For the Birds: Dead or alive, trees are vital

Photo by Chris Bosak A pileated woodpecker works over a tree in New England, May 2020. Merganser Lake.

Every tree tells a story, even the dead ones. In fact, the dead ones may have the most interesting stories to tell.

A recent walk through the woods had me thinking about the trees. These particular woods were a mixture of evergreen and deciduous trees — predominantly deciduous but a few evergreens sprinkled in as well.

A large ash tree was snapped about 12 feet from the ground. The otherwise healthy-looking trunk stood tall and straight, while the rest of the tree bent down into the forest at a 45-degree angle.

I’m pretty sure I know what happened to the tree. A severe wind storm, with spotty tornado touch downs, blew through the area last summer and reduced many trees to tall trunks. It’s funny how storms impact trees differently. Some storms uproot most of the trees they damage. Other storms snap them like twigs. Still other storms, it seems, hardly damage the trees at all.

If the snapped trees were in someone’s yard, they would be chainsawed into 100 pieces and carted away. In the woods, they just stay that way until nature brings the snapped top portion crashing to the ground. Then, the trunk stands erect to rot and what was formerly the top of the tree rests on the ground to rot as well.

Its function as a tree changes dramatically. No longer are they sucking up carbon dioxide and giving oxygen in return. No longer are they producing leaves, which provide shade and shelter for the woods’ creatures.

Even dead, however, the pieces of the once-proud tree provide many functions for the woods and their usefulness is still profound. The long top of the tree will rot and feed the soil so that the woods can grow more trees and other plants. It will provide homes for ground mammals and insects — lots of insects. Those bugs will become food for birds and other creatures.

The trunk, now reduced to a stub in the woods, will also provide food and shelter for birds, squirrels and insects. The numerous holes in the trunk provide evidence of their vital job.

As I pondered the usefulness of trees, alive and dead, I was struck by just how many there are in the woods. Uncountable numbers. It’s rare that I pay so much attention to trees. Paradoxically, they are so numerous that we hardly notice them.

I stopped to look at a swamp and dozens of dead tree trunks of varying sizes stood tall like so many gray fingers pointing to the sky. The cattails and other swamp vegetation were dwarfed by the trunks. Red-winged blackbirds, grackles and swallows flew about the swamp and perched on the tops of these fingers. The cries of recently hatched birds gave away the nest of a tree swallow. The parents dutifully and exhaustingly brought food to the youngsters.

Trees, dead and alive, define the woods. They do not move about, but rather stand guard and act as sentinels to protect their part of the mysterious world we call the woods. All the while, they provide essential resources to their own plant kingdom and unselfishly give the same to the animal kingdom.

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