Wanted: Dead or Alive- Wildlife Trees

Snag wildlife treeBy Charlotte Adelman

Compared with a living tree, more species of life benefit directly from the habitat and nourishment offered by trees in the afterlife. While a tree’s death causes wildlife dependent on its pollen, fruits or nuts to go elsewhere, the death enables crowds of other woodland life to move in and vastly increase the diversity of species it supports. The moment a tree dies, creatures ranging from birds to bacteria move in to dissolve, chew and disassemble the cellulose and lignin structure into food or habitat. A habitat has four essential components that make it suitable for a particular population of animals: food, water, shelter, and space. A wildlife tree provides three of the four of those essentials making it an important part of your backyard habitat to increase biodiversity.

Some 85 species of birds in North America nest in the dying and dead trees that we call snags or wildlife trees. Dead and dying trees are in limited supply, making them exclusive stopover sites for exhausted migrating birds, and for the bluebirds, American kestrels, wrens, nuthatches, woodpeckers, and chickadees. Cavities located over or near water are used by tree swallows, prothonotary warblers, wood ducks, goldeneyes, mergansers and buffleheads. Some species, like chickadees select a cavity with the smallest opening they can squeeze through. This prevents nest predators (blue jays, raccoons) and nest parasites (brown-headed cowbirds) from entering. Great crested flycatchers often hang a snake skin in the cavity entrance, to scare off intruders. Primary cavity users excavate cavities in the decaying wood, while secondary cavity users wait for a woodpecker to do the work before occupying and enlarging the cavity.

northern flicker escavates her nest cavityA dead tree also offers a place to build nests and a perch for hunting and observation (hawks, owls), safety from predators, and protection from the elements. Seeds, nuts and other food items stored in a cavity can determine which individuals make it through a particularly harsh winter, notes The Cavity Conservation Initiative. [i] The native bee larva and Lepidoptera (butterfly/moth) eggs that overwinter in tree bark also serve as food for birds and their spring nestlings. Mammals also use cavities in dead trees. Bats use natural and abandoned woodpecker cavities. Small mammals den in hollow trees. Flying squirrels prefer downy woodpecker cavities, which they line with shredded bark, or lichens, moss, feathers or leaves. Black bears sleep in the vast hollow trunks of huge sycamore trees that once sheltered entire pioneer families.   

The wildlife associated with snags play an important role in the dispersal of invertebrates. Peeling bark provides habitat for insects that wild birds consume. Protein-packed mushrooms -the fruiting bodies of fungi—attract more insects and hungry wildlife to the side of dead trees. When downed, hollow logs and dead trees are corridors used by predators as silent passageways through the noisy leaf litter. Below ground, a dead tree’s nutritional offerings eventually enters the soil, where they are further broken down and transported to different soil layers by the various decomposers.

Cavity conservation initiative
Decomposers including earthworms, firefly larva, ant colonies, snails, and crickets help return nutrients from the decaying debris to the soil, ultimately strengthening the forest’s ability to support life. Species that aerate, dig and fragment wood contribute to improved soil structure and quality. Decomposing wood, especially when accompanied by dead leaf litter, is a nutritionally rich and superior nursery for many seeds, such as shade-seeking wildflowers. Wood decomposers include bacteria, nematodes as well as types of fungi, called mycorrhiza. In return for delivering minerals (phosphorus, inorganic nitrogen) to the plant via its rootlets, the fungi receive moisture and carbohydrates from the plant, and sometimes a bonus in the form of special resistance to certain diseases.

A piece by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) from the UK urges “Bring your garden to life with dead wood”. Eventually, the structure of the dead tree dissolves and it falls over, becoming a “nurse log” because it provides a habitat for many organisms. Nurse logs are often hollow, and used for a variety of purposes by wildlife. When creating snags from dying trees, it is important that homeowners hire an expert tree service to remove branches and tops of large trees. Homeowners must make sure that whoever does the work is licensed, bonded, and insured, and understands your intention to make a wildlife tree. Contact local arborists for certified specialists who can competently create and maintain wildlife trees.

