Fall Woods Cleaning

Posted: September 26, 2011

Messy woods are good for wildlife - creating snags, cavities, brushpiles, and other structural elements that protect and provide cover and resources for a diversity of wildlife.

Fall. What a great time of the year to be in the woods! Whether you go there to hunt, bike, walk, or whatever, the aesthetic appeal of fall flowers, colored leaves, earthy smells, and comfortable temperatures (sometimes) invite you to kick back and enjoy the experience.

 Depending on your demeanor and preferences, some woods might look messy – they might seem to be begging for a cleaning. Your personal tolerance for “messiness” will vary, and as well, your understanding of “messiness” will sway your acceptance. Sometimes woodland mess means health, vigor, and renewal; other times, though, it could mean just the opposite.

 Year after year in every woodlot there is a cycle of death and birth. In the autumn, annual plants die and then sprout in the spring to repeat the cycle. Some plants, which are biennial, take two years to cycle through birth and death. Every living thing has a cycle that leads to change and renewal. Trees are perennial; they exist for years, maybe even centuries, but they too die. The plant residue created when soft tissue annual plants die is short-lived; in a year or two it decays and contributes its nutrients to perpetuate cycles.

When trees die their “pieces” can linger for years. It doesn’t matter how the tree died; whether it was cut to make furniture or flooring, died from a wind burst or storm, was killed by insects or disease, or just succumbed to old age, its residue remains and can, depending on your perspective, clutter the woods. The temptation is to “clean it up,” to make the woods tidy.

 Dead trees in woodlands, because they do linger for years, provide important structure, habitat, food, and even aesthetic appeal. They are actually pretty remarkable. On the forest floor, at least nineteen kinds of salamanders and twenty-six species of reptiles make some use of logs, stumps, bark, and slash piles in Pennsylvania’s woodlands. Freshly fallen trees, with their odd branches still reaching up, provide hunting perches for insectivorous birds. As a rule of thumb, the bigger the fallen log, the longer it lasts and more benefit it provides over the years. As these logs decay they become increasingly better homes for wildlife as insects and fungi break them down.

Standing dead snags and cavity trees are also critical habitat components. Cavities in live or dead trees are used by thirty-five species of birds and twenty species of mammals in Pennsylvania. While dead standing trees can be hazards, they are important to retain for wildlife. Sometimes, too, they are some of the most interesting trees in the woodlot with their bare skeletal stems and branches, interesting colors, cracks, folds, and cavities. Big dead trees have the potential to develop larger cavities and to stay in the woodlot longer. At least thirty species of birds commonly use standing snags for perches.

 As you look at a woodlot, consider it messiness; consider the importance of that mess. Wildlife are an important part of the woodlot ecology. Providing habitat and structure through dead wood on the forest floor, cavities in live trees, and standing dead snags may actually improve woods health.

 As you clean up woodlands, maybe by cutting firewood, know that where two types of habitats come together dead wood, snags, and cavity trees are particularly important. These might be where an area of pine trees abut a hardwood woodlot, a woodlot forms a field edge, or along a stream or lake shore. Leave hollow trees and limbs on the ground, and retain existing logs on the ground in varying degrees of decomposition. Sometimes these are the easiest places to “clean up” but should be the places left most messy. Once you clean up a messy place, it might take decades for it to become messy enough for many wildlife species.

 So, take the day off. Walk in the woods and celebrate the messiness that is nature. Know that you are doing the right thing by letting those dead trees lay as part of your gift to the wildlife and the future.

 To learn more about Dead Wood and Wildlife, request Pennsylvania Woodlands Number 7 from Renewable Natural Resources Cooperative Extension or download it from

 The Pennsylvania Forest Stewardship Program provides publications on a variety of topics related to woodland management. For a list of free publications, call 800 234 9473 (toll free), send an email to, or write to Forest Stewardship Program, Forest Resources Extension, The Pennsylvania State University, 416 Forest Resources Building, University Park, PA 16802. The Pennsylvania Bureau of Forestry and USDA Forest Service, in Partnership with Penn State’s Forest Resource Extension, sponsor the Forest Stewardship Program in Pennsylvania.


Contact: Jim Finley
Phone: 814-863-0401