The Fierce Beauty and Ecology of Snags

By Kimberly Mason / For The Chronicle
A dead or dying, partly hollowed tree may be considered by some to be an eyesore in the landscape and hardly worth preserving, but to many birds and mammals, a “wildlife tree” or “snag” is a vital source of food, shelter and safety.
By allowing a snag to stand in your yard — as long as it isn’t creating a danger — you can provide an important habitat for wildlife.
Snags are used for nests, nurseries, storage areas, foraging, roosting and perching. Live trees with excavated cavities and dead branches also provide an attraction to wildlife.
A wildlife tree in your backyard can be one-stop, natural habitat feature. Consider keeping a snag in your landscape so the tree can “live on.”

Wildlife That Use Snags
Here on the western side of the Cascade Mountains there are 39 species of birds and 14 species of mammals dependent on tree cavities for their survival.
Large snags more than 12 inches in diameter and 15 feet tall offer ideal hunting perches for hawks, eagles and owls.
They function as resting perches for songbirds, and food storage areas for mice, squirrels, woodpeckers and jays. Woodpeckers also use large dead tree trunks as a way to announce their presence during courtship, hammering their bills against the tree’s resonating surface.
Small snags may be used as song posts by hummingbirds and other songbirds to attract mates and proclaim nesting territories.
A snag can house a grocery store of insects for food. Brown creepers, nuthatches and woodpeckers all eat bark beetles, spiders and ants from the bark of a snag.
Many insect-only eating birds depend upon the insects hidden within the heart of a wildlife tree for winter survival.
The spaces between partially detached bark can house tree frogs, bats, butterflies and birds.
Nest cavities created by woodpeckers and flickers will rarely use the same nest more than once. Once abandoned, these nest cavities will provide other cavity-nesting birds — such as tree and violet-green swallows, chickadees, nuthatches, house wrens, wood ducks, squirrels, and owls — who cannot excavate cavities themselves. Secondary cavity nesting wildlife are highly dependent upon the availability of these abandoned nest cavities.

So It Ain’t Pretty
If you don’t like the way your wildlife tree looks, consider planting a lightweight vine at the base of your wildlife tree to pretty it up a bit. Heavy climbing plants can hasten the destruction of a snag, so consider your choices carefully before you plant.
Or you can dress up your snag with seed feeders, suet feeders or hanging baskets of nectar-rich flowers to attract bees, hummingbirds and butterflies.
If your neighbor complains about your snag, explain why you are leaving it up and the benefits the tree provides to the wildlife.

Changing the Landscape
“When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change,” a wise man once said.
If we change the way we view the landscape and come to understand the variety of benefits the wild and untamed land holds for our local wildlife — even in the fierce beauty of a snag — we will increase our own ability to see and appreciate the beauty that surrounds us.
It’s a beauty that will not only restore wildlife habitat, but it will also restore and nourish us in return.
For more information on wildlife trees and the benefits they provide, visit the Washington Fish and Wildlife website,

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