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In Praise of Snags


In Praise of Snags

"Snags' are dead trees left standing, which is the way of the world in the woods, but not the typical way in the American landscape, where imitation of Disney World plant sculptures is the desired ideal (until the homeowner finds out how much work it is to maintain a topiary of Uncle Scrooge). When most people have trees taken down, they have three options: cut the tree down and have the stump pulled (the most expensive option, but the only one that allows immediate replanting); cut the tree down and have the top of the stump "ground down" (less expensive, but really annoying when the homeowner realizes they can't plant anything in its place because there's a giant wooden plug in the ground); and cutting most of the tree down but leaving a six to ten foot 'snag' standing (the cheapest option; and the best for wildlife).

A couple ten years ago I had a bunch of dead trees taken down, including a magnificent double-trunked ash that had fallen prey to the nasty Emerald Ash borer, an invasive non-native insect that is sending ash trees the way of the American Elm and Chestnut. I instructed the tree crew to leave each tree a snag, and they insisted they knew what that meant. At the end of the day, I went out to see that the double-trunked ash was cut down to about half its original size, which meant it was still higher than the house. The crew chief (and owner of the company) didn't look so good but said they'd be back to finish up.

Next day I get a call from his wife who is crying so much she can barely speak. He wasn't just 'tired', he had just learned that his lack of energy was because he had cancer. She wanted to make good, but their business was already under water, so I ate it, figuring I would have the rest of the work done later on. (I try to be a nice guy at least once a year so I don't forget what it feels like.)

Well, it's long past 'later on' and I am happy with my too-tall snags, especially the ash, which is riddled with woodpecker holes high up the trunk. We have also seen a tiny owl living in a hole lower to the ground, and several mysterious holes near the bottom of the tree, which we don't want to mess with.

So, there it stands, an obvious home for lots of wildlife (as are the other snags). But an experience I had back in May topped them all. It was during an early heat wave, so I got up at 6am to go out and water and check on things. The day before had been hot and dry, but at 6am, it was delightful! A pleasure to be outside, as it would NOT be by noon that day. So I'm watering plants and generally puttering around in the cool dry air when I hear a weird sound.

You know how Evil Squirrels love to taunt you with their high-pitched chuckling from the trees? This sound was similar but much deeper in tone. It was definitely coming from the trees, but almost sounded more like a bullfrog than an Evil Squirrel. I was able to isolate it to the top of one arm of the double-trunked ex-Ash, but couldn't see anything. Then something popped up at the very top, an area that was riddled with woodpecker nest holes a few feet lower down.

It went back in, popped up again and came out of the hole at the top slowly, each time revealing a little more of itself. Then I saw a duck bill. "I tought I saw a duck", I mumbled in my best Tweety Pie voice. Then, as if on a hidden riser, it moved upward until I could see its entire body. "I did, I did; I did see a duck!" It sat there for a moment, and then took off, a duck of many colors, gliding gracefully low through the woods across the road. Was this a poor mallard that didn't make it home last night and took refuge in what had obviously become the neighborhood's Friendly Motel Six?

To find out, I used a great article from Cornell listing the 20 most common ducks in Pennsylvania, with loads of great photos. "No, that's not it; no, that's not it either..."until I got to #10--the wood duck! (How much wood could a wood duck duck if a wood duck could duck wood?)

Plenty, it turns out! And I quote: "Unlike most waterfowl, Wood Ducks perch and nest in trees and are comfortable flying through woods. Their broad tail and short, broad wings help make them maneuverable." They even call them 'cavity nesters'. Is there a duck nest in the top of my already favorite snag? Will I see little wood ducklings at some point?

Another Cornell article says that the incubation period is 28 to 37 days and there may be two broods a year. The chicks emerge fully dressed and jump out of the tree and fly a day after hatching. Yikes! I'd like to see that; guess I better keep getting up early...

A longer version of this story will appear in the next issue of Greenprints; 'the weeder's digest'; a great magazine about the JOYS of gardening that's been going strong for more than 30 years!And special thanks to long-time editor Pat Stone for allowing me to run this condensed version in advance, as long as I said the name 'greenprints' more than four times. You'll find lots more information at www.greenprints.com. Whoops; that's only three! Greenprints, greenprints, greenprints!

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