Old is Not Ugly

A dead tree, or snag, growing in a remnant patch of old growth forest in Nova Scotia. Photo by Tim Skelly.

MANY PEOPLE ARE AFRAID of old age these days. They might feel better if they spent more time around old, dead, and dying trees.

In the Q&A section of this blog, which is on the right-hand side of the page, I answered a question from a reader who was wondering whether she should go to a lot of trouble to try to save a much-loved tree from mistletoe. My response was fairly long, but the short version is, Probably not.

Why not? Trees are no different from other life forms: Just like us, they eventually get old and/or diseased and die. This can be tragic, especially if the tree is an example of a species under threat from an introduced disease or insect pest. But it doesn't have to be. Old trees show us that there is dignity and grandeur in old age. Dying and dead trees also make a vital contribution to all the life forms around them. Allowing a tree to decline and die with dignity can be a gift to nature and to yourself.

Many species of birds and small mammals rely on the cavities that form naturally in dying and dead trees as places to raise young and shelter from harsh weather. The "nest boxes" and "roost boxes" we humans put up are an attempt to provide birds with the equivalent of cavities in dead trees, but most animals prefer the natural cavities if they can find them. Unfortunately, because humans often cut down dead and dying trees, these animals have a tough time finding natural homes.

Even a stump of a dead tree has value. As they rot, stumps, fallen logs, and other "deadwood" become natural sponges, soaking up water that they will later release slowly, during dry weather. This helps to prevent flooding. It also provides a perfect environment for the seeds of many species of plants, including new trees, to germinate and grow. This photograph was taken in a patch of old growth forest in the Seattle area.

This photo, taken in the Seattle area, shows the remains of an American chestnut. Once common in the eastern United States, this species was affected by an fungal disease that was introduced on imported Asiatic chestnut trees. The disease has killed billions of trees, as a result of which the tree is now extremely rare. The owner of this tree made every effort to save it -- an appropriate step given that the trees are now rare -- but was unsuccessful. It is now incorporated in her garden as a piece of natural sculpture reminding visitors of the dangers posed by introduced species.

More natural sculpture: a snag in old-growth forest in Nova Scotia.

If a big old tree falls in an area inhabited area, the result can be damage to life or property. (So it's important to get a consultation from a trusted arborist if you think a tree might present a hazard.) But these events are natural and beneficial in the forest. The roots of a fallen tree, along with soil and other vegetation that was attached to the roots, are known as the "rootwad" or "root plane." This big mass of soil and decaying plant matter is great habitat for many animals and a good location for new plants to germinate and grow. Photo by Tim Skelly.

When a root plane lifts up out of the soil, it often leaves a shallow depression behind. This small, sheltered pond is ideal habitat for amphibians. Photo by Tim Skelly.

This is the end: This photo shows the forest floor in an area of old-growth forest near to a lake. The open area over the lake exposes this part of the forest to high winds, so many trees have fallen down. As they decompose and are covered by mosses and other vegetation, the forest floor takes on what ecologists refer to as "pit and mound architecture." The uneven terrain creates a wide variety of habitats, referred to as "microhabitats," that can support different small creatures and plants. Photo by Tim Skelly.

Update on bats and wind power

SCIENTISTS SEEM TO HAVE SOLVED THE MYSTERY of why bats are killed by wind turbines, and they think they can use this knowledge to prevent bat deaths. This good news comes from the Journal of Wildlife Management via Science Daily: Bat deaths can be reduced by making sure that the blades of the turbines do not turn (at least not much) when wind speeds are low. Taking this precaution doesn’t significantly affect energy output from the turbines, either. The idea is already being successfully used in some locations.

There’s a lot more to the story, however, so if you’re interested I recommend checking the following sources:

Treehugger article: “Scientists Solve Wind Power’s Mass Bat-Killing Problem

Science Daily article, “Scientists Find Successful Way to Reduce Bat Deaths at Wind Turbines”

Press release from the University of Calgary, “U of C scientists find successful way to reduce bat deaths at wind turbines”

Press release from the University of Calgary, “Extreme pressure changes near blades injures bat lungs, U of C study finds”

Original journal article: Baerwald et al. “A Large-Scale Mitigation Experiment to Reduce Bat Fatalities at Wind Energy Facilities.” Journal of Wildlife Management, 2009; 73 (7): 1077

My earlier post on windpower and wildlife can be found here. For the record, a (“up to”) 60% reduction in bat deaths isn’t enough to make me ultra happy about the popularity of wind power. But it is good news, and perhaps this discovery will lead to others that will reduce bat deaths even more.

