wildlife.
But if you import wood from areas far removed from where you live you could import diseases and insects not found in your area. So to avoid this stick to collecting wood from places close to where you live.
I tend to find logs and branches in a couple of ways.
The first is I keep an eye on Craigslist for people wanting to get rid of wood from a downed tree without having to pay to dispose of it.
I also will make posts on social media sites like Facebook and Nextdoor asking if people have wood they want to get rid of.
And I also reach out to local non-profits that are doing prairie restoration work or salvaging native plants from development sites. Prairies don’t tend to have much in the way of woody vegetation so restoring them often involves getting rid of logs from trees that have grown in them. And developers will often remove all the logs and trees before building on a site.
Both cases can be a great source of logs and other woody debris.
I’ve found that once you start looking for logs and woody debris you tend to find it. People generally like to get rid of this material so there tends to be a steady supply if you’re willing to haul it to your place yourself.
And if you don’t have access to a truck, consider renting a pickup truck for a day from a place like U-Haul. A single pickup truckload can make some great critter homes.
Another option if you don’t have access to logs and branches is to use rocks to make critter homes. While rocks won’t break down, they will still provide shelter and homes for all sorts of critters.
While I’ve mostly used logs I have collected loads of rocks and used them to make critter homes too.
And if you live in a fire-prone area this could be a great option close to your home.
When building a critter home out of rocks use a mix of large and small rocks and make sure there are some good gaps between the rocks for critters to get into. You can even use a mix of logs and rocks together.
Just like with logs the larger you can make your rock critter home the better in terms of supporting wildlife.
And stay tuned for our next episode where we will look at why you should mulch your soil. And don’t forget to check out the show notes for more links and resources related to this episode.
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