TRR photos by Sandy Long

This dead tree serves as a smorgasbord for bird species such as woodpeckers, which have been feasting on insects that have also gained sustenance from it. 

Taking down the tree

For many of us at this time of year, the phrase “taking down the tree” refers to an activity we’ll find ourselves engaged in when the holiday season winds down. But in the natural world, the phrase describes a process that continues throughout the year, often unnoticed, but occasionally with the drama that high winds, lightning strikes, or heavy snow loads can deliver.

Sometimes the process of a tree’s demise is slower, as disease, insects, fungi and wildlife take their toll on a tree’s well-being. But even as they are dying and once they are dead, trees continue to provide valuable resources to many species.

The Pennsylvania Game Commission (PGC) places high priority on dead trees, urging developers and landowners to reconsider the perspective that non-hazardous dead or dying trees are unattractive nuisances.

“The benefits dead trees or snags provide wildlife are immense,” the PGC notes in its blog, “From the Field.” “Dead trees are in higher demand for certain wildlife species than living ones, mostly because there are so few of them... They can—and should—be managed with the same considerations live trees receive.” The agency even has a State Game Lands policy that requires snags and den trees to be retained on timber harvest areas.

Many birds (such as wood ducks, bluebirds, flickers and chickadees) as well as mammals (raccoons, for example) use tree cavities (like those carved by woodpeckers) for shelter, resting or nesting. Like prime real estate, their scarcity makes each a precious commodity and a prime wildlife viewing opportunity for anyone who appreciates their importance.

In addition to the value of tree cavities, the peeling bark of a dying tree that is still standing offers shelter to bats during daylight hours. Its bare branches provide prime hunting perches for raptors. Once on the ground, such trees provide shelter for various reptiles, amphibians, mammals, birds and insects. As the tree decays, nutrients are returned to the soil, ultimately improving forest health

The next time you are considering taking down a dead or dying tree, entertain the option of leaving it in place for the benefit of the wildlife species that share our habitat. You never know who might show up at the feast or find shelter or a nesting site thanks to your generosity. Let nature run its course and take the tree down for you.


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