Many thanks to Carole Browne of Conservation Gardening for mentioning this news on her blog.

More good news

Good news

WHILE WE’RE ON THE TOPIC of good news, check out this article from Fine Gardening magazine. Here we have a well-known garden writer, writing in a mainstream gardening magazine, advising readers to stop tilling their soil!

Mind you, natural landscapers have known everything in this article for a decade or more. In fact, I confess that a small part of me is miffed when mainstream writers suddenly “discover” practices we’ve been using for ages, and don’t mention that these ideas are not new.

Still, I try not to give in to that tiny, mean-spirited part of this complete personality, and instead take joy in realizing that these practices are … can it be? … is it possible? … actually starting to be looked upon as … acceptable? Even desirable?

Articles such as this one, and other good news, give me reason to hope that this may actually be the case.

Good news

A COUPLE OF YEARS AGO, I blogged about the depressing case of Deborah Dale, a past president of the North American Native Plant Society whose Toronto garden was destroyed by over-zealous officials who did not understand or appreciate her natural landscaping.

So imagine my joy upon checking the NAPS website this morning, to discover that a couple in Ottawa just won a battle to preserve their own half-acre meadow of pollinator-friendly plants! On July 25, 2009, the Ottawa Citizen reported that the city of Ottawa had rescinded a bylaw that would have forbidden Hank and Vera Jones from retaining their environmentally friendly, wildlife-friendly plantings.

Equally encouraging is the amount of public support the Joneses received: They received legal advice and representation from the Ecojustice Environmental Law Clinic at the University of Ottawa; the Ottawa Citizen published an excellent editorial and an equally excellent opinion piece supporting their cause; the Green Party wrote a letter of support; and the Citizen also published several letters to the editor supporting their cause. For a cheer-making experience, I highly recommend reading some of the articles, letters, and editorials the Citizen has published:

Farewell to the lawn (opinion piece)

Sneezing time

ragweed THIS IS A MISERABLE TIME of year for many allergy sufferers. Unfortunately, people with allergies often blame the wrong plants, which does nothing to relieve their suffering and may prevent them or even their neighbors from planting harmless species.

Left, the pollen of Common ragweed causes most respiratory allergies at this time of year. This photo is by Forest and Kim Starr, via the Wikipedia Commons.

As it happens, a wildlife-friendly garden is likely to be an allergy-sufferer's best friend. Why? Because plants that are pollinated by insects tend to have heavy pollen. Because it’s heavy, this pollen is not carried on the wind, which means that it does not have a chance to get into your nose and start the immune-system reaction known as an allergy attack. So a wildlife-friendly garden full of flowers that are being visited by butterflies, bees, and other pollinators is not likely to cause allergic reactions.

In late summer, the chief cause of respiratory allergy symptoms is ragweed (Ambrosia artemisiifolia). This is an annual weed that’s common in the Northeast, Midwest, and South. Although it’s native to North America, I’ve never heard anyone recommend it as a garden plant!

Ragweed pollen can travel hundreds of miles but most of it lands near the plant, so the closer the plant is to you the more likely it is that the pollen will end up in your nose. If there is any ragweed growing near you, the best way to dispose of it is probably to wet it down (to make the pollen grains heavy, so they don’t scatter), then cut it back carefully and again carefully put the stems into a plastic garbage bag, which can be put out with the trash. The best time to do this would be early on a chilly morning, when pollen production would be at its lowest.

For future years, the best way to keep ragweed off your property is to plant aggressive perennials, preferably ones that are pollinated by insects, because these plants can prevent the annual ragweed from getting a foothold in your garden. In other words, have a wildlife-friendly garden! Goldenrod might be a good choice because it is insect pollinated and extremely aggressive.

