Dead Trees are Do-Gooders

July 22, 2020  •  Leave a Comment

If you love birds, you have to love dead trees. I photograph raptors and other birds, a lot. I often notice one thing in common across my many bird shots, in the many different locations I’ve photographed them, and that is the birds are in a dead tree or on dead wood.  Sounds bad, but it’s not. In fact, it’s a good thing because dead trees are do-gooders.


Dead trees, also called “snags”, and dead wood may not look pretty in our human eyes. A lot of us have been conditioned to see dead trees and dead wood as something bad, dangerous, must be cut down, cleaned up, and moved out of sight. But do you know that dead trees are one of the best places to find a variety of birds and other wildlife?  Dead trees provide habitat, which includes nesting, feeding and perching areas for many species of birds and raptors like eagles, owls, hawks, osprey, falcons, woodpeckers, ducks, bats, and many more. Dead trees, and dead wood on the ground, also provide habitat and protection for racoons, squirrels, chipmunks, and amphibians.


Many animals use the nooks and spaces in dead trees and wood to store food. Out West, where the landscape still supports apex predators like grizzly bears, grizzlies can be found eating ants that live by the millions in dead tree logs scattered around forest floors. In aquatic environments, fallen dead trees or wood are excellent hiding places for fish and help them hunt bugs and other organisms.


Even more, a variety of beneficial organisms including moss, lichens and fungi grow on snags and help return vital nutrients to the soil. In forests, decaying logs on the ground also act as a kind of nursery for new tree seedlings. Dead trees and down wood play an important role in ecosystems by providing wildlife habitat, cycling nutrients, aiding plant regeneration, decreasing erosion, and influencing drainage and soil moisture and carbon storage, among other values. The US Forest service states, “Over 85 North American bird species rely on snags to nest, feed, or seek shelter. If they don't pose a hazard, leave snags standing.”


With the right permits, it’s legal to obtain personal use firewood from US National Forests. However, some National Forests clearly prohibit cutting down standing trees of any type, including snags, while others try to educate the public to look for signs of wildlife using snags before cutting. For example, the US Forest Service Naches Ranger District (Washington State), created a video that is shown to woodcutters when obtaining permits at the Naches Ranger District, helping them to look for signs of wildlife in snags and leave those snags standing on the landscape.


Certainly, there are situations where snags and other dead wood can be dangerous. The National Wildlife Federation has some recommendations on when you should consider removing snags from your yard and other dead wood, along with tips on how to garden for wildlife,  Excellent tips and insights are also available at the US Forest Service, . Just remember, if a dead tree isn’t threatening your residence, leave it be, and you’ll see the benefits.


I’ve witnessed it and know the benefits of dead trees. Scan the photos below and see just a bit of what I’ve captured hanging out in, or on, dead trees!

Steady - Juvenile little blue heronSteady - Juvenile little blue heron Tufted TitmouseTufted TitmouseWashington, DC Eastern PhoebeEastern Phoebe Loggerhead ShrikeLoggerhead ShrikePine Glades Natural Area, Jupiter Florida

Blue-Tailed SkinkBlue-Tailed SkinkNorthern Virginia

More reading on the value and purpose of dead trees:


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