Skeletons on the Hill

She presided over her lands with wide spreading arms, providing grace and shelter for many. Birds loved being near her and often perched in the folds of her luxuriant robes. She fed deer and the soil with all of the things she carefully placed around her solid feet. She deeply held the soil she loved and nourished. Life was good for a long, long time until that fateful day — the day she died.

Ponderosa Pine Skeleton. Photo by Ken Bevis

Was it lightning strikes perhaps? She did stand tall on the hill. Or was it simple ravage of pathogens clogging up her veins? Or did she die from starvation or no water? We don’t know, but suddenly, she wilted. Her flesh withered and became dry and brown — scabby even. Pieces fell to the earth, one at a time after dangling pathetically for long periods, waving weakly in the wind. Miraculously, she did not fall over, but came apart one slow piece at a time, bit by bit.

It took only a few short years for her lush exterior tissues to express death and fall away. All that was left was her vast skeleton and the rough gray/brown skin outside. For a while even this hung on, loose on her surface, spooky night flying bats resting underneath. Eventually, even that fell away one sheet at a time.

All that remains now is her stark white skeleton standing high on the hill, fully a century since her untimely death, haunting us with her silhouette.

Some onlookers feel a chill when they peruse the tall, standing dead tree; the SNAG…….

Skagit River tree skeleton. Photo by Ken Bevis

Snags remind us of death on Halloween, while our minds are filled with goblins, ghosts, ghouls and skeletons rattling about. Just like these monsters, our snags come with their own lore. Don’t lean on her. Don’t linger too long — she likes to throw big branches down to smash you. She rattles in the wind. She is a stark tree skeleton.

But wait! Isn’t that woodpecker tapping on the snag? What is it doing? It’s digging for something to eat. He finds an insect and pulls the delicious treat from the dead wood. And are those mushrooms and fungal conks coming out of the stem? Yes, dead wood is a rich substrate for fungal growth of many types, including some of those that produce a deep death-like sleep. Be careful what you eat.

Hairy woodpecker. Photo by Gregg Thompson

And that woodpecker just went into a dark cavity hole high on the stem, right below the red-tailed hawk perched in the top, right next to the spooky ravens croaking “Nevermore.” A squirrel just went into that other cavity lower on the stem hoping to survive the evening. Night falls and an owl gives eerie hoots as he emerges from a cavity. Bats come swarming out of cracks and holes, flying out into the night. There are many creatures living in and on the snag corpse, like an eerie mansion! Bwa HA HA!!!

Pileated woodpecker nest. Photo by Gregg Thompson

Turns out that dead wood is an essential habitat feature of forest ecosystems. And rotting wood feeds the soil, feeds the fungus, and rots away everything, including dead bodies.

While once spooked by the snag, we now know we need not fear it. Though she seems dead, she may be alive yet! Skeleton indeed, but a living one.

Protect snags whenever you can, especially big ones.

Dead trees are full of life.

Happy Halloween!

Written by Ken Bevis, DNR State Wildlife Biologist