One warning: People who are allergic to ragweed pollen may also be allergic to the pollen of other plants in the Aster family. Now, the Aster family is huge and includes many wonderful wildlife-friendly plants with heavy pollen, including Goldenrod and Purple coneflower. It would be a tragedy for any wildlife-friendly gardener to give up these plants altogether. But if you are allergic to ragweed, you may want to plant these species further from your house and avoid bringing the flowers into your house or working right next to them during pollen season. Sniffing the flowers of plants in the Aster family would also be ill-advised, as that would pull even heavy pollen into your nose.

Meanwhile, here are a few ways to keep allergies under control this time of year. Most of them come from the American Academy of Allergy Asthma and Immunology.

  • Try to stay inside with the windows closed when pollen counts are high. This is generally between 10 am and 4 pm on dry days. (Rainy days are safer because the rain washes the pollen out of the air.) You can get local pollen counts from the National Allergy Bureau at (800)-9-POLLEN, or http://www.pollen.com/.
  • An air conditioner helps because it cools and dries the air, an HEPA filter can clean the pollen out of the air.
  • And of course you need to avoid anything that would stir up pollen or bring pollen into your house during pollen season, from raking leaves to hanging clothes outside to dry (because pollen collects on the clothes). If you've been working outside, change your clothes when you come inside.
  • If you do go outside when pollen counts are high, you could try wearing a pollen mask.
  • Another tip is to keep your bedroom closed up during the day and then bathe before you go to bed. This will prevent pollen from getting into your bedding.
  • Also, I'm sure any allergy sufferer who is willing to take drugs has already tried all the over-the-counter drugs, but have you tried nasal rinsing? This will wash pollen grains out of your sinus cavities. Here are instructions from the AAAAI.

Don’t give up on hummers just yet

Hummingbirds at feeders for web

Above, a scene from my deck during the summer. We had at least six of these guys drinking from 5 feeders, which I had to refill 2-3 times a day. That thing in the background is the tower that delivers our high-speed Internet service—not the prettiest thing in the landscape, but we do love having high speed.

AS I WRITE THIS, it’s September 1, and I still have at least one hummingbird coming to the feeders of the six or more that came constantly throughout the summer. Instead of having to fill five feeders at least twice a day, I now am down to three (the last storm having blown down and smashed two of them). I go on filling them daily to make sure the food is fresh, but the feeders are usually not empty when I do fill them.

Wherever you live, if you feed hummingbirds at all it’s a good idea to leave the feeders out and keep them filled with fresh food at this time of year. This will help your own birds, who most likely will come back to you next spring, “make weight” for the big migration that’s ahead of them. It also provides food for hummers that are stopping over on their way south. Some sources recommend keeping feeders up for at least two weeks after you think you’ve seen your last hummingbird of the year.

Windpower and Wildlife

WIND art

LATELY MORE AND MORE homeowners are thinking about installing small turbines to generate power primarily for their own homes.

The advantages of wind power are obvious. The disadvantages are mostly a concern for people living near the turbines, who may complain about noise, vibration, or changed views. But for me the overriding worry is the potential effect on wildlife. It hardly makes sense to attract wildlife into your garden, then batter them with windmill blades, now does it?


Most of the concern about wildlife and windpower comes from research done on big, big turbines. Thus far there is plenty of evidence that collisions with the blades do kill birds and bats. There are also concerns about the effect of wind turbines on wildlife habitat. The area around the turbines, as well as the area under transmission lines, is usually cleared of vegetation. Also, some wild animals simply avoid areas where there are man-made structures. But research on the relationship between wildlife and big wind is only just beginning.

Wind proponents argue that the design of wind turbines has been improved to a point where the impact on birds is small. My reading suggests that we need more research to be sure of this.

It looks as though there is even more reason to worry about bats. Apparently nobody thought much about the effect of windpower on these animals until fairly recently. Now it turns out that bats may actually be attracted to wind turbines or to the areas around wind turbines. (Nobody knows why, though there is a lot of speculation.) They are very slow to reproduce, so the death of breeding-age animals could have a signficant impact on their populations. Research on this topic is even scantier than research on wildlife-impacts as a whole.

