Gardening on the Planet, It's the Plants, Darling

Trees are Worth more Dead than Alive (to Wildlife)

Walking around the lake near my house I’ve noticed the preponderance of snags – dead trees left standing, most of them without their tops. Here’s one along the path.

Knowing they’re important for wildlife, I was happy to see so many, but it took a bit of googling to discover just HOW important. According to the Washington Dept of Fish and Wildlife, they actually provide MORE habitats for wildlife dead than alive. No wonder they’re also called “wildlife trees.”

wildlifeThanks to that link, I’ll forever be envisioning these adorable critters whenever I see a snag. But they’re just the poster animals for snags: “In total, more than 100 species of birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians need snags for nesting, roosting, shelter, denning, and feeding; nearly 45 species alone forage for food in them.”

That link goes on to tell us how to look at them up close, which trees make the best snags, how to create them from live trees, and how to relocate them (which seems crazy, right?).

So now that we’re all in for snags, can we have them in our yards? Large ones, maybe: “Try to incorporate one or more snags into your landscape keeping old and damaged trees when possible. Retain trees and tall shrubs near the planned snag to protect it from wind and provide a healthier environment for wildlife.

“In urban areas, tall snags are best located away from high activity areas, where they won’t pose a hazard if they fall. Trees that lean away or are downhill from structures and other areas of human activity present little or no risk.”


Well, that’s disappointing, though it explains why there aren’t snags anywhere near my home. But in my disappointment I asked the experts at the Garden Professors Blog Facebook Group (which just added its 10,000th member!) if they’d leave a snag anywhere near their home and the grown-ups responding included actual risk-assessing arborists – certified ones!

Their advice: IF an expert has concluded that a tree must come down, it’s okay to leave some standing for wildlife, as long as it’s not tall enough to fall on something in a bad wind. One recommended leaving the cut portion of the tree on the ground at the site. (Got room for that? Not me.)


Snags in the woods are ok; close to homes, not so much.

Others said they’d sure like to see more in the media about wildlife trees and their importance. One ray of hope? Efforts to change forestry policies to leave more for wildlife.

Posted by on February 17, 2017 at 10:13 am, in the category Gardening on the Planet, It's the Plants, Darling.
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15 responses to “Trees are Worth more Dead than Alive (to Wildlife)”

  1. Soft snags are those in advanced stages of decay. Most of their bark has fallen away. They possess shorter longevity and leave nests vulnerable to predators. However, they are sometimes useful to weaker excavators such as nuthatches and chickadees. And because dead trees typically offer prey items in all stages of decay, they are beneficial to a variety of wildlife in every phase. These trees are best suited to locations far from structures and human activity.

  2. In each state of decay, a dying tree is valuable to different species of wildlife and other organisms. Obviously the largest trees and those that are newly in decline will offer the longest habitat benefit.

  3. commonweeder says:

    I used to live on 60 acres, half of which were woodland and there were plenty of snags, but not within my view. I did appreciate them, as well as what we called ‘wolf trees’ HUGE old dead trees which also provided many services to wildlife. Now I live on a city lot, and the best I can do is layout a couple of old logs in my new planting beds where they can rot and provide lots of life for the tiny tiny wildlife in my new garden. I am also reading the Hidden Life of Trees by Wohlleben. Great book! Fascinating.

  4. Laura says:

    Learning about snags has allowed me to notice and appreciate dead trees in the landscape. I now find myself reveling in the beauty of large dead trees — there is something very ethereal about them. I wish I had a snag for wildlife, but my dead Ash was fully removed to be replaced soon, as it was on city property . The woodpecker visits were lovely while they lasted.

    I can’t answer your question Chris – PEC, but I can say that the Ash borer leaves visible exit holes when it emerges and the larvae leave galleries under the bark, if you wish to identify it ( I am not sure if removal would really help to stop the spread, but at least the dead tree provides food and habitat!

  5. Nell says:

    Another current book that goes into detail about the succession of habitats that tall snags provide is The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben; I recommend it heartily to anyone with even the faintest interest in trees and forests.

  6. […] über Trees are Worth more Dead than Alive (to Wildlife) by Susan Harris — Garden Rant […]

  7. Laura Munoz says:

    Oops, my previous comment was meant to reply to Trey Pitsenberger’s post. (I don’t eat dead trees.)

  8. Laura Munoz says:

    That sounds great. Yum!

  9. Chris - PEC says:

    I have several large snags on my tree line – with woodpeckers to be heard most always – but I’m wondering about trees that have died due to pests ie Emerald Ash Borer – do the pests live on in the dead wood? When I read about the borer it’s always about burning the affected wood…

  10. We keep a snag in our yard. It attracts beautiful woodpeckers.

  11. Marcia says:

    Because, dead trees are not left up, cavity nester numbers have declined significantly. Humans have to erect houses to slow the decline. Here are a few videos from part of my nest box trail last year. Twenty years ago, this particular bird, the tree swallow, did not exist on this trail at the Agricultural Research Center here in Maryland. Now, this is one of the largest tree swallow trails in the country. Tree swallows are very cool.

    Unfortunately, Utah’s congressman Jason Chaffetz and the new administration want to close this center ( the largest , most important in the world) and spread the research out across the country. (“Scientists and researchers make too much money here.”) If that is done, and now it could well happen, this 50 year old, 7,000 acre facility will be sold off and developers will swoop in. It is the last piece of green space between Washington and Baltimore and also the home of the late Larry Zeleny who started the nest box movement for the bluebird which took off after it was featured in National Geographic in the 1970s.

    (Keep your dead trees. I have a large dead oak at the end of my yard. It’s not ugly to me.)

  12. Sarah says:

    “One recommended leaving the cut portion of the tree on the ground at the site. (Got room for that? Not me.)”

    In Pennsylvania, foresters with the DCNR encourage forest landowners to leave brush piles tree harvesting operation. The brush piles create wildlife habitat. Overnight, rabbits have been known to incorporate these brush piles into living spaces. I’ve seen chipmunks living in brush piles myself. Also, the twigs and branches of brush piles naturally protect young seedlings from deer browse (the deer won’t climb on the piles to reach the succulent young seedlings). The seedlings will fill in the harvested area.

    As a side note: proper tree harvesting of forestland in PA shouldn’t take place without already established seedlings and/or saplings that are higher than where deer can browse. Otherwise, the deer will decimate the young seedlings and the harvested trees will never be replaced.

  13. We are leaving some of our old alder and oak stumps (must be hardwood). Not so high as to topple onto something important, but enough to seed them with fungi! We are going to be growing shiitake, lions mane, and some other shrooms by drilling small holes in the trunks and placing plugs seeded with the fungi of choice into the hole. The fungi travels through the rotting trunk and then fruits. Imagine strolling out to you back yard, and picking fresh mushrooms for dinner from your old tree stumps. Something new for me, but an exciting idea. We’ll see this spring just how it turns out.

  14. Carol says:

    Having just read Nature’s Temples: The Complex World of Old-Growth Forests by Joan Maloof I too have a much greater appreciation of snags. And a keen desire to go see an old-growth forest before they are all gone!

  15. Carol says:

    Interesting about snags. I never knew until a few weeks ago that standing dead trees are called that. I found out when I read Nature’s Temples: The Complex World of Old Growth Forests by Joan Maloof. I have a much better appreciation now for snags and an incredible yearning to go find an old growth forest to see them before they are all gone. She writes quite a bit about forests in Maryland, Susan, so they must be near you.