When walking through the woods or around a field’s edge, it is easy to dismiss tree snags (dead trees) as lifeless and unimportant. The truth is quite the opposite, as tree snags are essential for many species of wildlife to live and reproduce throughout the year. Snags come in all shapes and sizes, and different species of trees can harbor different species of wildlife.
Birds are a big user of tree snags and many species make their homes in snags, including the eastern screech owl (Megascops asio). In the spring, this little owl will use holes in the tree as a place to raise its chicks. Eastern screeches can come in three different colors: gray, brown and rufous (a rusty red color). The most common are the gray and brown, and those who find a rufous should be excited about their discovery! Barred owls and occasionally great horned owls also use snags as a place to raise their chicks, but they do not often stay in these cavities once the brooding season has ended.
Woodpeckers also use snags as places to lay their eggs. The largest woodpecker in North America, the pileated woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus), will create burrows in the tree using its strong drumming. It is not uncommon to find wood debris at the base of the tree. If you are lucky, it may be a pileated woodpecker digging a nest.
Pileateds are not the only woodpeckers in New England. Northern flickers, hairy woodpeckers, downy woodpeckers, and red breasted woodpeckers all rely on snags for homes, but more importantly, they rely on snags as a place for food. Snags are almost always rotting and serve as a great place to find larvae of different insects, a major food source for woodpeckers and other bird species.
Black-capped chickadees (Poecile atricapillus) are one of the many songbirds that take up residence in tree holes. During the spring these feisty little birds will spend much of their time clearing out nesting cavities of debris and prepare to raise young.
Tree cavities are also a place where different mammals can find solace during their resting periods. Raccoons (Procyon lotor) are expert climbers and will often use snags as their “bedrooms” during the brightest hours of the day. If you are lucky enough to find one of the burrows, be mindful to keep your distance as it is unwise to get too close to a cornered critter.
Because tree snags serve such an important role for different species of birds, insects, and mammals, dead trees should not be cut down if it can be avoided. Of course it is always smart to clear dead trees that are near residences. However, it is important to understand that cutting down a dead tree is also destroying the homes of hundreds of organisms that may take up residence there. I have had the misfortune of hearing terrible stories of owl chicks or baby opossums that have been found in a recently cut down tree. Sometimes relocation is successful, but this isn’t always a sure bet.
Easton has abundant forests, many of which provide habitat for nesting birds. Keep an eye out for these amazing creatures on your next walk through the woods. For those who don’t know where to start, Easton and the region contain a wide variety of trails and natural areas. Explore some of the trails to find wildlife through the Aspetuck Land Trust, or explore trails throughout Connecticut at CT Woodlands.
Special thanks to Dave Cadra for being a big help with finding species for the media in this article.