Farewell to a Favorite Tree

Female Pileated Woodpecker at a well-decayed, former nesting tree.

Our broken, branchless beech finally fell.

The tree was about fifty-five years old* when we bought our home in 2004. On our well-wooded property, it didn’t command any particular notice. Then in 2015, Pileated Woodpeckers chose it for their nest. That was quite a show, which I filmed. But the poor tree! The woodpeckers removed about five gallons of wood to dig a cavity some 19” deep.

That’s when the tree’s trouble—to my eventual great delight—began.
Mike, our tree trimmer, scaled the beech three months after the nestlings fledged. He found just two inches of wood surrounding the cavity. Mike thought the beech might break in a storm. Located on a high, steep bluff, it would likely crash into the wood stairs that run from our home to the lake below.

Husband Bert wanted to protect the structure. I wanted to keep the snag for its wildlife potential. We compromised when Mike proposed removing just the canopy, which would reduce the risk of a break.

From the safety of an adjacent tree, Mike reached the beech with his chain saw. It touched the trunk and the tree snapped! It broke right at the cavity door. So much for protecting the wood stairs…

tree that broke where Pileated Woodpeckers excavated a nest cavity
September 2015 just after the tree broke. The oval cutout is the bottom half of the cavity door.

For a few years, the trunk stayed reasonably intact. It attracted smaller woodpeckers and then non-excavating cavity nesters who used abandoned woodpecker holes. Rot gradually ate hollows inside the trunk. Squirrels nested inside, including one mama who moved her kids from one cavity to another in the rain.

As decay took its toll, the tree didn’t seem to provide very good shelter. But it was still a magnet for birds and squirrels. Some used the snag as a perch for surveying the area. Others poked around for an insect meal.

Red-bellied Woodpecker on a tree
2017. Red-bellied Woodpecker where a limb was trimmed years earlier.
Well-decayed tree where a limb was removed years earlier.
2020. The same spot, now a raccoon’s sleeping spot, three years later.

A raccoon took to sleeping in one eroded spot I called the balcony, which he enlarged to suit his needs. In one of the funniest bird behaviors I’ve seen, a Tufted Titmouse took nest material as the raccoon snoozed: his fur!

Later, as decay advanced, a squirrel shredded the balcony even more. Here’s a short clip showing their work.

And now the snag’s video story since 2015:

In hindsight, we should have asked Mike to remove the broken trunk using cuts designed to help control the direction of its fall. But the wildlife parade it hosted was irresistible, so we let the snag stay. Amazingly, the crashing trunk missed our stairs.

The old, broken beech is no more. But it wasn’t the only snag in our woods. Another tree has already hosted squirrel and raccoon nests. Stay tuned!

A little more helpful information

A tree is considered a snag if it’s a standing, dead or dying tree. Our beech was probably starting to die when the Pileateds chose it for their nest. They would have noticed a few small dead branches that signaled the tree’s interior decay and thus its easy-to-dig wood. These woodpeckers prefer trees that are still living but weakening from decay. Water still flows through the inner bark at that stage, helping to regulate the temperature inside the nest cavity.

If you’d like to learn about conserving dead trees for wildlife, visit the website of The Cavity Conservation Initiative. They make a compelling case for retaining snags, and the site is rich with photos and resources.

*I estimated the tree’s age using this online tool. It calculates an age estimate based on tree circumference using average growth factors for a given species.

Image Credits: Carol Doeringer.

4 thoughts on “Farewell to a Favorite Tree”

  1. We had two huge beech trees in Indiana. They have a reputation for becoming a hazard because they hollow out while still standing. One snapped off in a storm and went through the roof so we had them both taken down. It was a sad day. They had been there probably longer than we had been alive. It didn’t stop the pileated woodpeckers, however, they just drilled a big hole in the side of the house!!! 😜 😳 🙄

    1. Well, this beech certainly did hollow out, although I suspect the pileated woodpecker nest was mostly responsible. So sorry to hear your neighborhood pileateds drilled your house!

  2. Even though I never met this tree, I mourn its loss and will miss it. I hope life in the forest delights in a new way for you and your woodland friends!

    1. Thank you, Alicia. We’re lucky to be surrounded by an old-growth forest, so I’ll likely find another tree that draws wildlife like a magnet.

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