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When we moved into our home in 1981, in a long-established neighborhood, many of our garden trees showed serious signs of age. Our house didn’t seem to be in danger and even though my mother-in-law had advised us to take them down, we kept them.
Thirty-seven years later, most are still standing. But in a violent storm in the summer of 2016, I lost my favorite tree of all: a huge Norway spruce planted during World War I by a little neighborhood boy to commemorate his big brother killed in Europe. This tree caught my eye when I was looking for a house to buy. Atop this tree I saw crossbills and other cool winter finches, an occasional olive-sided flycatcher roosting during brief migratory stops, and a great horned owl on January 1, my very first bird from 1991. (I wrote about the tree in a previous column.)
I was heartbroken to lose this precious part of my own life and such a beautiful memorial to one of our neighborhood soldiers. But its wood endures. We cut the trunk into 18-24 inch lengths and I placed them around my yard in favorite bird watching spots – they make perfect seating. I have a small tent-style photo awning and I can set it up on any of these seats when I don’t want the birds to notice me while I’m photographing them.
Become a native
As beautiful as the stumps are, there is a gaping hole where my beautiful tree once stood. Now we decide what to plant there. As much as I loved the tree and cherish the sweet feeling of a grieving little boy a hundred years ago planting something for the ages, the new tree will be a local native species. A large shade tree will not work in this part of the yard near the power line: spreading branches should be cut near the wires. We plan to put some mountain ash or Juneberries there. While we’re at it, we’ll also be planting two dwarf cherry trees for pies and a larger one for birds. And we’ll protect a few elderberry seedlings from our current trees to make sure we’ll always have some of those Evening Grosbeak-friendly trees here.
A friend of mine planted oak trees when he was in his fifties, and several of his friends told him he was crazy: those trees couldn’t be harvested in his lifetime. But he did not grow them for profit. They soon gave him the reward he wanted: warblers and scarlet tanagers feeding on the newly budded branches each spring. Year after year, those oak trees reward him in ways money can’t buy. I can’t replace my beautiful old spruce with an oak. Even if the power line wasn’t there, my clay soil wouldn’t support it.
I have seen for myself that trees don’t last forever. But the life of an individual tree can last longer than that of human generations. At every stage of their life, trees provide great value to wildlife and people who feel their value goes beyond dollars and cents.
This article from Laura Erickson’s “Attracting Birds” column originally appeared in the May/June 2018 issue of BirdWatching.
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