What Good is Dead Wood?

All, Nature Academy, From the Field

When you hear a barred owl calling “whooo, who cooks for you?” in the woods, chances are it’s calling from a nest cavity in the limb of a dying tree. When you see the bright red head of a woodpecker as it streaks through the forest, chances are it’s flying from the home it excavated in a hollow snag. When you encounter a fox, field mouse, opossum, raccoon or other woodland mammal, chances are that dead logs, stumps and brush on the forest floor provide the cover these creatures need to survive. And when you turn over a fallen log to find a salamander, you uncover the hidden world that thrives beneath the moist, decaying wood.

Chances are, the dead wood that might seem useless to you is really “home, sweet home” to one or more forest creatures. In fact, wildlife biologists estimate that as many as 20 percent of woodland species depend on dead or dying wood to survive and thrive. Since managing for wildlife is one of the cornerstones of good forest management, it’s good to keep snags, brush, slash and other dead wood in the woodlands. By doing so, we can help provide homes for creatures of all kinds.

Many things can kill trees, from ice storms to insects to disease. But once a tree is dead, there are alternatives to cutting it down and carting it out of the woods. A snag acts as a condo for insects, birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians. It’s also a time-release “compost stick” that slowly releases nutrients into the soil. Without snags, a forest just isn’t the same for wildlife who use the cavities to nest, attract mates and find food.

When downed trees or logs are left in the forest, a life cycle is started fueled by the decomposing wood. Plants, fungi and animals rely on logs as food sources and places to live. Decomposing logs enrich the soil and provide places for tree saplings and other plants to take root. They also serve as shelter and denning sites for animals.

Brushpiles provide a microhabitat for small woodland creatures to hide from predators. By recycling extra trimmings, branches and logs into brushpiles for wildlife, you can boost biodiversity on the land.

All wildlife needs to survive is the right food and shelter. And it often starts with using dead wood!

Tom Borgman, Natural Resources Manager