We Americans tend to find broken things worthless. In our deposable society, if it’s chipped, cracked, crushed, or faded, we carry it to the trash. We even do so with our trees. Think about it when we have a tree that has died. Now what? We call in the tree service to remove the tree. We may or may not grind the stump; this decision is most likely based on where it is and if it is unsightly.
What if you understood the purpose of dead wood? Would you be more likely to keep a snag, commonly known as a dead tree? Snags are no more than the name for dead trees that are left upright to decay naturally. Leaving a partial tree trunk has many benefits with the tops removed and ensuring the snag isn’t in harm’s way of yours or the neighboring property as it decomposes. It has wildlife value, and thus, not at all worthless, but wondrous!
Understanding Dead Wood
Nationwide, dead trees provide vital habitats for more than 1,000 species of wildlife. For wildlife, every part of a dead tree offers benefits in all stages of decay.
If your garden is a certified wildlife habitat, you know the process required for food, water, shelter, and a place to raise their young. A snag provides all of these except a water source. Here are a few ways snags help our native wildlife.
1. Many wildlife are cavity dwellers, so snags provide a place to live or raise their young, making their home in hollow cavities and crevices, including bats, birds, raccoons, and squirrels.
2. Deadwood becomes a food buffet for wildlife looking for a meal by attracting fungi, insects, lichens, and mosses. As a point of interest, hardwood trees, like maple, tend to make better nesting habitats, while softer wood, like pine, is better for food foraging. Snags provide ideal hiding places. Tree holes, nooks, and crannies offer secret locations to squirrels and other critters looking to store food.
3. Many birds such as hawks and eagles like to sit at good vantage points. A snag with a central trunk in the open is an excellent location for hunting prey.
4. A snag decays along with mosses, lichens, and fungi that add vital nutrients to the soil through their nitrogen cycle.
Keep Snags, Saving Lives
If you have read this far, I like to think keeping snags is something to consider. Despite the importance of snags to wildlife, homeowners typically want the dead tree removed. Indeed, most tree services recommend the removal of dead trees in an attempt to control pesticides and fungi, as well as aesthetic points of view. But remember, we at Bee Better Naturally are redefining beauty. Yes, a snag is beautiful and it gives you an example for you to share with visitors and guests.
I’m often asked questions of note, like what about termites? Did you know termites naturally live in our ground? As long as the snag is a stone’s throw away or other measurable, reasonable distance from our home, termites and other pests won’t find their way into your home.
Can a property have too many snags? Well, that depends on your property size. At the Bee Better Naturally Teaching Garden, we currently have one that is nearly finished with its nitrogen cycle (slowing breaking away in chunks.) We have western pine, and shortly, we hope to add four more snags from living loblolly pine trees.
Is there an alternative? If you don’t want to create snags from living trees, nesting boxes are a good option.
So you may be wondering when you should remove a snag. Make sure your deadwood isn’t resting on your home, or it becomes a bridge for too many pests. You also don’t want the snag to be in harm’s way as it decays and falls on your home or your neighbors. In both cases, you can consider moving the wood for its benefits laying it down to use as a natural log.
Helen Yoest is the executive director of Bee Better, an area non-profit 501(c)(3) designing and educating homeowners about building better backyards for birds, bees, and butterflies.