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September 12th, 2014

Attracting Birds With Snags

What is a snag?

A snag is a dead or dying tree that is still standing and holding fast, sometimes at the bottom of a body of water. Many forms of wildlife will take advantage of a snag as they can be beneficial for wildlife in both natural and landscaped environments. They can enhance your area by attracting birds and other wildlife species that may not otherwise be found there.

What causes a snag?

A tree may die as a result of disease, lightning, fire, insect infestations, too much shade, drought, root competition, as well as old age. You may have seen a dead tree before, as they often look bare and dried out depending on their age. They are seen in forested areas, deserts, and yards around residential homes.

A tree that keeps on giving..

Most people will say that snags are ugly and should be removed. And for the most part, they might be right. After all, they're not really beautiful, formal, or classic looking. Others, however, will see a dead tree as a gift that keeps on giving. Why? Because a snag provides shelter for many forms of life, such as mammals, reptiles, amphibians, rodents, insects, birds, and even fish.

At the microbial level, snags can help nature by promoting bacteria and fungi, helping to fertilize surrounding soil. Some fungi, moss, and lichen live their entire lives on dead trees. Shelf mushrooms thrive on dead tree trunks, and as the tree decomposes, mushrooms provide their unique contributions to a forest environment.

The animal kingdom without snags..

If it were not for dead and fallen trees, a significant percentage of wildlife, especially birds, would not have enough of the basic necessities needed for survival. Although some wildlife species may not take advantage of what a snag has to offer, most wildlife can benefit in one way or another from the twigs, branches and truck of a dead tree.

A dead tree that has fallen to the ground is no longer considered a snag, but now is referred to as a "log." Regardless of whether a tree is standing or not, the various parts of a tree can provide wildlife with a vibrant setting for shelter, food, hibernation and storage. Even snags that are protruding out of the water or have fallen onto dry or partially wet ground can offer the same.

List of Uses

Flying and land-dwelling wildlife alike all use snags for many purposes - nest, rest, preen, feed, store food, hibernate, perch, drum (to signal ownership of territory), and roost. Many classes of animals nest in the cavities of dead or dying trees, and many bird species in North America use tree cavities for cover and feeding. Many of these species will not nest anywhere else, and so without snags, they might become extinct. They provide shelter from wind, rain, and snow, and the temperature inside cavities in large trees stays more constant than the surrounding air, giving added protection. For many species, that's also where their food is, so it's convenient for dining.

While living trees offer superior camouflage and safety for birds when the trees are in full foliage, dead trees, without the leaves, provide both a great staging area for birds and a great view for birdwatchers and photographers.

Any bird flying from one point to another may choose a snag as a pit stop to briefly rest their wings. Dead and bare branches that are exposed to open air makes it easier for birds to pick a choice spot for a safe landing. Landing on a branch without having to navigate heavy leaves and branches makes a snag more appealing to stop for a quick rest before they take off again.

Many predators, such as hawks, eagles, ospreys, red-tail hawks, herons, and egrets also use snags to scope out their meals. At the same time, they can use it as a look-out point to keep an eye on members of their own species who invade their territory. Often, they simply use snags because of the bare branches of snags to perch or roost on. Perhaps this is because the bare trees are the best place to keep an eye on potential invaders or just because it's hard for large birds to maneuver wings through foliage. Snags are so versatile as far as usage that almost every species of bird will find a reason to use a snag. See a list of birds that are attracted to snags »

The Original Cavity Creators - Woodpeckers

Woodpeckers use large dead tree trunks as a way to make their presence known, hammering their bills against the tree's dry surface. They are "cavity nesters" and their bodies are built for the task with thick skulls, powerful neck muscles and beveled, chisel-like bills. A woodpecker's ability to climb along the vertical path of a tree trunk is made possible with strong grasping feet and sharp curved nails to form a triangular foot-grip for support. The woodpecker's barb-tipped tongue and sticky saliva help it get insects from deep crevices. Unlike other cavity-nesting birds, woodpeckers rarely use bird houses because their instincts instruct them to bore out their own cavities.

Woodpeckers may create more than just one hole in a year and probably will not nest in the same hole the next year, thus creating many cavities for secondary cavity nesters such as bluebirds, martins, chickadees, house wrens, squirrels, and owls - who cannot excavate cavities themselves. Secondary cavity nesting wildlife such as these are dependent upon the availability of these abandoned nest cavities.

