Having been born and raised in the suburbs of a major metropolitan area, and living most of my life in neighborhoods where homeowners typically spent at least part of their weekends manicuring their yards, it is understandable that I would bring some city type thinking with me to our rural ranch. And so it was with my attitude towards dead trees.
In the city, as I noticed on my last trip to the Los Angeles area, it is difficult to find a dead tree. If the tree is on public property, than city maintenance crews will quickly remove the tree for safety reasons. If the dead tree is located on commercial property, the property owner will remove the tree for liability reasons, and if the tree is situated on a residential lot, the homeowner will usually remove the tree for safety and/or aesthetic reasons.
When we moved onto our property five years ago, the land had pretty much been neglected for several years, so there was much remedial landscaping and field work to be done. One of the first things I noticed were some dead trees of one species or another scattered throughout the area. My suburban instincts immediately took hold, and I vowed that I would soon muster up the tractor and a log chain to pull down these offending eyesores.
As fate would have it, there were so many more pressing chores to do that I never had the opportunity to remove any of the dead trees that were scattered around our land. Never the less, I vowed that I would get around to this task before too much time had passed. One thing led to another, and before I knew it, another season had passed without my vow being fulfilled.
Today the dead trees still stand. Is the fact that they still exist a testament to my procrastinating nature? Fortunately not. Since we moved out to the country, I have tried to educate myself about the things I see around me. And one of the things that I have learned is just how important dead trees are to the environment around us.
A standing dead tree, know as a snag, is a thriving habitat for an entire mini-ecosystem. First of all, a snag is nature’s version of the fast-food restaurant. The dead wood itself becomes a meal for ants, termites, and wood-boring beetles. These insects, as well as their larvae, in turn become a meal for various species of birds. Raccoons will also visit the snag for a delicious meal made up of insect larvae.
Besides serving as a feeding station, a snag provides cover for a vast array of creatures. The loose bark of a snag provides cover for bats to roost, as well as a cozy spot for caterpillars to pupate. Also taking cover under the loose bark are tree frogs, salamanders, and various types of beetles. Tree holes also provide a place of refuge for a large number of critters, including woodpeckers, owls, bluebirds, nuthatches, chickadees, wrens, titmice, squirrels, raccoons and opossums, to name just a few. It has been estimated that up to one-third of all forest birds and mammals depend on dead trees for either nesting or shelter. The great popularity of providing man-made housing for birds stems from the fact that many species have lost a good portion of the snags that they depend on for their survival. Thus the need for bluebird houses, bat houses, purple martin houses, etc.
One of the prime uses of a snag is for perching. Predatory birds, such as owls, hawks, eagles and osprey use the unobstructed view afforded by the leafless snag to observe the surrounding area, searching for prey.
According to the Pennsylvania State Wildlife Management Agency, in their article Why Dead Trees Are Important To Wildlife, dead trees in many cases have become a more valuable resource than living trees, due to the declining number of standing dead trees. Many states are beginning to require that dead and dying trees be retained in harvest areas, which marks a shift from previous forestry practices.
The Pacific Northwest Research Station, in the article contained in their journal “Science Findings” entitled Dead And Dying Trees: Essential For Life In The Forest, indicates that the latest research into forest ecosystems reveals that the extent to which dead trees are essential to forest species has been severely under-estimated in the past, and that there is a much broader variety of species that depend on dead trees than previously thought.
In conclusion, as I have come to understand the critical role of dead trees and snags on my property, I have become grateful for the circumstances that arose preventing me from taking the rash action of downing these wonderful trees. Instead of thinking of snags like the one shown in the photograph above as “dead trees”, I now view them in their proper light – a vital habitat for the survival of the many wildlife species that inhabit the area.