Dead wood and other messiness

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Dead wood and snags (standing dead trees) are something you don’t see a lot in the suburbs—we tend to keep things neat. But take a look at the dead branch in the center of this picture, the one with all the holes. The tip of this branch fell off, but we left the rest of it in place instead of having it pruned off. It’s prime real estate for many cavity-nesting birds. There are always several nests in it in spring, and in winter, it’s a natural feeder.

As wood rots, it becomes invaded by insects that live in the soft wood and under the bark. Birds look for and eat those insects. A dying or dead tree is extremely valuable to wildlife—it supplies both food and shelter.

This particular tree is one of the two Norway maples on our front lawn, and it’s slowly dying of wet rot (yay!). As branches succumb, we have the tree pruned selectively. If a branch overhangs a sidewalk or driveway, we remove it. If not, we leave it. Once all the branches die, I’ll leave the trunk in place as a snag and plant shrubs and vines around it. But in the meanwhile, we’ll enjoy its long, lingering death. This picture was taken in April 2011:

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One important caveat: this is a dying tree of a nonnative, invasive species. If it were, instead, a healthy tree of a native species, I would have dead wood pruned away to protect the tree’s health. So if you have to decide what to do about a dead branches or unhealthy tree, weigh the wildlife value of the dead wood carefully against the overall health of the tree.

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