Standing dead trees, or snags, provide habitat for animals

April 22, 1999|By Dennis Shaw

Wanna come over sometime and see my snags?

[cont. from lifestyle]

That's not a pickup line, which is just as well, for it's not very enticing.

I am happy to show off my snags to anyone. Most visitors to my property notice them right away, but they usually wonder why I don't get rid of them. I admit they're not very attractive, but I think they're wonderful.

Snags, for those of you who don't know, are standing dead trees. Most people cut them down and use them for firewood, but to me, they're far too valuable for that.

One of my goals in life is to attract wildlife to my property - as much wildlife as possible, except bears, beavers and rattlesnakes. Snags are one of the best ways to do that, since they provide habitat for more than 100 species of North American wildlife.


I think of them as providing food and housing to the hungry and the homeless. And it's not just a one-time donation. A good hardwood snag can keep on giving for years.

First of all, snags provide fungus, mosses and lichens, which attract insects. The insects, in turn, provide food for woodpeckers, squirrels and salamanders. Once the wood has begun rotting and the woodpeckers have been pecking for a while, there's ideal nesting habitat for songbirds such as chickadees. There almost can be an entire ecosystem living in and around one snag.

As a bird lover, I appreciate snags, particularly in the summer, when live trees are full of leaves. The snags, in contrast, are bare, and birds use their branches as perching sites that allow them to see the lay of the land and me to see them. The visibility afforded by having snags can determine whether several species of birds are present on my property.

When I lived in Hagerstown, my city versions of the snag were the power lines that ran from the transformers to my house. At first I thought they were unsightly, but I soon discovered that they not only provided perching sites for songbirds, they also allowed me to see birds. I still have power lines, but I like the snags better, since they offer a lot that the power lines don't.

If I had a lot of woodland, I'd have the recommended five snags per acre.

Many landowners who practice sustainable forestry make a point of keeping that many snags around, to provide habitat for wildlife as well as income for themselves.

It's best to have large trees for snags. Not only do they offer habitat for more species, but they take longer to decay, so they're useful for a longer time.

My property is too small for many snags, and it's mostly not wooded. I have two oak snags, one locust and one walnut. My dream is to see a bald eagle perching on my walnut snag, but eagles don't frequent my neighborhood. But I'm not complaining, for I've seen broad-winged and red-tailed hawks perching on that snag, scanning my pasture for a suitable dinner.

I confess, however, that I violate one of the primary rules of snags - they should not be near homes, roads or other sites that could pose a safety problem. The locust is only 20 feet from my house. It leans the other direction, but I suspect a strong wind could cause it to fall my way.

But the one time I started to worry about it, I saw a downy woodpecker peeking out of its nest in the trunk, and I decided to take the risk. These four snags are all I've got.

The oaks are near my driveway, and one day I may find a downed snag keeping me from getting home. But for now, I'm just dealing with the occasional dead branch that has fallen on the driveway, and I'm still willing to take my chances. I'm not about to give up my snags. Besides, a downed snag is still habitat for a lot of wildlife.

Dennis Shaw is a former Herald-Mail editor. Write him at P.O. Box 276, Clear Spring MD 21722, or call 301-842-3863.

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