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Woodlot wildlife--consider wildlife habitat before you cut that dead tree.

We'd been talking about cutting down the grove of dead trees behind our house for years. Once a thriving poplar stand, they no longer pushed forth green leaves to shimmer in the breeze. They had become eyesores: mere skeletons of the tall, proud trees they once were. Despite our best intentions, other tasks kept getting in the way; the brief window of opportunity we had each spring to cut them down passed before we actually did the deed.

So there they stood, ugly and decaying, while lush goldenrod and berry briars sprang up at their feet.

Our son was the first to lobby on the dead poplars' behalf. "Just leave them," he urged, claiming they provided valuable foraging and nesting opportunities for birds and small mammals. It was shortly after he returned from college, where the forestry courses he had taken at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse had shaped his opinions of forest management.

"It's just the natural progression of the forest," he said, noting that the decaying trees would eventually fall and add nutrients to the soil as they decomposed. And that summer, when we spotted a pileated woodpecker for the first time in the grove of dead poplars, he said, "See? If you had cut those trees down, you wouldn't have all the woodpeckers."

He was right. It had been ten years since the two dozen poplars had begun to die, and during that time, the bird and small mammal population in our yard grew by leaps and bounds. We have always had birds at our feeders, but now we had many more--all shapes, colors and sizes. We saw every type of woodpecker native to western New York in our backyard, and even one that was considered uncommon: the red-headed woodpecker. But it was the pileated woodpecker that captured and held my interest.

I first heard its call on an early summer morning. It announced its presence when it landed in a tree across the road, but it was cautious and remained out of sight. I remember waking up thinking a jungle bird must have escaped from the zoo and somehow ended up at our house. I soon connected the sound to the creature, and attempted to glimpse the elusive bird every time I heard its distinct call. For three years I chased the majestic creature with my camera, never quite getting close enough to take a good picture, but often catching a glimpse of it as it flew away to another woodlot.

I finally got my wish one cold day in February 2015, when I looked out our back window to see a bright red something hanging on the feeder post. It was so close and so big--crow sized--that I didn't recognize it at first. But then, for the next half-hour, "Woody" posed for numerous photos beneath the feeder and on the dead poplars while I snapped away. He's been back several times since then, and now he sometimes brings a companion. We still get the camera out every time they show up in the yard.

A few years ago, we decided to become better stewards of our woodlot. Our interests had been piqued by a display at the Wyoming County Fair attributed to the New York Forest Owners Association. It was there that we signed up for a woods walk--in our own woods, mind you--with a forest volunteer. We were fortunate to be in the company of Jeff, a retired NYS Environmental Conservation Officer, as we took the morning walk. Jeff pointed out many items of interest as he made observations and offered improvements for us to consider.

"What would you use that tree for?" he asked, as he pointed to a half-broken old sugar maple in the deep part of our woods. "Firewood?" my husband offered, although neither of us were foolish enough to take on that gnarly monster.

"There are a lot better choices for firewood in your woods," Jeff observed. He suggested the stringy old maple be left as a "wildlife tree" to give shelter to animals living deep in the woods.

The next year, we contacted DEC for assistance with woodlot management. A senior forester helped us write a forest management plan. As we walked through the woods, he plotted our woodlot and advised us on the best practices we could employ to achieve our objectives: woodlot management for timber production, a portion reserved for maple syrup production, and wildlife habitat and recreation. He recommended no action for the stand of decaying poplars.

In fact, as the DEC forester marked sections of the woods to meet our short- and long-term management objectives, he left several hollow or dying trees lining a deep gully. One of them, an especially large hollow poplar along the bank of the ravine, has become a den for a family of raccoons. My husband first noticed them the previous year, when the female raccoon ousted three kits in late summer.

A couple of juveniles returned the following winter, intent on setting up house in the same tree. We've seen them several times since.

And then there's the missing colony of honeybees that rebuffed our attempts to house them in a sturdy man-made bee hive. The swarm left for a more natural habitat and we suspect they found refuge in one of the half-dozen old hollow maples that line the sunny edge of the gully.

The progression of our woods is slow, but constant. It is always offering new foraging and shelter options for wildlife. It's been more than a decade now since the first poplars died; only a few of their tall poles remain. But the ones that do are still a source of food and safe haven for woodpeckers, nuthatches and chickadees. And although they'll soon return to the forest floor from which they grew, other trees stand ready to take their place.

The woodpeckers are now hammering holes in the 80-foot dead elm behind our house that succumbed to a lightning strike. If it's anything like the poplars, it will be standing for several more years as it makes its slow descent back to the earth. All the while, insects and birds benefit from its demise.

I feel like we are the real beneficiaries of the ever-changing forest. We get to witness a small fraction of the wildlife that lives there, just by looking out our back window.

Forest Management Assistance

If you would like to improve your woodland, DEC'S Forest Stewardship Program can help. DEC foresters can provide expert advice and give you one-on-one technical assistance at no cost to you, including creating a forest stewardship management plan tailored to your goals. This service is free to all private, non-industrial forest landowners. There is no minimum forest acreage needed to participate in this program.

Where to begin? Contact the DEC office that serves your county. Ask for information about the Forest Stewardship Program.

Cynthia Dayton lives with her husband on a small farm in western New York. They enjoy observing wildlife and living with nature.
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Author:Dayton, Cynthia
Publication:New York State Conservationist
Date:Oct 1, 2015
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