A Wildlife Tree Snag Gets Made—

Our friend Brian French is a wildlife arborist specializing in habitat creation. He’s also the State Coordinator for the Oregon Champion Tree Registry. And he came out to create a full-sized tree snag in my front yard, making for an unusual day in the bonsai garden.

When this vigorous 60′ Douglas Fir began to lift the concrete slabs in a neighbor’s side yard we decided it was time to remove it, and got in touch with Brian. When he came out to assess the project he said it was a perfect candidate for a snag. ‘We can make a chickadee cavity in it, which is also what nuthatches use. What would be really cool is if you got some violet green swallows in here.’


Brian French gears up for one of the most unusual events at Crataegus Bonsai—the creation of dead tree wildlife snag from a Douglas Fir that had become a problem


Cutting and breaking branches out of the fir to create habitat


Using a rope to guide cut branches down


Brian working the top of the snag to look broken and weathered—this part may seem familiar


A close up photo from his vantage point


Here I didn’t know what he was doing. Brian carved out a cavity and yet I couldn’t see how a chickadee or nuthatch could use the cavity without being visible to the whole world. The secret is revealed in the next two images…


Here’s the cavity…


…and this was the part I missed. He’d saved the slice of wood off the front of that cavity, replacing it after carving out the interior. With a hole of the proper size, a chickadee or nuthatch will likely find this a luxurious accommodation.


And the completed snag, good for 25+ years of bird nesting and foraging habitat

I asked if it wasn’t unusual to have dead tree snags in suburbia, and Brian said that HOA’s and golf courses are the most resistant, being at least traditionally seen as a dead tree with nothing left to offer civilization. This segued into a long chat about species loss and how this inevitably comes down to habitat loss.

Brian is a big fan of an organization called the Backyard Habitat Project, co-directed by the Audubon Society of Portland and the Columbia Land Trust, which supports folks hoping to make natural wildlife habitats in their yards.

Up in the fir Brian pulled down branches when only partially cut off, breaking them to make them look more natural, like jin. He also carved the top of the snag to look as if had been broken off and decomposed. The bark will begin to slough off in the next few years, making places for insects which then attract insectivorous birds.

I wondered how long the snag would last before eventually falling down, a concern given how close it is the house. Brian said, ‘Twenty-five years or more. Then we can reassess and pull it down if needed.’

Feeling forever guilty about covering my backyard with weed barrier and then gravel on top of that for a clean and simple bonsai yard—essentially banishing soil health—I was happy to do something in the front yard that wasn’t a step back. Although neighbors may differ on aesthetic grounds, a win is usually a matter of perspective.

For many of us bonsai is our main contact with nature. At best it is an opening though which we can see a lot of other things happening, such as trees as habitat for birds and other living things. Especially the less well appreciated trees, like dead ones or partially dead ones.

Before the end of the day there were chickadees investigating the snag.

For more about Brian French and his work, visit his fascinating website Arboriculture International.

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  1. Sid McCrary says:

    Hi Michael- I’m a new follower of yours & am currently reading your book POST-DATED, since my partner & I have recently started 2 bonsais.

    Any chance you’ll be opening your garden to visitors anytime soon? Thanks, Sid McCrary Portland

  2. Ray says:

    That’s great, we have them all over here in dead hemlocks. Flickers, pileated woodpeckers nest and look for bugs . Sapsucker’s too.

  3. You are going to need a #*%¥ of a lot of gin seal for that amount of deadwood!

  4. John Wiessinger Ithaca, NY says:

    I LOVED what you did with your Doug Fir. We all need to be more aware of this kind of environmental awareness/assiatance. I too try to keep various snags on my property for different species. Thanks so much for sharing.

    • crataegus says:

      Hello John, been a long time— so you are into snags too, birds of a feather… The apprentices report that after I’d left there were not only chickadees investigating, but also woodpeckers. Really fast! I didn’t expect that.


    I am curious as to how this solves the problem of the lifting concrete slabs at the neighbors yard? Was there root work too?

    • crataegus says:

      For now the problem was just ‘halted’ in the neighbor’s yard, but you’ve definitely flagged an issue. It didn’t make the lifting slabs go away.

  6. Michael C Cole says:

    I have several snags in my yard. However most are less than 32″ tall 🙂
    Michael Cole

  7. William Lee Kohler says:

    An eye opener for sure.

  8. Nan Jenkins says:

    What a great idea! I’m going to remember this.

  9. What a fascinating and inspiring post! Brian French’s expertise in transforming a problematic Douglas Fir into a thriving habitat for wildlife right in your front yard is truly remarkable. It’s a beautiful example of how we can harmoniously blend our passion for bonsai with environmental stewardship. The ingenuity behind the chickadee cavity is impressive, and it’s exciting to hear that the chickadees began exploring their new home so quickly! This story is a wonderful reminder of the importance of considering all aspects of nature in our gardening and landscaping choices. Kudos to you and Brian for this innovative project!

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