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Important forest habitats for wildlife

In 1976 a “Habitat for Humanity” program began in the United States. Focused on affordable housing, it blossomed in the 1980s with the support of President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn.

Habitats for wildlife encompass much more than a house. They include shelter plus other critical elements like food, water and sufficient spaces for particular species. To enable a population to flourish, their needs must be available in intricate natural combinations that vary with the seasons.

Humans have drastically altered natural environments on land and in the air, waterways and oceans over the last several hundred years. About half of all known Canadian wildlife populations have been in decline since the 1970s. In eastern Canada, complex forests have been strip-mined and converted into softwood plantations or naturally refurbished with pioneer species. Such conversions and repeated clear-cuts over time result in sterile moonscapes at tremendous, long-term environmental expense. Forest industries are not held responsible for any of these losses.

Restoring ecologically-healthy forests and the habitats they comprise helps nature to recover. It’s a long, intensive process that will also sustain humans. We should do more of it.

The 1989 baseball movie Field of Dreams offered a “build it and they will come” perspective that I was earnestly applying at the time by building habitats for wildlife.

The land I found to live on back in the 1970s featured a south-facing hillside and a brook that came out of a forest onto a floodplain, eventually flowing eastward through a freshwater marsh into a saltwater harbour. Former farmland, its young, pioneer forest lacked older trees and dead trees with cavities that could shelter birds and mammals. There was a clear need to construct and erect nest boxes of various sizes for cavity or hole dwellers, as well as enhance and add other missing forest elements that would benefit wildlife.

Nest boxes

Where no old trees were present, erecting nest boxes immediately made living possible for new species. Bumblebees, a natural pollinator, took over one box. Flying squirrels adopted several. These night gliders spread fungi in soil that help trees obtain nutrients for growth.

Other cavity users include barred owls, saw-whet owls, tree swallows, bluebirds, chickadees, nuthatches, hairy, downy and pileated woodpeckers, house sparrows, crested flycatchers, purple martins, bats, wood ducks, hooded mergansers, common goldeneye ducks, red squirrels, and mice. 

I knew from previous agriculture studies that northern flickers consumed tremendous numbers of harmful insects that pupated in the ground under fruit trees. Several flicker-sized boxes were erected, and the birds promptly occupied them in the spring. I built special bat boxes for females to rear their young.


Oddly branched trees

Wildlife can take advantage of trees with unusual forms. Forestry manuals propose that big white pines with many heavy limbs coming off the trunk a short distance above the ground—often called “wolf” trees—take up too much growing space and should be cut down. I’ve been asked to write wildlife sections in these “how to” manuals. I suggest that wolf pines are valuable wildlife trees and should be retained. They provide thick aerial cover for a wide range of species, from bats to black bears.

Bald eagles, owls, other birds of prey and large birds like ravens find trees with several horizontal limbs that serve as a stable base for nest building. I leave these trees in the forest. It’s no accident that goshawks, ravens and bald eagles nest here.


Older trees

Over the past 50 years, clearcutting practices with heavy machines have torn nature asunder at a speed and scale never done before. Leaving older trees and dead trees, no matter what species, presents important forest opportunities for wildlife and soil health. They add a vertical element to the forest, crucial for species richness. Birds like kinglets forage in the upper canopy for insects. Other species nest and use the middle or lower tree sections. Working in the forest here, I always leave the largest, tallest trees for shelter and their seed sources.


Damaged trees

Trees that have suffered physical damage from other falling trees often have some rot in their trunks where limbs have broken off. They can remain alive for decades. Woodpeckers chip holes to reach insects. Nuthatches, chickadees and others will peck through the rotted wood to excavate a nest hole.

Bees sometimes nest in the holes. Some people consider them unsightly, but many kinds of wildlife use them. For those reasons, I leave them.


Standing dead and hollow trees

To hasten the re-emergence of standing deadwood on this land, here and there I girdled (removed a strip of bark around the trunk) to kill a few trees that were competing with species that I wished to favour. With time, each tree became riddled with feeding and nesting holes.

At first, hollow trees were another missing natural feature. Standing up alive, or dead on the forest floor, their cavities offer nesting and denning possibilities for many birds and mammals.

