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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 in 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 might 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 will thrive and live their entire lives on dead trees. Shelf mushrooms thrive on dead tree trunks, and as the tree decomposes, they 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 the trunk 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 dead 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 all use snags for many purposes..

  • nesting
  • resting
  • preening
  • feeding
  • storing food
  • hibernating
  • perching
  • drumming (to signal ownership of territory)
  • roosting

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.

After an intense forrest fire is finally extinguished, the affected area of land will offer no more than scorched trees and brush. With the surviving habitate barely hanging on to their dry and desolate home, the dry brush and snags may be their last chance for survival. Yes, a healthy tree that was once full of green leaves is now a dead, burnt-out snag that will offer wildlife a way to start over again.

"Snags will provide both a great staging area for birds and also 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 nice 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 that make it easy to land on. Snags are so versatile that almost every species of bird will find a reason to use a snag. Since birds use their keen eyesight for survival, bare trees make it easy for birds to see in all directions since there are no leaves that would otherwise block their view. 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, as they make plenty of hammering sounds with their bills banging against the tree's dry surface. They will rarely make use of a birdhouse, as they are very capable of creating their own dwelling places. Their bodies are built for the task of chipping away at the trunk surface with their 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 to get insects from deep crevices.

Woodpeckers may create more than just one hole in a year and probably will not nest in the same hole the following year, thus creating many cavities for secondary cavity nesters such as bluebirds, martins, chickadees, wrens, squirrels, and owls. These types of animals, as well as others, are dependent upon the availability of abandoned nest cavities, since they cannot excavate cavities themselves.

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 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 their holes, they offer other animals a place to live. Some will modify or make the holes bigger. As time passes, 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 will start to change and thus create a new micro-habitat around the log with 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, such as 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 can provide predators the advantage of hiding and remaining quiet just before they leap into action and pounce on their prey. Once their prey is dead, they may consume a portion of it, then bury it, 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 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 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 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. There are many styles to choose from and all designed to give your home landscape a whole new personality.


Just about anyone can attract a finch, titmouse, wren or chickadee. These bird species share similar likes and dislikes, and by placing a properly designed bird house 5-10' feet about the ground near some trees and shrubs, at least a few of these species are likely to scope it out. Although the instincts of a bird can reveal a lot about a structure, wrens don't seem to have consistent preferences as to where or what they nest in. Reports have shown that wrens will nest inside of a drinking fountain mounted on the outside wall of a building, inside old tires, bottles, and radiators in abandoned cars.

Birds are very dependent on water during summer and rely heavily on feeders during winter. Placing a bird house close to a feeder and water increases your chances of attracting birds and keeping them around during winter. Keep in mind that many birds are territorial and by placing a bird house too close to sources of food and water may cause disputes between birds competing for food and territory.

If your landscape has adequate space, consider several bird houses of different sizes and shapes. Open spaces along with trees and other variations including a water source will attract a wider array of birds and increase your chances of birds moving to your neck-of-the-woods. As far as decorative bird houses, there are no rules for deciding on paint, stain, materials or location. The idea is to just have fun with them. Altogether, your best chances of attracting your favorite birds is to follow the basic rules of materials and placement. This will increase your chances of a successful bird garden. If you enjoyed reading this article, you might also enjoy How Does a Bird House Help The Environment?»


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