By Nicole DeLizzio
Imagine this: You’re hiking through the forest, there are birds trilling overhead, and you stumble upon the remnants of a tree. Upon first glance, you may think that there is nothing present but decaying wood. The truth, however, is that there is far more present than initially meets the eye.
Image 1. Fungi growing on a log in Mt. Cuba’s natural lands.
I was first introduced to the idea of sustainable and ecological arboriculture practices during my job interview here at Mt. Cuba Center. My boss, Bill Trescott, and I took a loop around the gardens, stopping in front of a 20-foot-tall snag (the remaining trunk) of a large tulip poplar tree (Liriodendron tulipifera). The top of the tree had been previously removed since it posed a safety hazard for guests. As I glanced at the hole in the decaying trunk, I saw a pair of eyes peeking out, staring at me. A family of gray squirrels had taken over and built their home amongst the shelter of the hollow in the tree. That tree became known as “Hotel Mt. Cuba” by the arboriculture department, as my co-workers have seen many residents inhabit the space over the years. This home for wildlife is a direct result of the simple decision to leave half of a trunk in the woods instead of cutting it down and hauling it away.
Image 2. A downy woodpecker feeding young in a cavity. Photograph by Ian Stewart.
Hotel Mt. Cuba is just one of many instances where we have seen wildlife repurpose a leftover snag. If you stroll along the trails through our natural lands–where trees are left in place as they are–you will find examples of Hotel Mt. Cuba a thousand times over. We have seen various species of wildlife utilizing these snags, from a raccoon crawling out of a hollow in a mighty American beech (Fagus grandifolia,) to a screech owl peering through a hole in an eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis). Crevice-dwelling bats, such as the Delaware native silver-haired bat, are most frequently found roosting in old woodpecker holes or areas of loose bark in hickory (Carya spp.) and ash (Fraxinus spp.) trees. We found red-backed salamanders and eastern rat snakes residing underneath decaying oak (Quercus spp.) branches, which can be slow to decay. When our painted turtles are in the mood for sunbathing, the fallen black locust log (Robinia pseudoacacia) in our pond is prime real estate, and a favorite sight for guests of all ages. Fallen trees also become home to a variety of insects, and countless species of colorful fungi decorate stumps that have been left in place over the years. Aside from housing, feeding, and supporting numerous species of wildlife, decaying wood also recycles nutrients back into the soil and creates the perfect microhabitat for future seedlings. Dead trees and decaying wood contribute vitally to the health of their local ecosystems.
Image 3. Painted turtles on a black locust log in Mt. Cuba’s pond.
One of the many reasons I enjoy working at Mt. Cuba is that our practices reflect our mission to protect the habitats that sustain our native species. The arboriculture team is always weaving ecological habits into our daily routine, whether it be leaving stumps in place or initiating hollows and crevices in snags for wildlife. It may seem like a simple practice, but for many homeowners and tree companies the idea is still novel. Through our Ecological Arboriculture course and our educators here at Mt. Cuba, we hope to remind our visitors that you too can be the reason a family of squirrels finds a home in the hollow of a tree.
Trees provide from seed to stump, over the course of their lives and even in their deaths. Leaving stumps or snags, when possible, can provide habitats for many living organisms. Next time you see some decaying wood, take a closer look because you never know who might be peering back out at you!
- Nicole DeLizzio is the Arborist Assistant at Mt. Cuba Center. She graduated from the University of Delaware with a degree in Agriculture and Natural Resources and a minor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation. Nicole is a Mt. Cuba instructor teaching classes on pyrography (wood burning) and arboriculture.