Trees Wanted: Dead or Alive!

Trees Wanted: Dead or Alive!

Several years ago we had a Birch tree in our yard that was clearly dying. Since it wasn’t close to our house or any other structure, we decided to top it, cutting off the main branches and leaving a snag about 20 feet high. Our hope was that it would provide some habitat for wildlife, but I have to admit I felt a little self-conscious leaving a dying tree standing in our suburban neighborhood. I began to doubt our decision when an acquaintance who volunteers for Audubon suggested that, because of the snag’s relatively short height, it was unlikely that birds would choose to nest inside of it. Yet, in spite of my fears that it wouldn’t do much good or what our neighbors might think, we left it in place.Flicker Flying

Over time we began to notice some Northern Flickers drilling holes in the Birch and figured they were simply enjoying the insects that lived in the decaying wood. It made me feel better knowing that at least the snag was providing food for these woodpeckers, one of our favorite birds. But after several months we began to notice that a pair of Flickers seemed to be carving out a hole in the tree. They would disappear inside and all we could see was a beak flinging out bits of sawdust like a worker shoveling dirt at a construction site. We were lucky enough that the hole was visible from our second story window so we could see them at work without disturbing them. We started to wonder—was it possible they might be preparing a nest?

We watched the female and male (males have a little red “moustache”) flying back and forth at a constant, steady pace and wondered if they were feeding their young.  To our delight, our suspicion was eventually confirmed. From our viewing spot upstairs, we saw two baby Flickers tentatively poking their heads out, waiting for their next meal. When one of their parents did arrive, they clamored loudly—making much more noise than we would have ever thought two tiny birds could make. (Click here to watch a video that my husband took of dad feeding the babies–you can see them poking their heads out about half way through.)Flicker Baby3

We enjoyed watching the Flicker family so much that we had mixed feelings when they were gone. We never saw them leave, but we hoped they had safely flown off to begin their new lives somewhere in the forests of Finn Hill. Every now and then we would see a Flicker perched on the snag and wonder if it was one of the youngsters returning.

If you have a dead or dying tree on your property it’s easy to feel the pressure of conventional yard maintenance to cut them down and haul them off. But as long as these snags are far enough away from any structures or high activity areas where they could potentially be a hazard, dead trees can actually provide more habitat for wildlife than when they are alive! Both standing snags and downed logs are incredibly important in nature. According to this article from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (where you can find out a bunch more about snags) “more than 100 species of birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians need snags for nesting, roosting, shelter, denning, and feeding.” For example, the outer surface of the bark is where birds such as brown creepers, nuthatches, and woodpeckers eat bark beetles, spiders, and ants; the inner bark is where woodpeckers eat larvae and pupae of insects; the space between partially detached bark and the tree trunk is where nuthatches, winter wrens, and brown creepers roost or search for food. Pacific tree frogs, several species of bats, and many butterflies also find shelter there.Flicker Emerging

Even if you don’t have a snag on your property, you may begin to notice these dying trees on your walks in the woods of Finn Hill. Knowing a little bit more about them—and the life they support—may give you a new appreciation for their value!


Jessica Paige has worked in the environmental field for over 20 years and is the author of Chasing Ravens, a novel featuring Russian folklore and herbal medicine, two of her other passions.

One Response to “Trees Wanted: Dead or Alive!”

  1. Jeanette says:

    Birch are dying all over the Pacific Northwest from bronze birch borer (an insect). The best way to slow the spread of the insect to your neighbors’ trees and open space trees is to cut and remove the infested wood.

    I’m a strong believer in wildlife snags, but not when they are dead or dying from a highly contagious insect infestation.

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