Prior to European colonization, much of the state was covered by a dense forestland that had a substantial number of dead and dying trees. It was a great time for cavity-nesting birds and squirrels. The state’s settlement, of course, would change that eventually. And to this day, development continues to swallow more wild lands and often forestland or woodlots.
Dead Trees are in High Demand for Wildlife
Dead and dying trees typically are some of the first to be cleared. But landowners should know that the benefits dead trees or snags provide wildlife are immense. In fact, in Pennsylvania today, dead trees are in higher demand for certain wildlife species than living ones, mostly because there are so few of them.
Managing Dead Trees
The main problems developers and some property owners have with dead trees and snags are their unattractiveness and the usual threats associated with their deterioration. But wildlife managers familiar with the important habitat dead and dying trees provide forest ecosystems believe these trees deserve more respect than they’re getting. They can – and should – be managed with the same considerations live trees receive.
Dead Trees Benefits
Dozens of wild birds and mammals use tree cavities for shelter, resting or nesting. Some excavate their own cavities in the decaying wood of dead and dying trees. Others wait for a woodpecker to do the work and then occupy and enlarge the cavity.
These cavities in dead and dying trees – as well as some living trees – are invaluable to bluebirds, American kestrels, wood ducks, flickers, pileated woodpeckers, chickadees and many other species. Their limited availability makes each one a precious commodity in any forest, woodlot or backyard.
Beyond the Trunk
The natural benefits provided by dead and dying trees extend beyond cavities in the trunk. The separating or peeling bark can shelter resting bats during daylight hours, or provide habitat for insects that many wild birds consume. The bare, weather-worn branches are favored hunting perches for hawks and owls. After the tree falls, it provides shelter for amphibians, reptiles, birds, mammals and insects. The tree’s decaying debris also returns nutrients to the soil, ultimately strengthening the forest’s ability to support life.
It doesn’t matter whether a dead tree is standing and serving as an insect smorgasbord for woodpeckers, or laying on the forest floor and providing a silent passageway through the noisy leaf litter for hunting red foxes and habitat for amphibians, every woodland needs and benefits from them. They not only provide unique habitat and habitat diversity, they also are part of the natural order that all successful forest stewardship programs strive to promote.
State Game Land Tree Management
The Game Commission has a State Game Lands tree policy in place that requires snags and den trees to be retained on timber harvest areas. This retention policy allows for these valuable wildlife havens to be retained and incorporated into future plans for the stand. The agency’s management philosophy is guided by creating a balance of habitat types on State Game Lands, providing the immediate habitat of the dead trees while providing the essential elements of early successional type habitats necessary for species such as ruffed grouse and American woodcock, along with the highly sensitive species such as golden-winged warblers. Bluebirds and many other bird songbirds depend on dead trees. In fact, about 25 of Pennsylvania’s forest wildlife species depend on dead trees and snags for habitat.
YOU Can Help
A dead tree can stand for decades, providing critical shelter and food to myriad species. If a dead or dying tree isn’t threatening your residence, picnic pavilion or roadway, the Game Commission recommends leaving it to nature and the benefit of wildlife. It won’t be long before you’ll see its worthiness to wildlife and begin to appreciate the additional character it affords your backyard or woodlot. If you appreciate wildlife, you should appreciate dead trees.
Remember, as a rule, dead trees don’t come down in a hurry, particularly hardwoods. So as long as safety isn’t a concern, let nature take its course. The tree will become a wildlife magnet and will be worth is weight in gold to the creatures using it. Let that dead tree stay on. Rest assured, it will make wild friends fast.
Photos by Jake Dingel
Excerpts from “Why Dead Trees are Important to Wildlife.”