Turkey Vultures

A Turkey Vulture is a majestic, pre-historic looking bird with an elongated red head, black neck and dark pattern feathers. They sometimes hangout around landfills, trash heaps and open areas, while perched on poles, dead trees, and fence posts.


Retaining a dead tree in your yard as a snag requires a carefully planned decision to determine whether the location of the snag is a safe spot and won't pose a hazard if they eventually fall. The best locations are away from picnic areas, car ports, power lines, gas meters, children play areas, gardens or any structure that has high activity from humans. Trees that are leaning, especially downhill or toward a house will not make the best choice for a possible snag.

Hard Snags

When a tree has recently died, it forms a "hard snag." The condition of the tree is one that has the inner bark and heartwood still firm and offering both food and nesting for "cavity dwellers." Eventually, the inner wood rots from fungi, and the branches, bark and top portion falls off. As the dead tree ages, the bark thins and its cambium layer becomes exposed. What once started off as a hard snag, now becomes a "soft snag," providing a different opportunities for insects and wildlife.

As the snag ages, different animals will make use of it. For instance, when cavity dwellers move out of the holes they create, others animals will move in. Some will modify or make the holes bigger. As time move on, more wildlife will make use of the cavities and other parts. Even squirrels and raccoons might settle down in certain portions of a dead tree trunk. This cycle of evolution of a dead tree can last for years.

When a tree dies and becomes a snag, it should be protected and left standing for reasons of benefiting the environment. They are used for nesting, perching, hunting, roosting and fertilizing.

On The Ground

Downed trunks and logs are useful to a variety of smaller creatures such as moles, chipmunks, salamanders, snakes, turtles, frogs and invertebrates. The underlying spaces are used for nesting, resting and protection while the elevated parts of the log are used for foraging as well as lookout sites. The base of the log provides foraging for woodpeckers and other insectivorous birds. Once the tree is on the ground, it affects the surrounding plant community which starts to change and a microhabitat is created around the log creating even more opportunity for animals and insects to thrive. If you live on a large property area that has bodies of water, a dying tree that falls and lands across a stream or pond can be used as a bridge for mammals, and can also be used as a basking site for turtles or frogs.

Wood Piles

Another way to use decaying wood is by creating a wood pile with branches, twigs, bark and small logs. These create excellent cover for a variety of wildlife species including small mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians and will serve many functions including shelter, perching, foraging, storing and hibernation. A wood pile is made by starting with a base of larger branches which creates entries for wildlife and then piling on other various sizes of branches in a mound or tepee-shape. Piling on enough branches and twigs that will bring the wood pile to a certain height will allow birds such as hummingbirds, robins, towhees and warblers to perch on the outside, while chickadees, thrushes and wrens will find shelter inside the brush pile. Wildlife that make use of the damp base areas deep inside the wood pile include chipmunks, rabbits, shrews, turtles, lizards, toads, salamanders and snakes.

In a natural situation, a snag can be beneficial to big animals too, predators such as big cats, snakes and other ambush predators. When a snag falls to the ground, it becomes a log with it's dry twigs and branches around it. This can act as cover that enable them to hide and remain quiet just before they leap into action and pounce on their prey. Once their prey is dead, they may consume a portion of it, or bury it and in the ground or cover it in thick brush.

Mountain Lions

If you like to hike, then you're probably aware of the threat of mountain lions. If a mountain lion attacks you, you probably won't have any prior warning. Yes, they're a big animal, and their very quiet, stalking you without you knowing it. Ideally they'll ambush you and go right for your head or neck - not a good situation for a human to be in. In this case, a fallen tree might be something to avoid in nature while conducting outdoor activities.

Mountain lions don't normally eat humans, but they might mistake you for their regular source of food since they do in-fact eat anything from mice to large deer. To better understand mountain lions when hiking, read more here

Rock Piles

A small rock pile consisting of some beautiful rocks and stones will also look stylish near a wood pile. Rocks absorb heat and will attract lizards, dry-land turtles and frogs giving them a place to hibernate, as a rock pile will help them to regulate their temperature. A pile of medium sized rocks stacked evenly will give them a safe place to multiply during the spring.

Dress Up Your Landscape

Snags and wood piles are used primarily for their functional aspects and are not intended to beautify areas of your home and garden. If there are rough areas in your yard that could use a little "dressing up", consider some decorative yard art from Wood Worx by John. There are many styles to choose from and all designed to give your home landscape a whole new personality. View their entire inventory by visiting www.woodworxbyjohn.com


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