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The Binocular Advisor

My Favorite Tree

The elm is full of life — surprising, for a dead tree. It serves as open mic, nightclub, nursery for babies, fast-food restaurant, and hot singles' scene.

Dead Elm a Haven for BirdsBig bare trunks of the elm sweep skyward out of my backyard. They serve as a jumping off place for birds coming to visit my feeders and birdbath. That's just one of the tree's services.

Open Mic

Much of the morning's music emanates from birds in its branches. Cardinals, orioles, mourning doves, and rose-breasted grosbeaks, among others, find it a fitting place from which to sing.


At dusk, when the barred owl duets begin, I look to the elm and sometimes see, on a high limb, a big round-headed owl silhouette against the fading sky.

Barred Owl, by Alan MesserThe elm is full of life — surprising, for a dead tree. Once it grew great and tall, but it died, before its time. Most elms don't live long any more, since Dutch elm disease came half a century ago to North America. This elm withstood the disease for decades, growing taller than all the surrounding trees.

But at last it succumbed. By the time my husband and I bought the ground in which it was rooted, the tree had already died.

The Nursery

Two years ago, the bark began loosening, splitting and curling lengthwise in wide arcs that created hollows against the trunk. Walking near the elm one morning, I heard the scratchy, insistent chatter of baby birds. I retreated to the porch and watched. A house wren landed on the bulging bark with a big, gangly-legged spider in its bill. Instantly the sound level under the bark doubled in intensity, as the adult disappeared into a dark opening.

House WrenIt pleased me to know that as the elm prepared to slough its skin, new life was hatching in the space between the drying wood of the tree and its once-tight bark. It pleased me more than the wrens nesting in the birdhouse I'd hung under my eaves. It seemed as if I were privy to a mystery.

Now most of the bark is gone. Long slabs of it still fall from time to time, which I drag off to mulch a walkway. Increasingly, the limbs look white and sterile. Nonetheless, birds find much of interest there.

Fast-food Restaurant

Brown CreeperIn fact, in death the elm is a popular eatery for birds. At any time of day, white-breasted nuthatches patrol the trunks, pecking, probing into crevices. Sometimes a brown creeper (photo at right) visits also.

Upon closer inspection, I find soft places in the trunk. There are myriad small holes, some drilled by insects that live in the decaying wood, some widened by the bills of birds. Curving lines, etched in the wood by tunneling larvae, look like writing in an undecipherable script.

Downy woodpeckers (like the male downy just below) forage among the smaller branches, where lacelike bark still clings to the wood.

Hot Singles' Scene

Downy WoodpeckerAnd in early spring the drumming flicker finds the resonance of a hollow limb perfect for announcing his return and his intention to find a mate. The flickers may not nest in this particular tree, but this is the place where their romance begins.

Without the complication of foliage the elm's structure is visible, strong lines of its vase-like shape. I know that the old tree will come down eventually, but I would not hasten the day. It's too valuable. And we're lucky. The tree is far enough from the house to fall clear when fall it must at last. In the meantime, it may render a few more seasons of service to birds.

Last User — the Wood Stove

Dead ElmWhen the elm comes down one day, we'll cut up the wood for winter heat. Elm wood is pale and clean. It makes a musical sound like wind chimes when being stacked.

The fragrance of the wood will remind me of a thousand birds, singing and feeding, preening and nesting. It will remind me of a tree whose gift to the birds and to me long outlasted its life.

In the meantime, since it's not positioned where it's likely to fall on our house or do any damage, we're leaving it as it is. As far as the birds are concerned, it's the best tree on the place!

-- Diane Cooledge Porter

Diane PorterAn earlier version of this article appeared as Diane Porter's regular column, "Backyard Notes," in the August, 2008, issue of The Backyard Bird Newsletter. Text copyright 2008 by Diane Porter.

Painting of the barred owl in the bare tree is by Alan Messer. (See larger image.) For information on purchasing the original or the right to use the painting, please see the artist's contact information.

Bird and tree photos copyright Michael and Diane Porter 1999-2008.



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