There are quite a few people who live in urban areas who wish they could see more than the typical robin or sparrow in their backyard.

There are quite a few people who live in urban areas who wish they could see more than the typical robin or sparrow in their backyard. What about a chick-a-dee, titmouse, or even (hold your breath) a woodpecker!

Unfortunately, birds like these need nest cavities like holes in trees, or nest boxes, to raise their young. Therefore, these birds are not likely to live in cities or large suburbs. What does it take for a bird like a woodpecker to be able to make a hole in a tree? Well, the tree has to be dead for one thing. It is not very often that you see someone leave a dead tree standing just for the birds.

It would not have to be the whole tree; even if just part of the tree was left it could successfully be worked into the landscape. At one of the nature centers where I worked, a tree died right beside a small wildlife landscape pond. The crew was very good at cutting off many of the limbs and leaving several rows of the lower limbs. Staff hung birdfeeders off of the limbs and woodpeckers, nuthatches, brown creepers, and other birds used the rest of the tree to hunt for insects and eventually for building, or using, cavity nests.

I thought the sun-bleached tree looked great standing there proudly with its many arms stretched out bedazzled with bird feeders. Interestingly, I went to a natural gardening conference shortly after we had "re-purposed" our dead tree. One session at the conference even mentioned leaving a dead tree in the landscape to attract cavity nesting birds.

When we built our house a few years ago, there were several dead trees already right behind the house. We did remove one as it was leaning toward the house and seemed like it would not take much of a wind to blow it over. The other two were wonderful hardwood trees full of woodpecker holes, covered in Virginia creeper vines, and one was topped with a large nest. We moved into the house in late fall and much to my delight in the late winter around January or February, a barred owl took residence in the nest.

That spring I heard the most peculiar screeching around the house one morning. As it went on for days, I began calling my birding friends asking what it could be; even holding the phone out so they could hear it – none of them could identify the strange noise/call. Early one morning after skulking from one window to the next I f-i-n-a-l-l-y discovered the origin of the strange noise.

A large, white, puffed, downy baby owl sat on a lower limb of a small tree. He had sprigs of feathers sticking straight out of his downy head. The cotton-ball baby would open his large beak and a pink mouth would evoke this loud shriek! Apparently, he was letting mom know he was ready for his mouse – thank you very much!
Attracting owls, woodpeckers, titmice, chick-a-dees, and (with birdfeeders) even more birds all because of dead trees – now that is what I call natural living!

Lynn Youngblood is a Kansas City-based naturalist who writes for Gatehouse Media.