Home & Garden Columns

Even Dead Trees Provide Many Uses By RON SULLIVAN Special to the Planet

Tuesday February 07, 2006

I’ve spent lots of time, breath, and column inches here and elsewhere in the past telling people how not to kill their trees. Don’t top trees; don’t hack away most of their limbs; don’t leave stubs; don’t hire inept bozos who do any of the above. Don’t plant them in the wrong place, or too deeply. Don’t irrigate native live oaks. Don’t let the base of the trunk get smothered in soil or mulch.  

But suppose you have a dead tree on your hands through no fault of your own. (Or because you really blew it.) Now what—the takedown crew and the chainsaws? Well, maybe. But unlike the average large rotting animal, a tree is still useful after it’s dead.  

Useful to us, of course; we surround ourselves with dead trees. We live in them, sit on them, perch our computers on them, transmit copy across town over wires they support to be printed and read on sheets made out of them. Wood is handsome and feels nice to touch; paper is sure as heck easier to make and use and re-use than, say, parchment or vellum or clay tablets. So, yay dead trees! At least processed ones. 

A dead tree standing in your yard, that’s another matter, pure liability. Or is it?  

Lots of our wild neighbors actually make intense use of standing dead trees. Such trees host more bugs—and many of the new bugs are specialists, who don’t go on to eat every live tree in sight—and often in tasty, juicy larval form, which makes them a free buffet for insectivores like woodpeckers. In Berkeley, we’re most likely to see red-shafted (“northern”) flickers, especially in winter. Flashy as they are, you’ll hear them first, that scornful brazen “Fnaah!” from the top of a tree. They are one woodpecker you’ll see on the ground too, sometimes “anting”: sitting on an anthill and spreading their feathers, mashing a beakful of ants and rubbing it all over their skin. I’ve heard several speculative explanations for this, but I’m sure it’s a rush. I’m waiting for the crystal-aura-magical spa types to latch onto it and offer a formic acid skin peel, you know, As Nature Intended. Remember, you read it here first. 

We get downy or hairy woodpeckers, depending on whether we’re in the more urban flats or the woodsy hills. They’re very similar; listen for a squeaky-toy noise or a small but piercing “peent” and look for a white back, then grab the field guide. If it has a barred rather than a white back, and if it gives a rolling “bb-bbb-bbbbbbt” sort of call, it’s a Nuttall’s woodpecker. I believe that species is extending its range over the last decade or so; we used to see them only well east of the hills, and lately they’re all over here, including the one who has a drumming post on the telephone pole out front of our house.  

Woodpeckers are pioneers; other species live in the natural hollows caused by decay, or in holes that woodpeckers have excavated. Those indomitable chickadees and titmice need a hole. The red-breasted nuthatch, tooting merrily? Same requirement. Don’t they just cheer you up on a gray winter day? 

If you’re lucky and/or semirural, you might get western bluebirds, ash-throated flycatchers or tree swallows nesting in your stump. Our native gray squirrels, so rare here in the urban umbra, might winter in a tree hole. Arboreal salamanders, who turn up in places as unlikely as big apartment complexes near Dwight and Shattuck—I’ve seen them there, in multiples—need tree hollows to hide and reproduce in.  

And those who like owlboxes—barn owls, for example—or any critter—possum, wood duck, kingfisher—who’d use a birdhouse would likely prefer a hollow tree.  

So, a dead tree, lucky you. Rethink it. One smart person I know had her dead Doug fir limbed and topped at about ten feet up, and left it there. It’s not about to topple onto anybody, her neighbors are OK about it, and she’s got Nuttall’s woodpeckers moving in and a barn owl in the neighborhood.  

Consider her example. You’ll want to calculate, and see if the tree’s base is rotting out and what’s in range of a fall. But here’s another instance where careful “neglect” is the best kind of gardening.