A European Starling perches on a snag.

Starling Finds a Snag

Our tree guy must have thought I was nuts.

That old, hollow tree is too weak to keep, he said. I nodded, then asked, can we remove just the canopy? Without branches to catch heavy wind and snow, I felt the rest of the tree could safely stand. I was hoping we could save my favorite snag.

The tree guy agreed and did as I asked. But I’m pretty sure he thought the result looked a little odd.

Here’s what remains of our tree.

A tree with its canopy cut off.

It looks like a giant slingshot overlooking Lake Allegan. Why would I want such an ugly sight impeding my view of the lake? In the twenty or so years since moving here, we’ve watched squirrels and raccoons raise their kids in the tree’s many cavities.

My favorite squirrel show was when a mama couldn’t convince her young ones to leave the nest. After her fruitless cajoling, she resorted to yanking them out one by one.

One year, raccoon kits entertained us as they ventured gingerly from their cavity and piled onto a limb hanging some 80 feet over the water below.

Another year, a resident squirrel gamely dissuaded wood ducks from nesting in this tree.

The tree has also been an occasional perch for eagles and a frequent stop for nuthatches, tufted titmice, several kinds of woodpeckers—you name it.

My goal in severing those limbs so oddly was to encourage the limbs’ top-down decay. Another nearby snag had become a broken, hollow trunk fully open to the sky. That snag eventually fell, but for several years after the top broke off, it was center stage in what I call Nature’s Daily Wildlife Show. Birds, raccoons, squirrels, and skinks were drawn to that open top and explored the tree’s interior. Would the slingshot tree become a similar stage?

The tree was trimmed last fall. Squirrels wintered inside. I believe there was a nest in the snag’s lower portion. And… as I hoped, its ungainly arms have already welcomed inquisitive visitors. Take a look:

The starling stayed on the tree for more than an hour. It dove into that hole five or six times, always exiting from the other side of the limb.

A starling peeks from behind a dead tree limb.

I suspect it was a male scoping out nesting sites. I think he was singing to a female who zipped in just once that I saw. She entered the hole and flew out almost immediately. My guess: She judged the cavity unsuitable. Was it the hole in the roof that deterred her?

Soon after the starling left, a wood duck pair visited the snag’s lower portion.

Male and female wood ducks on top of a dead tree.

Were they shopping for nest real estate, too? Maybe. But I’ve also seen wood ducks poke into cavities and pull out acorns stored by squirrels. Either way, they left after just a few minutes.

I think my save-the-snag decision was a good one. I’m looking forward to lots of summer wildlife shows!

Resources and a Recommended Kids’ Book

The Audubon Field Guide’s European Starling page gives a good profile of this entertaining bird.

I should acknowledge that the European Starling is an invasive species. One of the reasons it’s so successful is its intelligence. Check out this story by Audubon’s Alaska chapter: New Study Shows European Starlings to Be Crazy Smart.

My book recommendation, How Starling Got His Speckles by Keely Parrack and illustrated by Antonio Boffa, is a beautiful picture book that weaves starling facts into a story about the power of sticking together. Readers learn about murmuration—giant gatherings that starlings are famous for—and about the bird’s range, songs, and speckles! The text is fun to read and the illustrations are simply gorgeous. This is a terrific book to read with your littles.

Image Credits: Carol Doeringer.

10 thoughts on “Starling Finds a Snag”

  1. I always love reading your nature posts – and this one was timely. Last week one of our snags fell – a very sudden snap and crash. Fortunately it fell away from the garden and hit nothing but underbrush

    1. Snags provide such entertainment, but they’re essential to ecology, too. I’m glad we share a love of both benefits !

  2. Great post Carol. With droughts in Texas over the past many years now, we have lost so many trees. Most are in the woods on our property but one snag is right in the front yard. My husband calls it my tree cause I won’t let him cut it down. Lots of woodpeckers visit and squirrels. Not as varied a group as your snag but I do enjoy it.

    1. Snags are truly the gift that keeps on giving. I love watching woodpeckers. An ornithologist once told me she finds they have lots of personality. I said, ‘so I’m not imagining that?’ after watching a nesting pair and their kids. The ornithologist laughed and assured me I wasn’t. I hope you see lots of woodie fun in your snag!

    1. Karen, thank you. I do wonder what the neighbors and boaters passing by think of that slingshot!

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