Chimney swifts originally nested inside large, hollow trees. When such trees were no longer available, the birds switched to brick chimneys. Insurance policies now mandate stainless steel liners with no rough surfaces for the swifts to attach a nest.

Leave any large standing hollow trees for swifts, ducks, barred owls, flying squirrels, bats, black bears, bees and porcupines.


Deadwood on the forest floor

The pioneer trees that I felled directly onto the ground, to make sun space for planted, longer-lived Acadian trees, decayed quickly. Their decomposition replenished the soil with nutrients and provided shelter and food for a number of salamander and frog species that were gradually repopulating the woodland. Logs on the forest floor are particularly helpful for them if they are located near woodland pools.

Harvesters rarely realize that a tree is hollow until they cut it down. Folks are reluctant to buy hollow trees. I asked a forestry contractor to save some for me. Using the tractor to carry them down our woodland road, I rolled them by hand and peavey into the forest where tracks had been seen the previous winter. Piling brush over these “denning logs” camouflaged them in a natural way. Mink and otters are among the mammals now using them.

Hollow, injured, and dead trees on the ground can all be helpful for wildlife.


Brush piles

For many years I created small, sunny gaps in the forest to plant long-lived Acadian tree species among the pioneer poplars, firs and spruces. At one point I suggested to my wife, Alice, that she follow behind my chainsaw work—at a safe distance—and use the downed wood pieces to construct brush piles for small mammals and birds. Brush piles are most useful if larger pieces are first placed and spaced over the ground. Then you cover them with finer branches. Not entirely convinced, Alice nevertheless built her first brush pile one winter’s day.

The next morning, we were delighted to see a snowshoe hare resting one hop away from its new shelter! Later, woodchucks, squirrels and mice found them. Many birds, including sparrows and warblers, use them for shelter, feeding and nesting until the leaves come out. 


Rock piles

Stones strewn along the edge of former fields were reminders of the work it took to clear those fields. I borrowed a root hook and, using my old tractor, reclaimed several fields. Then I carried rocks out from the shaded field edges, placed them in sunny piles and made rock walls and walkways. The stones absorb heat and the warmth attracts cold-blooded creatures like toads,
and snakes.

Stone piles and walls are favoured hiding places for chipmunks and snakes. Even black bears use the stone walk in front of the house. They understand a path!

Years later, I had to relocate one small rock pile to build a garage. Three species of snakes were occupying its spaces. Maritime garter snakes, northern ringneck snakes and northern redbelly snakes can live together. Northern redbelly snakes are a gardener’s best friend because their favourite food is slugs.


Looking back, looking forward

After 46 years, dead trees are now scattered throughout the woodland for wildlife use. Only the barred owl boxes and bat boxes remain up. The owl box is occupied and I’m hopeful that bats will soon return. 

Older forest elements are in place now and able to evolve at their own pace. They no longer need my help.

All mammals and breeding birds, including migratory birds, need a quiet time for rearing their young. For that reason, I don’t use the chainsaw in the woods during the spring and summer. They’ve enough to think about!

These wildlife habitat restoration prescriptions should be considered an ongoing project. Be prepared to wait, tend, watch and listen. You will be rewarded with an abundance of wild neighbours.  


Habitat summary

Nest boxes are substitutes for trees with holes—used by many mammals and birds. 

Oddly-branched trees offer opportunities for heavy nesters like eagles, hawks, and ravens.

Older trees increase the vertical element that wildlife need, and yield seeds for future forests.

Damaged trees with some rotten wood are easy excavation by birds for nesting, as well as providing food for woodpeckers, brown creepers, nuthatches and black-capped chickadees.

Standing dead and hollow trees provide roosting and/or nesting options for chimney swifts and many other birds and mammals. Dead trees can be created by girdling, and will be subsequently excavated by wildlife.

Deadwood on the forest floor offers nutrients for new tree growth, hiding places for salamanders and insects that are eaten by various creatures, and denning opportunities.

Brush piles are used by many small birds and mammals for cover, foraging and nesting.

Rock piles provide sunning sites and refuges for chipmunks, squirrels, mice and beneficial snakes.

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