Cavity Conservation sign

To clearly communicate about wildlife trees between you and your neighbors, hang up these handy wildlife tree signs.These handy wildlife tree signs provide an opportunity to educate friends, neighbors, and the public about why a dead tree has been retained.

These aluminum signs are about the size of a sheet of paper and cost $10 (shipping included). For the signs, visit The Cavity Conservation Initiative’s Nature Store at:  http://cavityconservation.com/nature-store-2/

 

By Charlotte Adelman

Charlotte is the co-author of The Midwestern Native Garden, Midwestern Native Shrubs & Trees, and Prairie Directory of North America. Co-authored with Bernard L. Schwartz,  The Midwestern Native Garden: Native Alternatives to Nonnative Flowers and Plants was the winner of the 2012 Helen Hull Award from the National Garden Clubs. In 2014, Adelman was awarded an Audubon Chicago Region Habitat Project Conservation Leadership Award. Read more about her work in this feature article in the Chicago Tribune.

 

Additional Resources & Sources:

 Nancy Lawson article: http://www.humanegardener.com/life-after-death/

 Bernd Heinrich, Life Everlasting: The Animal Way of Death (Paperback)

[i] Value of Dead Trees for Birds The Cavity Conservation Initiative

https://wdfw.wa.gov/living/snags/

https://www.dnr.illinois.gov/OI/PublishingImages/SnagOrDeadTree4.jpg

A Bird’s Eye View Inside Some Nests

Although our local weather may not be as spring-like as we’d like, birds are responding to their nesting timelines all over the country.  Below are links to several special opportunities to observe the nesting behavior of a bird species including hawks, osprey, peregrines, eagles and hummingbirds.  Several links have been provided for eagle cams; each of them offers a view of different stages in the nesting. These links include live cams as well as recordings (both from this season and from previous years).  The pages usually include some information about the project and the individual birds’ histories. Because of the file sizes and depending on your internet speed, there may be delay times as the live-streams load.

If you have information on other sites, please share with Carol Rice at goforsix@aol.com.

Red Tail hawk’s nest by All About Birds Article and live video 

Recorded videos of hummingbirds building their nest and their babies 

Peregrine Cam in Baltimore, MD

Osprey Cam in Charlotte and Lake Norman (both in North Carolina)

Eagle Cams in Washington, D.C,Decorah, Iowa, and Minnesota

Kestrel Cam in Utah

Peregrine nest in Evanston, IL 

Habitat Products and Services Directory

Listed here are businesses and organizations that provide products and services for creating native plant gardens and natural habitats on private land in the CLC Chicago Region.
Directory:

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See here for a list of Product and Service Providers that have not yet created an entry in the directory database.
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Favorite Spring Pollinator Plants

Spring is a critical time of year to provide high-quality pollen and nectar resources to pollinators who are either coming out of winter diapause (mated Bumblebee queens) or are early emergers (like some Andrena bees), or the season’s first generation of pollinators (like small Carpenter bees).

Are you wondering what are good, solid native plants to have on your property for this first wave of pollinators?  Members of a few of our founding groups shared two of their favorite early spring blooming plants (The Chicago Living Corridors is an alliance of several conservation groups in the larger Chicago area. We are always looking for more partners.)

Carol from Wildflower Preservation and Propagation Committee recommends Bloodroot and Wild Blue Phlox.  From Carol:

carols-bloodroot
Bloodroot Photo: Carol Rice

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) is a lovely spring ephemeral and is the one I most eagerly anticipate.  Bloodroot is one of the earliest of the woodland plants to come up in the spring.  It is a member of the poppy family, but the only member of its genus in the world. It grows to about 6”, and the flower stalk comes up wrapped in the protection of the leaf. The flower is truly ephemeral –the lovely white petals will often be lost to a strong wind or a rain after only a day or two.

Bloodroot has a fairly extensive native range in North America.  It grows in rich woods, coming up in April or May. It’s seeds are spread by ants, who collect the seed for the fleshy covering (eliasome). Bloodroot has pollen, but no nectar, and is typically pollinated by bees.

