Dead and Dying Trees: Why I’m leaving some but not others

Brendan Murphy Wednesday, 10 July 2019

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The best firewood is the closest firewood, said the wisest person ever. I agreed with this unknown sage until last year. To clarify, by close I don’t just mean local – something we know is vital for preventing the spread of tree-killing insects. I mean close as in my backyard. What better location for firewood than right outside my back door? But it turns out one of the most entertaining birds on my property wouldn’t visit very often without those firewood trees.

The pileated woodpecker, widely recognizable by its crow-sized stature, namesake red-head, and loud calls, depends on dead and dying trees for food and shelter.

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The pileated woodpecker would always fly where the woodlot met the meadow. Was this because it liked being on the edge habitat created by the woodlot-meadow boundary? It turns out the snags were mostly along the edge and not the rear of the woodlot. It was all about the snags.

That meant I’d have to find a balance between firewood and habitat. I started by seeing how many dead and dying trees I had. I noticed that the woodpecker tended to stay close to the dead trees.

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And it’s not just pileated woodpeckers that benefit from snags. Other woodpeckers and birds use them just as the pileated woodpecker does. Wasps and other pollinators will lay eggs in old woodpecker or insect holes. Bats will nest in cavities. Salamanders and frogs will seek shelter underneath.

I love watching wildlife, but I also tend to love a good bonfire. This means dead and dying trees near the fire pit are prime prospects. Relationship status: it’s complicated.

About the author: Brendan Murphy is the Director of Stewardship with Westchester Land Trust.

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