Snag trees and why we need them
I'm grateful to my grad school experience for so many things. One of the many things I'm thankful to have learned is how to be more observant when experiencing the natural world. For example, I learned during grad school about what an amazing resource snags are for wildlife! I now look out for them when outdoors.
Photo credit: Me.
What are snags, you ask? Snags are dead or dying trees that are either still standing or are on the ground (Hostetler, 2017). In the photo above, you can see a snag that I found on a recent hike. Once you start looking for them, you'll see snags everywhere!
At first glance, these trees might seem unremarkable and might even seem like an eyesore. However, snags are incredibly important to their ecosystems! Snag trees are as beneficial (if not more so) as living trees are when it comes to providing shelter, food, and other resources to animals in their environment (“Snags”, n.d.).
Snags are perhaps best recognized as a shelter for birds, mammals, and other animals. Animals like woodpeckers (who are looking for bugs in the bark and wood of trees) create holes in these dead trees that can later be utilized by other animals as nesting spaces or storage areas. Only a small percentage of bird species can actually excavate their own nest holes, (“Snag trees”, n.d.) so the work of woodpeckers is particularly important for many birds. In urban areas, having snags around means having woodpeckers around (Hostetler, 2017), which means that other birds have a better chance of finding a nest hole! Good news for everyone!
Snags don't just provide nests or shelters for area animal residents - they do so much more! As I alluded to above, insects inhabit these dead trees, which then provide a food source for many animals, especially in the winter when other food sources are scarce (“Snags”, n.d.). Birds of prey can use the snags as a perch to get an unobstructed view of their surroundings ("Snag trees", n.d.). Animals living inside the snag's trunk are protected from extreme temperatures ("Snag trees", n.d.). Animals can even use these snags for communication; their branches serve as perches for songbirds (Hostetler, 2017). The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) reports that snags can benefit all kinds of animals, from porcupines to bats to eagles to hawks to hummingbirds to bears ("Snags", n.d.)! Snags can even benefit aquatic animals; when snags eventually fall, they can fall into streams, rivers, or other bodies of water where they serve as shelter for fish and amphibians ("Snag trees", n.d.). From an anthropocentric standpoint, snags can shelter animals that eat common pests, from rodents to insects ("Snag trees", n.d.). Snags can enhance the beauty and biodiversity of our neighborhoods by drawing in animals and other organisms that might not otherwise be able to survive there.
By leaving snags in our yards and in our urban areas or by creating snags, we can support an abundance of biodiversity. If you have a dead or dying tree in your yard, leave it there! You might be surprised to see who shows up to utilize this resource! If you're worried about leaving the tree, contact a tree surgeon who can determine if it's safe to do so (Hostetler, 2017). The WDFW recommends, if possible, keeping tall trees, shrubs, and other vegetation around the snag to support it; it's even possible to move a snag to your yard from another area ("Snags", n.d.). You can even create a snag from a living tree, not by killing it, but by removing top branches or side branches ("Snags", n.d.). Contact the local chapter of the International Society of Arboriculture for help! However, if you're like me and live in an apartment and have no control over the trees in your area, you can still help animals that depend on snags! Get a bird box or bird house to hang up to help out those birds that can't create their nest cavity! I got one from Michael's for five bucks and painted it myself.
Snags are incredible sources of food, shelter, and much more for many animals. Look out for them on your next hike and support the creation and retention of these trees in your area!
Not the bird house I bought. Mine was not so well-decorated!
Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/75885098@N05/32260033073
Hostetler, M. (2017, December 07). Snag! Why Keep That Dead Tree in Your Yard? Retrieved from https://www.huffingtonpost.com/mark-hostetler/snag-why-keep-that-dead-tree_b_4038549.html
Snag – the wildlife tree. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://wdfw.wa.gov/living/snags/
Snag trees and healthy ecosystems. (n.d.) Retrieved from https://www.conservationnw.org/our-work/wildlands/snag-trees/