We are coming upon spring cleaning time if it has not started already. It is time to do some outdoor yard work and the like. But when it comes to clearing out those old dead or dying trees and branches, you might want to reconsider, unless there is some potential for damage to person and property.
It might surprise some of you, but those dead and dying trees are prime real estate for a wide variety of organisms, ranging from slime molds to insects, birds, and mammals. They are particularly important for cavity nesting birds that rely on holes in trees, both living and dead, for nesting sites. I recently saw a book by the U.S. Forest Service that listed over eighty species of birds that utilize or excavate holes in trees. As you might expect, the list includes a few species of ducks such as wood ducks, buffleheads, goldeneyes, and hooded mergansers, as well as hawks, particularly the kestrel or sparrow hawk, plus owls and woodpeckers. The list also includes some species of flycatchers, swallows, various warblers, wrens, and bluebirds. Those dead and dying trees are important to a lot of birds and other organisms.
Relatively healthy trees may contain some cavities of course, but cavities are more prevalent in dead and dying trees. As most everyone knows, most people promptly remove any dead and dying trees from their property for the safety of people and property. However, as we learn more about the ecological importance of these trees to the biotic community we may want to rethink things. At least save a few if possible.
So what is a standing dead or dying tree worth? The savings of not cutting it down certainly comes to mind. Plus, many of the same birds that excavate and utilize tree cavities feed on insects. As such, these birds may serve an important ecological service by helping keep some insect pest populations from irrupting. Estimating the economic impact of these services is difficult, but it appears there is some economic benefit. Then of course there is the aesthetic and ecological value of the birds and other organisms using them and our enjoyment of watching them.
Make a point of noting the dead and dying trees and branches in your area as you enjoy the outdoors this spring and summer. Odds are that they will be receiving good use from some birds and other organisms.