Each time I enter a home count in eBird, I include a note that the location is a “Suburban Wooded Back Yard.” The many mature trees in our yard are after all a part of the attraction for the birds that come here. Unfortunately over the past year or two, this description is starting to fray. Our lovely large trees keep falling in unusual numbers and each time this happens, it not only affects the yard’s human owners but also the birds and other creatures that live here. Over this past weekend another very large tree fell. This one in particular is going to have real repercussions for bird life in our back yard.
The tree was a very large pine. I don’t think I could have wrapped my arms completely around its trunk at the base. It was a mature pine when we moved into the house thirty-four years ago, so it had a lot of years on it. It had survived the pine borer infestation that took down many of the pines in our neighborhood twenty or thirty years ago. It seemed like it would always be there.
But we’ve had so much rain in Maryland this year that I think our sandy ground was just getting too loose and soggy to hold it. (The pine was surprisingly shallow-rooted.) We’d noticed after last week’s heavy snow that it had started to lean a bit to one side. On Sunday, a gust of wind knocked it completely over. It fell quietly and probably a little slowly; as big as this tree was, we didn’t hear when it hit the ground from inside the house.
This tree, that had stood in our yard for so long, overlooking our children’s swing set when when they were little and giving us summertime shade, was also a huge favorite among the birds in the yard. Many of the backyard birds would use the top of this tree for cover and as a staging spot for making forays out to the bird feeders. In particular, the Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmouses, White-breasted Nuthatches and Red-breasted Nuthatches would use this tree as a base. They would dart out to a feeder, grab a sunflower or safflower seed and then zip up the mid-level branches to eat it. Then they would do it again and again.
Downy Woodpeckers, Red-bellied Woodpeckers and Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers would hammer at the trunk or branches looking for tasty bugs. In the spring, American Goldfinches and various warblers could be found poking around in the upper branches and inside the tree’s pinecones. And every once in a rare while, a Brown Creeper could be seen working its way up the trunk to look for bugs.
Blue Jays would fly up into the branches to eat a peanut or to wait for a turn to grab a peanut from one of the feeders. Northern Cardinals would fly up into its branches when something spooked them from the feeders. As an evergreen, it provided good cover all year round.
Sometimes though, the threat to these birds would actually be lurking in this tree. It was a place where Coopers Hawk might occassionally perch, partly hidden, waiting for a plump Mourning Dove to come to the feeders below it.
But today, this tree is on its side across the back yard, like a long body stretched out flat. Now, you might say that we were lucky that it didn’t hit the house and you would be right. We are very thankful for that. Having lost our detached garage to another smaller pine that fell from our neighbor’s yard a year ago, we understand something about of the stress and very hard work involved when a tree takes out a structure, although hitting the house would obviously be much worse.
This larger pine did take out some outdoor chairs and a fire pit, but we’ll survive that. What sadly didn’t survive was a little black cherry tree whose top was broken off when the trunk of the pine fell on it.
The cherry tree is actually the surviving remnant of another fallen tree. There used to be a large black cherry tree maybe thirty feet from the pine. Years ago, it fell over. My son has made us some lovely furniture from the wood of that tree.
The current little black cherry tree was a little sapling remnant of that tree. After the original cherry fell, the area and the tree got covered in wisteria. This wisteria tangle was actually quite popular with birds and one reason I think that we routinely would get thirty or more Northern Cardinals in the yard each evening during the winter when it was there. A few years ago though, we finally took a deep breath and attacked the wisteria, uncovering the cherry and creating the fire pit area. (We still continue to fight this wisteria that is so persistent and aggressive that its long runners continue to quickly reach out from lingering roots. It grows all year round here.)
The little black cherry tree was misshapened by the blanket of wisteria but it was a fighter. Once the oppressive strangling wisteria vines were removed, it started growing out into a very nice little tree that became the new favorite spot for the evening contingent of cardinals. But now there is just a few feet of trunk left and one small vertical branch. We’ll leave it there for now to see if its third chance at life succeeds. It is a fighter after all.
I believe that in every bad thing that happens, there is usually something good too. In this case, although we have permanently lost the pine, its limbs and still-green needles will continue to provide cover for the birds this winter. The tree missed taking out two of my pole bird feeders by just a few inches. Even though it was twelve degrees outside, Jim and I spent Sunday afternoon cutting back the branches within ten feet of the feeder and the picnic table (which amazingly survived!) so that squirrels wouldn’t get into the feeders.
Those cut branches were dragged over to top off two brush piles in the yard. The brush pile near the feeders now has a pine branch top that seems to make the sparrows quite happy.
The even larger brush pile around the side of the house had gotten flattened out over time, so this was an opportunity to create a new grid structure of larger branches on top of the old flattened pile, so that it is now a more robust cover for sparrows and wrens and goldfinches once again.
The pine tree itself is going to have to be cut up. It took out a few branches of a little holly that we had planted last year (to attract berry loving birds like Mockingbirds) and it’ll be a challenge to cut up the pine’s huge trunk without further harming that little tree that is right next to it, but we’ll manage.
We are planning to leave the top branches of the tree where they fell for the winter though. Right now it is serving as thick cover and a staging area to temporarily replace the upright pine and the little black cherry tree during the winter when there is less cover to be found in the yard. When spring comes we’ll have to figure out what to plant to try and re-establish some year round cover. Maybe a new pine where the old one stood for so long? We’ll see.
The yard is constantly changing. It is sad to lose a beloved tree, but it’s part of life. The birds adapt to it. We adapt to it too.
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