When we moved into our house in 1981, in a long-established neighborhood, many of our backyard trees showed serious signs of age. Our house didn’t seem jeopardized, and so even though my mother-in-law advised us to take them down, we kept them.
Thirty-seven years later, most are still standing. But during a fierce summer storm in 2016, I lost my favorite tree of all — a huge Norway spruce planted during World War I by a little boy in the neighborhood to memorialize his big brother who had been killed in Europe. That tree caught my eye when I was looking for a house to buy. On the pinnacle of that tree, I’ve seen crossbills and other cool winter finches, an occasional Olive-sided Flycatcher perching during brief migratory stopovers, and a Great Horned Owl on January 1, my very first bird of 1991. (I wrote about the tree in a previous column.)
I was heartbroken to lose that treasured part of my own life and such a lovely memorial to one of our neighborhood soldiers. But its wood lives on. We cut the trunk into 18- to 24-inch lengths, and I’ve placed them around my yard in favorite spots for watching birds — they make perfect seats. I have a small, tent-style photo blind, and I can set it up over any of these seats when I don’t want the birds to notice me as I photograph them.
As nice as the stumps are, there’s a gaping hole where my lovely tree once stood. Now we’re deciding what to plant there. As much as I loved the tree and treasure the sweet sentiment of a grieving little boy a hundred years ago planting something for the ages, the new tree will be a locally native species. A large shade tree won’t work in that part of the yard, near the power line — spreading branches would have to be lopped off near the wires. We’re thinking of putting in a couple of mountain ashes or Juneberries. While we’re at it, we will also plant two dwarf cherry trees for pies and a taller one for the birds. And we’ll protect a couple of box elder seedlings from our current trees to ensure that we always have a few of these Evening Grosbeak-friendly trees here.
One of my friends planted oak trees when he was in his 50s, and several of his friends told him he was crazy — the trees wouldn’t be harvestable during his lifetime. But he wasn’t growing them for monetary profit. They quickly gave him the reward he wanted — warblers and Scarlet Tanagers feeding in the newly budding branches each spring. Year after year, those oaks reward him in ways money can’t buy. I can’t replace my lovely old spruce with an oak. Even if the power line weren’t there, my clay soil wouldn’t support one.
I’ve seen firsthand that trees don’t last forever. But the life of an individual tree can last longer than human generations. At each stage of their lives, trees offer rich value for wildlife and for people who reckon value beyond dollars and cents.
This article from Laura Erickson’s column “Attracting Birds” appeared in the May/June 2018 issue of BirdWatching.
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