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Crossing Paths With Washington's Wildlife

Wildlife dig dead wood in live trees

Washington's backyard wildlife enthusiasts have long known that "snags" or dead and dying trees are valuable for lots of species, providing meals for insectivorous birds, nesting cavities for owls and squirrels, and much more.

As long as a snag doesn't pose a safety hazard for people and property, it's an enviable backyard wildlife sanctuary feature, a veritable "animal inn". Over 1,200 wildlife species in North America rely on dead, dying, or hollow trees for dens, roost areas, and feeding sites. Fish also benefit from trees that have fallen into streams and provide cover.

Living trees with dead or dying limbs are just as valuable as snags, if not more so, because they provide an incredible diversity of wildlife habitat.

The live parts like branches, buds, leaves and flowers are used for nesting, cover and food. The decaying or dead parts of large limbs can make for easy excavating for both food (insects) and cover (cavities). Even a small dead branch can serve as an important perching spot for backyard birds. Decadent or dying bark or limbs often spawn the growth of fungus, algae, lichens, and mosses used by many different animals.

But too often the dead or dying parts are quickly cut away, or worse yet, the entire tree is removed. That's because most of us naturally think that a damaged or decaying tree needs to be dealt with to avoid spreading a problem throughout a tree, or to other trees. During particularly dry years, like this one, we might even be thinking a tree with a dead or dying limb is just that much more of a wildfire hazard.

We tend to think we're getting the jump on a potential threat, but actually professional arborists have long known that many trees "compartmentalize" wounds and dead wood from the rest of the tree to limit the spread of disease and decay. Trees "seal" rather than "heal". Unless a dead branch is truly a hazard because of its location, often it can be left alone and continue to provide a perching spot and other uses by wildlife.

If you'd like to maximize your backyard habitat for wildlife, consider calling a professional arborist before you prune or completely remove a tree. A professional can analyze your situation, in terms of both damage to people or property and to the tree or surrounding trees, and provide the best advice.

More information about managing snags and live trees with dead wood is available through the "Animal Inn" program of the Pacific Northwest Region of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's U.S. Forest Service in cooperation with other federal land management agencies, national associations representing the private timber industry, non-industrial woodland managers, state foresters, and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. The Animal Inn program handbook is available at http://www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/stelprdb5073121.pdf

Conservation Northwest, a non-profit organization working to "keep the northwest wild," also has information about the value of dead and dying wood at http://www.conservationnw.org/what-we-do/forests/snags/


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