Just a Dead Tree
Eileen Berger Indian Trail Master Naturalist
The recent severe weather and strong winds, together with the devastating drought and extreme temperatures of last summer, are taking their toll on our trees. In my travels around Ellis and Navarro counties I have seen several trees which have suddenly just fallen over. Even more worrying are the numerous large trees that have not leafed out, and are probably dead. Before you decide to cut down a large dead tree, please consider their benefits to our wildlife.
Many dead trees and some live trees break off and fall to the ground due to strong winds or tornadoes. Numerous insects use fallen trees for homes and for food. These insects provide food for birds, small mammals, reptiles and amphibians with food. The insects and decomposers like snails help break down plant matter in the dead tree, returning the nutrients to the soil below. Many animals such as rabbits, rodents, lizards, snakes, and toads use the log as shelter. Lightning strikes, disease, insect pests, or drought can cause a tree to die. If a dead tree remains standing, it is called a snag. According to the U.S. Forest Service, over five hundred species of birds, three hundred species of mammals, four hundred species of amphibians and reptiles and nearly all fish benefit from snags for food, nesting or shelter.
Many birds are cavity nesters, but only about thirty species are able to use their bills to excavate a hole in dead wood to make their own nest cavities. These include woodpeckers and nuthatches. There are another eighty animal species that depend on cavities that have previously been hollowed out by these primary species. These secondary cavity nesters include bluebirds, swallows, small owls, kestrels, and some flycatchers. If you look carefully at a dead tree, or even dead branches on a live tree, you will probably see numerous holes being used by birds or small mammals like squirrels.
Most fishermen will agree that a nice pond or lake with submerged logs is a great place for fish to spawn and hide from predators, and will provide good fishing areas. Amphibians also use these areas for their homes, and turtles bask and sun themselves on partially exposed logs. Those trees also enrich the habitat for insects that other species use for food. Some cities wisely reuse Christmas trees discarded after the holiday to enrich their lakes.
Many birds of prey such as hawks and owls use snags to perch as they survey their territory for prey. These predators play a vital role in controlling the population of small mammals that can quickly overpopulate an area and deplete the vegetation. My neighborhood here in Waxahachie has at least one red-tailed hawk and a great-horned owl that use dead limbs in our trees to keep the cottontail rabbits and squirrels in check.
If you have a dead tree or dead limbs on your property, use the above information to help make the decision whether to cut or leave them alone. Of course, the safety of humans and buildings, not to mention power lines, is a prime consideration. Resist the impulse to “clean up” your property by removing all dead trees and limbs. If the tree is in a seldom-used area and not endangering anyone or any valuable buildings, consider leaving it for the wildlife to use. For them it’s not just a dead tree.