“Yeah,” he said, gesturing toward the ancient fallen fir. “After we’re done building the cabin, I’m going to clean up this woods a bit. There’s a lot of dead trees in here. Look at all the stuff on the ground.”
“Why?” I asked. Not wanting to insult my client, but feeling like I had to at least try to stop the clean-up-the-woods madness that was looming large on Eric’s to-do list.
“Why not?” Eric asked innocently, seemingly surprised by my question.
A perfect segue. Now I could preach the benefits of snags and cavities as an important piece of the native landscape puzzle from my soapbox. That this perceived woodland “messiness” was actually a thing of beauty.
I told him about the flying squirrel that poked its head out of a perfectly round hole near the top of a broken off aspen; black button squirrel eyes meeting my brown ones. This snag, light as balsa, was a pithy remnant of its former stately self; a wobbly home, but a home nonetheless.
I also told him about Helen Reddy. No, not the Queen of 70’s pop, but the red squirrel that we named after watching it come to snag sunflower seed from the feeders on our deck; her stop-gap motion a constant source of amusement for us. Can’t be sure it was a female, or even if it was the same individual, but, name her, we did.
I’d watch Helen strip the soft fibers from the trunk of the red cedar tree outside my office window, carry a balled-up bunch of them in her mouth through her network of tree branches and deposit them into a hole towards the top of a dead White Oak branch. She was lining her nest; her insulation from winter’s grip. It seemed she was evicted, at least temporarily, however, by a red-bellied woodpecker (I witnessed this apparent tragedy for Helen). Although red-belly never made contact with fuzzy Helen, the woodpecker flew back and forth in front of the hole, squawking threateningly as woodpeckers do. When woodie took a break, I saw Helen grab a mouthful of her hard-earned cedar stuffing, run along another tree branch network and deposit her insulation into another tree cavity. Maybe she was maintaining two homes all along? Maybe this hole belonged to the woodpecker originally? Many questions.
I concluded with a tale of the resident red-headed woodpecker, who has yet to be named, that cached every walnut from a pile of stale ones that we set out on our deck rail. It was his? her? mission that winter day; fly to pile, pick up nut, fly to cavity in nearby standing dead red oak (a victim of oak wilt), deposit nut, fly back to pile and so on. It was hours. It confirmed my decision to leave that oak alone; a valued vessel for those protein and fat-packed morsels as future food for one of the few woodpeckers that store nuts.
Although I think Eric’s eyes were glazed over by the time I got to the red-headed woodpecker story (and I could have gone on), I do think I got the message across. Eric may not leave all the standing snags, but I bet he’ll think twice when he remembers Helen Reddy and her coveted cavity.
Maybe Eric will feel the way that I do for the critters that require cavities for their very livelihood. Maybe he’ll empathize with their vulnerability, especially during the dead of winter, knowing that the demand for cavities exceeds the supply in a world that continues to “clean-up” the woods.