If you've ever wondered about life after death, try planting a snag in your backyard. Snags, what biologists call standing dead trees, teem with life for decades.
Many years ago, I "planted" several small snags in my backyard in Stillwater, Oklahoma to test their appeal to birds. I hung several feeders from the dead branches. Almost immediately, the snags "came to life." Birds perched patiently waiting their turns on the feeders, and during the nesting season cardinals sang from the highest branches.
A few years later I found a kindred spirit when I overheard a woman in a wild bird store describe her "ghost tree." It turned out to be a snag. She said she had one in her backyard, and it was the centerpiece of her feeding station. I asked what her neighbors said when they realized she wasn't going to remove an obviously dead tree? "Most accepted the idea after we explained its purpose," she explained, "but it didn't die. We planted it."
Appreciate the importance
Back in the late 1970s, wildlife biologists began to appreciate the importance of snags in natural ecosystems. Woodpeckers excavate nest cavities in them and tear them apart in search of the insects that riddle their innards.In subsequent years tree swallows, bluebirds, titmice, wrens, screech-owls, and kestrels nest in the old woodpecker holes.
Deer mice, flying squirrels, tree frogs, climbing snakes and lizards, and myriad invertebrates also find shelter in abandoned cavities. Red-tailed hawks perch on tall snags and scan the earth below for prey. Phoebes and kingbirds launch their fly-catching attacks from open branches on snags. Vultures roost on snags so they can bask in the early morning sun to warm their bodies.
And many song birds -- indigo buntings, cardinals and bluebirds come immediately to mind -- sing from the tops of snags to advertise and defend their territories.
My own fascination with snags began on a farm in southern Michigan in 1978. A large skeleton of a tree stood alone in a fence row between a corn field and a hay field. One June morning I watched three species -- kestrels, house wrens, and downy woodpeckers -- tending active nests in that enormous dead tree.I've been hooked on snags ever since.
Over a period of decades, a large dead tree teems with all manner of life until natural decay takes its final toll. Then the snag topples to its final resting place. Fungi and other decomposers return the stuff that trees are made of -- organic matter and minerals -- to the soil, where it can be reincorporated into new trees. By planting snags in our backyards, we can observe this entire process of death, rebirth, decay, and renewal.
Simple as it sounds
Planting a snag is as simple as it sounds. Dig a hole, insert the snag and back fill the hole with dirt. Better still, anchor it in concrete. A snag six inches in diameter and 20 feet tall is about the limit for a one-man job, but bigger is better. With the help of some friends and maybe a tractor with a winch, planting eight to 18-inch snags is possible.
Woodpeckers are much more likely to excavate cavities in larger snags, but even small snags make great feeding trees and song perches, and they provide support for colorful climbing vines. Trumpetcreeper and trumpet honeysuckle can turn a snag into a hummingbird magnet. Place a water source nearby, and a snag becomes a complete backyard feeding station.
At first, the idea of landscaping with dead trees seems laughable. But understanding snag ecology, especially its importance to birds, can turn an eyesore into a thing of beauty.In winter, flocks of colorful birds visit snags that support well stocked feeders. In the spring, indigo buntings and cardinals sing from the highest branches. In the summer, hummingbirds mob the trumpetcreeper planted to embrace the towering skeleton. And in the fall, migrants gather on snags like ornaments on a Christmas tree in anticipation of the long trip south.