The Beautiful Life of a Dead Tree or Dead Trees I’ve Known and Loved
July 25, 2014
By Jody Walthall
Photo by Lilly Anderson-Messec: Bald Cypress
What is the most important tree in the forest? Tallahasseean, Jim Stevenson, former Chief Naturalist of Florida State Parks and chief of the Office of Resource Management, would say it is any dead one. Living trees obviously provide food, shelter and places to rear the next generation of wildlife. Dead trees do all of that and more.
In terms of food, a dead tree is prime habitat for insects and fungi that help return the tree to the soil, recycling the nutrients held in the limbs, trunk and roots. These insects are a valuable source of protein for birds, reptiles and mammals that regularly scour dead trees in search of food. Depending on the amount of decay, individual trees provide a continual progression of conditions for different insects to live in. Every part of the tree, depending on the diameter of the limb or twig, probably has a specific insect that will utilize it. The dead tree is an entire ecosystem in its own right.
A downy woodpecker can excavate a nest cavity in a rotten four inch limb. If the limb doesn’t rot off, the cavity will very likely be used later by some other bird who cannot make its own cavity, possibly a chickadee or a nuthatch.
As the trunk decays, hairy, red-bellied and red-headed woodpeckers, along with the Northern flicker and pileated woodpecker, will all make nest holes. The importance of these birds to humans in terms of insect control cannot be overstated. Several other birds, including bluebirds, are totally dependent on these woodpecker holes for nesting and all of them primarily eat insects.
A standing dead pine with bark beginning to loosen and slough off gives many insects hiding places to spend the winter. Butterflies and others seek out these cracks and crevices to hide from predators or conserve warmth through the cold months.
If a tree dies in your yard and it doesn’t threaten your house or a neighbor’s, you may consider letting it stand. Its presence will greatly enhance your wildlife viewing. If the tree could fall on your house, consider leaving a ten- or twenty-foot tall portion of the trunk if you do not think it would be unsightly. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Because of the function they serve, rotten trees are beautiful to me.
If the tree must come down, consider leaving a portion of the trunk on the ground. The log becomes valuable to another group of animals. Salamanders, skinks or toads may hunt the log for prey or seek refuge in the cool earth beneath it. Shrews, with their toxic saliva, will hunt the soil under the log for worms, insects, spiders and even the salamanders. A box turtle would love to have a shallow burrow under your log to spend the winter. I have several rotting pine logs in my wooded back yard. Ten years from now, after they have disappeared into the soil, I’ll harvest the rock-hard ‘lighter’ knots left behind. Using them to start a fire in the fireplace on a cold winter day, I’ll contemplate all the benefits the old dead tree gave to the wildlife in my yard.
So, if the situation is practical, leave the most important tree in your yard to provide the micro-habitat so valuable to a multitude of wildlife.
Jody Walthall is landscape designer and co-owner of Native Nurseries and a volunteer writer for Leon County UF/IFAS Extension. For gardening questions, email us at Ask-A-Mastergardener@leoncountyfl.gov
Learn more tips to attract wildlife to your yard by watching David Copps, landscape designer and certified arborist talk with Stan Rosenthal, UF/Leon County Extension Forester on WFSU’s TV show Dimensions. Just click the link below.