In the forest, the dead sometimes stand tall and refuse to fall.
Don’t mourn for these deceased; they are a sign of healthy woodlands, wealthy with wildlife. In truth, there is life in tree death.
Dead standing trees are called snags by foresters, ecologists and other science-y types. Snags, while dead, could be considered the keepers of life in the woods. It has been estimated that almost two-thirds of all wildlife use snags at some point in their life cycle. Without snags and other dead plant material, habitat for one-fifth of the animals in the ecosystem would be lost.
A snag is a vision of both form and function. With the leaves on the ground, it is easy to notice and observe the erect, rugged trees that linger even after they have made their last stand.
In death, there is still meaning in their life. Consider that more than 500 species of birds, 300 mammals and 400 amphibians use snags for food, nesting, and shelter.
Osprey and other raptors love the view. A snag will give them a high, clear perch to ponder the universe or, more likely, their next meal. Kingfishers, kestrels, and owls also like to roost on these dead trees.
Those creatures that don’t make it to the top go undercover. Butterflies and moths will nestle themselves beneath the bark to metamorphose, and frogs and amphibians can also spend their dormant winter in the shelter of the snags’ cracks and crevasses.
The U.S. Forest Service breaks down the life cycle of a snag into three stages, and each stage has its associated wildlife.
The first stage, adored by the woodpeckers that can work the still-tough wood, is the hard snag, which has intact bark and firm heart and sapwood. Flickers and downy and pileated woodpeckers can make their nests in these trees.
After time, the second stage emerges. This soft snag is used by nuthatches and chickadees that feed on the abundance of insects more easily once the wood has softened. At this point, the tree has some bark and its wood has lost some of its hardness.
The last stage before the curtain falls for the dead tree is the buckskin snag. The tree now has lost its no bark and its wood has begun to rot. Barn owls, raccoons and bluebirds are associated with this late-stage snag. From here, the snag will begin to break from the top into shorter and shorter standing remains. The forest floor will become the final resting place for the trees.
Food is abundant in a snag. Insects mostly will break down and work the wood, which is one of the reasons that insect-eating birds like to spend time on snags. Even deer will be drawn to snags to feast on some types of lichen that are now more exposed.
Perfect habitat for cavity nesters is also available on snags. Snags provide homes for nine types of woodpeckers, five ducks, 22 songbirds, more than 20 mammals, and 19 birds of prey, making a snag an animal inn or wildlife condo.
So spare the chain saw and ax, and follow the lead of Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus who must have been thinking of snags when he said, “Think not disdainfully of death, but look on it with favor; for even death is one of the things that Nature wills.”
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.