Researchers are continuing to try to improve the design of big wind turbines so that they’ll have less impact on wildlife, as well as on how to place them so that they’ll have less of an effect. The Nature Conservancy, an organization I respect, seems to be in favor of wind energy as long as turbines are sited properly. But personally I’m going to have trouble supporting big wind until more has been done to prevent injury to wildlife.


So what about small wind? First keep in mind that typical “small wind” isn’t all that small. Though you can buy tiny turbines that install on the roof of a house, when people talk about residential or small wind installations they are usually talking about a fairly large turbine (they look big to me, anyway) that installs on a tower somewhere near your home.

There are a lot of nonwildlife issues to consider before putting in one of these turbines, the upfront cost being just one. If you haven’t already done everything possible to make your home energy efficient, installing a smaller turbine is almost certainly not the best use of your money. If you are already energy efficient, CanWea’s Small Wind Energy site is a good place to look for resources that would help you explore this complicated decision.

What about wildlife? According to the CanWEA site, “migrating birds tend to fly well above small wind turbine height,” so at least one wildlife population is probably safe from a smaller turbine. But backyard birds and bats do appear to be at risk. In fact, CanWEA recommends against placing a smaller turbine “in areas where birds concentrate,” which would appear to rule out a home surrounded by wildlife-friendly landscaping … unless you happen to be an exceptionally bad gardener!

The CanWEA site argues that wind turbines “are far less of a danger to birds than buildings or household cats.” This is currently true, but it’s hardly an excuse for adding to the hazards our local wildlife already face. Besides, if homeowners continue to add turbines to their properties, the kill rates will increase.


Rooftop turbines are more interesting from a wildlife-impact point of view. Although they have moving blades that could potentially injure birds or bats, the hazard area is smaller because the turbines themselves are small. Also some of the designs look as though they would be much less hazardous to wildlife than the conventional vertical-blade (aka wildlife whacker) design. On the other hand, anything with moving blades might be hazardous. I wonder whether it would be possible to enclose a rooftop turbine in a cage?

The tiny turbines are controversial, however, and not just for the usual reasons (noise, etc.). Some critics contend that they do not work, or at least do not work well. The Wind Turbines Now website seems to provide a fairly balanced overview of the issues surrounding rooftop turbines.

I would like to see more research done on rooftop turbines before investing money in them. In June 2009 it was announced that the Boston Museum of Science had set up a Wind Turbine Lab for precisely that purpose, and it will be interesting to see what they (or other researchers) turn up.


IMHO, wind turbines will not not a good choice for wildlife-friendly gardeners until someone can come up with a design that's been shown to be wildlife-safe. It’s hard enough protecting your birds and other wildlife from window strikes and neighborhood cats. We don’t need any more hazards in the backyard.

In the meantime, I’m going to be taking a closer look at solar power. The technology keeps improving. You can use solar to heat water and air directly, but if you would like to try using it to generate electricity, you'll be glad to know that the price of solar panels has dropped dramatically. Solar panels are quiet and inconspicuous, and above all ... they don't move.

Additional sources used in writing this post

“Assessing Impacts of Wind-Energy Development on Nocturnally Active Birds and Bats: A Guidance Document.” (pdf) Journal of Wildlife Management 71(8) 2007.

“Mitigation Toolbox.” Compiled by National Wind Coordinating Collaborative Mitigation Subgroup and Jennie Rectenwald.

“Wind Energy and Wildlife Concerns 101” (PowerPoint presentation). Dale Strickland. Presented at the Wind Wildlife Research Meeting VII, October 28, 2008, Milwaukee, WI.

“Wind & Wildlife: Key Research Topics.” Prepared by the National Wind Coordinating Collaborative Wildlife Workgroup. May 2008.

“Wind and Wildlife: Let’s Keep it Green” (PowerPoint presentation). The Nature Conservancy. Presented at the Wind Wildlife Research Meeting VII, October 28, 2008, Milwaukee, WI.


The art at the top of this post is from Dover Books’ Vintage Label Art, modified by me to add the “D” to “Win.”