Given the size of our yard, and the amount of trees, we have several brush piles. They are all in the backyard, and away from public viewing. Brush piles provide an essential habitat and shelter for many of our critters; birds feed on the bugs and other creepy crawlies; snakes, lizards and toads live in them and feed on bugs (and each other) and our current resident owl (Frankie, the remaining juvenile) has a favorite perch over one next to a stream- best seat at the buffet. Recently, I spotted a gorgeous Southern Black Racer (Coluber constrictor priapus), sunning itself on the top of one (more about Black Racers below). Sitting quietly nearby, I have watched cardinals, wrens, thrushes, warblers, sparrows, woodpeckers as well as toads, lizards, snakes, squirrels, and overwintering butterflies making use of these islands of safety and nourishment. Brush piles support a lot of life, and can provide protection from predators and a place to build a nest or den. One of our largest brush piles even has a small population of Florida Wood rats ((Neotoma floridana)- and if a rat can be called cute- these guys win the prize. Wood rats are relatively small, have very big upright round ears, a pink nose, white belly and big eyes. They are nocturnal, feed mostly on nuts, seeds, fungi, buds, stems, roots and fruits and avoid human habitation. Please don't confuse them with roof rats (aka fruit rats, Rattus, rattus) which are a horrible introduced pest that will consume and destroy stored animal and human food, attack fruit crops, and take up residence in attics, soffits, hollow walls, and out-buildings. When they invade buildings they chew through wires (potentially starting fires), gnaw through plastic and lead water pipes, make holes in walls and cause other structural damage. One of the added benefits of having a resident Barred owl, is the roof rat population has dropped considerably.
If you have a big enough backyard, please consider building and maintaining a brush pile. As the bottom layers decompose (providing the perfect breeding ground for yummy earthworms and grubs, yummy to birds that is) it is simple to keep adding branches and yard debris to the top. Here is a great site that discusses this, and gives instruction on how to build a viable brush pile- http://www.ecosystemgardening.com/brush-piles-help-wildlife-in-your-ecosystem-garden.html
First, the only photograph I have of one of our Wood rats,
Southern Black Racers (Coluber constrictor priapus) are wonderful snakes,they eat rodents (small ones, that is), lizards, frogs, toads and bugs. I usually come upon one sunning in the path- whereupon it takes off very fast (thus the name racer) which always startles me. Black Racers are beneficial, nonvenomous and harmless, their biggest enemy is humans who think the only good snake is a dead snake. They don't like being handled (I've tried and they just continue to thrash around), and apparently are not tameable, so best to leave them alone.
A couple photographs of the beautiful Black Racer, sunning on top of a brush pile-