The devastation of Hurricane Sandy can still be felt around my Meadowlands home. Neighbors I knew for years have moved away, many displaced and some never able to return even for their belongings. But besides the human toll there was also a localized environmental loss that for the most part went unnoticed.
It was a very insidious loss that went unobserved until it seemed one day a few curious folks looked up and noticed things were very different around their neighborhood. The trees had just about disappeared.
For weeks after Hurricane Sandy the sounds of saws and trucks filled the streets of suburbia. Trees were down almost everywhere, some in the streets, over power lines and even crushing homes. But not long after many understandably frightened folks began to remove even more than just the trees that posed a danger, and along with that came a change to the local environment.
I began to notice very few if any Chickadees at my bird feeder. Nuthatches were gone and the Downey Woodpecker nowhere to be found. These are otherwise common backyards birds that need trees that are not far apart as they don’t venture out when there are no trees to be used like stepping stones to forage for food or nesting sites.
My big Red Maple was gone and so was my Gray Birch, both fortunately enough missing my house. Looking across and down the street the same thing had happened to my neighbors’ yards and also along the streets, changing my suburban habitat for good.
We all seem to take removing trees very lightly; after all it’s what we do as humans almost every day without much thought: cut them for lumber or firewood or even clear them for our backyard gardens and swimming pools. But we all need to seriously consider the consequences before we take down any tree as they are incredibly important not only to wildlife but to human life as well.
As school kids we all learned the benefits of trees, especially as it pertains to human existence. But Just in case you might need a refresher course here is a very short but sweet reminder of why humans need trees to survive.
Trees clean our air by absorbing CO2 and pollutants. They in turn provide oxygen for all of us to breathe (despite technology it’s still something we all need as far as I know). Trees save us energy, they cool our homes in summer and protect them in winter, and of course now more than ever we understand how they combat climate change by absorbing CO2 and putting the oxygen back into the air.
In one year, an acre of mature trees absorbs the amount of CO2 produced when you drive your car 26,000 miles! Then of course our trees prevent erosion and help cut down on flooding, another thing we learned in the aftermath of Sandy. However, much less understood is the importance of our trees, especially our native tree species, to our wildlife.
To the homeowner that may be blessed enough to have an Oak or Wild Cherry tree in the yard you might think you understand the importance of the trees when you see a Blue jay taking an acorn away or an Oriole feasting on a juicy cherry. But that is just a very small part of how critical those trees are to our avian neighbors. In the book “Bringing Nature Home,” Douglas Tallamy documented that trees such as our oaks support 517 species of Lepidoptera . That means 517 species of butterflies and moths.
In turn those many species are consumed by a vast number of migratory and nesting birds that need all those insects to survive and bring on the next generation. Lose that tree in your backyard or town and there goes the food source. Like losing a supermarket in your neighborhood but much more serious when it comes to wildlife.
This is not to mention the importance of the acorns alone to species like Woodpeckers, Wild Turkey and even Red Foxes that consume the tasty little morsels. We can go right down the line on the importance of our trees. Willow trees support 456 species of Lepidoptera, Cherry 448 and Birch 413. We can go on and on but there is even more damage when we lose a tree.
There are the leaves, particularly the ones on the ground. We can do an entire book on the importance of the leaf litter and leaving it in place. Birds like the Wood-Thrush, Brown Thrasher and Northern Flicker depend on being able to forage on the insects that live in the leaf litter.
Lightening bugs, Luna Moths and many of our beautiful butterfly species overwinter also under the leaves. Lose a tree, no leaves, no birds , butterflies or for that matter many other insects we grew up with and now wondering where they all have went too.
And the next time you wonder why a lovely woodpecker is making a whole in your cedar siding think about all the birds that need trees to make a nest to call home.
Chickadees, Nuthatches, Tufted Titmouse and all the woodpeckers need tree cavities to nest in. Screech Owls, Barred Owls and even Great Crested Flycatchers need tree cavities to raise their young. But let’s not forget the Robins, catbirds, Goldfinches and the many warbler species that depend on us keeping our trees around. The list is endless.
And just as a side note” if anyone decides to remove a tree while there is an active bird’s nest in it, it is a violation of the Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act and would be subject to fines and prosecution. Sadly of course there are times when a tree does need to be cut back or removed. If possible keep up a part of the tree so it is not a danger. This will still allow bird species to utilize it for nesting and food.
We often forget that our trees are living, thriving life forms essential to life as we know it. As alive as much as any bird butterfly or human for that matter . We just need to put in a little more thought and consideration before we decide to have such a wonderful creature like a tree eliminated from our environment and ultimately the Earth.
The environmental philosopher John Muir once said, “God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanches, and a thousand tempests and floods. But he cannot save them from fools.”
Maybe not, but we can do our part to protect and preserve something as important as a tree. Wherever and whenever we can.