PHOTO: Dick Pountain/Flickr
Karen Lanier
February 27, 2017

It might look spooky: a silhouetted, leafless, shadowy form that punctuates an otherwise pastoral scene. For many properties, especially in suburbia, a dead tree is an anomaly. Municipalities are generally quick to remove a dead tree, aka a snag, to remove any risk of damage to life or property. However, we are risking the lives and homes of wild animals by removing this valuable habitat.

A Home To Many

Beetles are one of the first creatures to make themselves at home in a dead snag. They lay eggs and their larvae hatch out and burrow channels as they eat their way through the softer part of the wood just under the bark. This, along with the help of bacteria and fungi, loosens the bark.

Next comes an interested bird who likes to eat the larvae, typically a woodpecker, leading to a whole new community that moves in. The burrows hollowed out by pileated woodpeckers serve a variety of wildlife, for a variety of purposes.

  • Perching: Birds of prey, such as hawks and owls, get a bird’s eye view of the rodents they hunt.
  • Drumming: Hollow wood makes the a great resonating chamber for woodpeckers to hammer out their territorial statements as they stake their claim.
  • Roosting: Bats and some songbirds use slits in the wood to rest in safety.
  • Nesting: Titmice, flycatchers, owls, chickadees, wood ducks and squirrels nest in cavities that woodpeckers carve out.

Dying With Dignity

Whether a stump is left behind after a tree is cut down or a ball of roots is upturned when a tree falls naturally, much life is also supported by the underground matrix. More than 80 species of birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians depend on dead or dying trees in one way or another. Far better than a man-made birdhouse, nature has been designing the housing projects (and food and social spaces) for the tiniest of insects to the largest of mammals for eons.

If the standing snag is not a danger to anyone, and if you can allow nature to run its course, you can witness an entire ecosystem of life supported by a decaying giant. While we may want to quickly chip up the trunks, branches, and twigs to make a nice mulch, organisms are slowly working their way through the woody cells and decomposing it at nature’s pace. The result will be fertile and rich organic material that has supported a diversity of life while gracing the landscape with its unique shape.

For an extra incentive, check with your local Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) office to see if they have a program to support creation and retention of snags, den trees and coarse woody debris for wildlife habitat.


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