The Old Gray Birch

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Over 50 years ago my Father planted a Gray Birch seedling in the front of our home.  The Gray Birch is a “pioneer species”, quickly becoming established on “new” soil, following the clearing of an area.   But relative to other tree species, pioneer species are also short-lived.

To give you a glimpse of the Gray Birch species, here are a couple of life-history-references:

http://www.gardenguides.com/taxonomy/gray-birch-betula-populifolia/

http://hort.ifas.ufl.edu/database/documents/pdf/tree_fact_sheets/betpopa.pdf

Sure enough, over its last decade, this Gray Birch began to fail.  It did not hold up under two ice storms it was subjected to in the last 20 years.  I believe that the original tree was comprised of three main stems, each approximately 10-12 inches in diameter.  The largest stem was beginning to rot and was only partially living.   The stem that was most “alive” was snapped off at the top from a previous ice storm, and so it was severely  deformed.  The tree was a mess and not long for the world.

Through the years, the grass surrounding the tree was always mowed right up to the trunk.  And so, any Gray Birch sprouts growing around the base of the tree were also mowed.

Several years before Dad passed away I asked him if he might want to allow these stems to take over so that they would take the place of the original and now-dying old tree.  He responded with “I guess not; we’ll just let nature take its course.”  So that was the end of it….for then at least.

After Dad passed away, I wanted this tree that he planted to live on.   For a few years, I left it there, in its decrepit condition, as I struggled to maintain all the other things that only those who own houses know.

Then, in the tree’s last few years, I stopped mowing tight to the trunk, allowing the sprouts to grow.   At a point where I believed the saplings were quite strong (maybe 6 to 8+ feet in height), I removed the nearly dead main trunk (two years ago), being careful to not injure the saplings.  There were twelve saplings in all and you see two of them in this image. These tiny sprouts, growing from the original old birch, have grown to nearly 20 feet in height and have turned the white color of a mature Gray Birch.

About 30 years ago, Dad hung a small bird feeder from that old birch.  I’ve maintained and expanded on that bird feeding station.  There is a large, main feeding station between this image and me (the photographer).

The sprouts that came from the old tree have now become trees unto themselves, continuing to provide safe (elevated from ground predators) perching and resting for an increasing diversity of bird species, right next to their food source.  One of the stems has grown high enough to “connect” to the next closest tree, a large Norway Maple.  This is re-establishing the “arboreal trail” that the Squirrels favor to reach the feeder, and that was lost during one of those severe ice storms.  No, the squirrels have not started to use it yet, perhaps because the apical stem is not thick and stout enough to support the animal’s mass, when they transfer from the big maple to the newish birch.   I think they know it is not strong enough……. yet.

WILDLIFE HABITAT ……..  So in the end, the old Gray Birch lived on.  It is wildlife habitat.  As a wildlife biologist, my specialty was (and still is) habitat management.   The picture at the top of this page is of a Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura), resting in the “new” Gray Birch (Betula populifolia) in front of my home.   On May 5, 2014, this dove came to rest facing South, and the warmth of a Spring Sun and all the mild Spring weather, after an extraordinarily harsh winter.   And earlier this Spring, several Gray Catbirds stopped by, have since called this habitat “home” and (along with the other birds) are repeatedly refilling their beaks from my suet cage and flying off with it, back to their nestlings.  Throughout June and now into July, the bird species that use this piece of habitat are now appearing at the feeders with their fledglings.  Many of these adult birds will not survive to next Spring.  But many of their fledglings will show up next Spring to the place they were born, completing the ageless cycle.

And I know Dad would now be pleased with the way I intervened and ……….. “let nature take its course”.

Robert King