The name of the plant is derived from the color of the plant’s juice, which is orange-red.  The juice is a potent dye, and was used by First Nations mixed with animal fat to paint their baskets and faces.  It has had a number of herbal uses.

carols-wild-blue-phlox
Wild Blue Phlox with Wild Ginger and native sedges Photo: Carol Rice

Wild Blue Phlox (Phlox divaricata) is  another favorite.  Lovely on its own, or combined with other spring wildflowers (the glorious yellow celandine poppy – Stylophorum diphyllum – or wild ginger – Asarum canadense), this native plant spreads nicely, so can create a sizable colony. As with other spring woodland flowers, woodland phlox is fairly short, reaching 12” to 15”, with a five-petaled flower.  (Note- people often confuse Dame’s rocket with phlox.  Dame’s rocket only has four petals, and is invasive, not native.)

Hummingbirds visit phlox for its nectar, as do moths, butterflies and long-tongued bees.


Stephanie Walquist from West Cook Wild Ones recommends Pussy Willow (Salix discolor or any native type of Salix) and Virginia Waterleaf (Hydrophyllum virginium).

Pussy Willow
Willow buds with bees Photo: Stephanie Walquist

My willow tree is one of the earliest blooming trees and is dependably busy with visitations from many different pollinators.  I also love that Willows are an important host plant to many species of Lepidoptera.  Through all seasons, many species of birds find food on this tree.

Close-up Virginia Waterleaf
Virginia Waterleaf Photo: Stephanie Walquist

It’s hard selecting favorites, but I also love Virginia Waterleaf.  It spreads nicely though the garden and has beautiful white flowers that supports many early pollinators.  The foliage makes it an attractive addition to the woodland garden all summer, and its beauty belies how hardy it is. I’ve seen it growing in the lawn near woodland edges (along with Spring Beauty) at Morton Arboretum  The leaves are also edible.


Sharp-leaved Hepatica
Sharp-leaved Hepatica Photo: Linda Gurgone

In her woodland garden Linda Gurgone (also of WPPC) loves to see Sharp-leaved Hepatica.  It has evergreen foliage, and the flowers are elegant and important for pollinators.  The flowers are variable in color, ranging from pinks to whites.  It’s a small plant that loves rich woodland environments, so make sure your soil is rich in organic material and leaf “litter.”

Another one of her favorites is Marsh Marigold (Caltha palustris).  It gets about 2ft in height and its buttery yellow flowers support early bees.  It can take a range of sun conditions and has lovely heart-shaped leaves that are glossy.

Marsh Marigold
Marsh Marigold Photo: Linda Gurgone

Peggy Simonsen from Citizens for Conservation recommends Redbud and Viburnum dentatum, although any native Viburnum is a wonderful asset for all gardens.

lindas-redbud
Redbud Photo by Linda Gurgone

Redbud (Cercis canadensis) is a small,  understory tree, and is appropriately named for its pink-red flowers in the spring.  Arrowood Viburnum (Viburnum dentatum) is a beautiful shrub with large white flowers, which become berries relished by birds in the fall.

Do you have a plant (herbaceous, shrub, tree) that you love and recommend for supporting early pollinators?  Let us know in the comments section.  You will be helping people out who are wondering what to plant for bees and butterflies that are early risers in the spring.

Note: The featured photo at the top of the page is Prairie Smoke (Geum triflorum), a great plant for Bumblebees.

Doug Tallamy’s Interview on Native Plant Podcast

Photo: Tallamy Black-throated Blue Warbler
Photo: Tallamy
Black-throated Blue Warbler

In this interview, Tallamy revisits his ground-breaking book Bringing Nature Home, but most of the interview focuses on his current and future research projects.   He shared a startling fact about our North American Birds:  430 North American birds are at risk of extinction, up from 230 at the last State of the Birds report.

Listen here (Tallamy begins around 6-7 minute mark): Podcast.  He mentions a future research project in which he hopes to study the effect of trees on birds planted on coffee farms in Central and South America.  If we drink coffee and love birds, we should give this project some consideration.  Visit: Tallamy’s Cool Beans Research Project.