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Whose Home Is This? The Red Maple as Habitat

July 12, 2015

red maple julyI am spending one year “following”  a red maple tree (Acer rubrum) that grows beside my driveway as part of Lucy’s tree-following meme at Loose and Leafy. This month, I have been focusing my attention on this tree as a habitat.

At one time, I considered taking down some trees to the southeast of my house to create paths and a woodland garden in this area. When I first read Doug Tallamy’s Bringing Nature Home (Timber Press 2009), however, I changed my mind. Tallamy asks gardeners to think of their gardens as habitats for wildlife, particularly insects, and he urges them to plant native plants that perform important ecological functions. When I saw the high ecological value of the native trees that grow wild on my property, I let go of the idea of cutting them down to replace them with less ecologically valuable plants.

 In a large appendix at the back of Rick Darke and Doug Tallamy’s more recent book,  The Living Landscape (Timber Press, 2014), the authors recommend a variety of high-value native plants for each of the major regions of the United States and list the ecological functions of each plant. The list for Acer rubrum includes providing nest sites for birds, providing pollen or nectar for pollinators, and providing food for birds, mammals, and caterpillars.

I have not actually seen any nests in my red maple, but the tree is clearly an active bird habitat. The web site for the visitor center at Paul Smith’s College in the Adirondacks of New York lists the following as birds that nest in the red maples on their property: American redstart, black-backed woodpecker, downy woodpecker, purple finch, yellow-bellied sapsucker, hooded warbler, northern parula, alder flycatcher, veery, wood thrush, eastern wood-pewee, and Canada warbler.  The red maple is a generalist tree that grows throughout the eastern half of North America, from the Canadian Maritimes to Florida and west to the Mississippi River, so the birds it provides a home to will differ from one region of the country to another. Birds that I have seen perched in my red maple tree or heard singing there include American robins, wood thrushes, eastern phoebes,  and a great crested flycatcher.

red maple leavesAlthough it is difficult for me to get a close look at the leaves of this particular tree because they grow far above my head, I think I may be seeing small holes in some of them. This would indicate that the tree is doing its job of providing food for caterpillars, which in turn become pollinators and/or food for birds. In Bringing Nature Home, when Doug Tallamy recommends red maple as a native plant that gardeners should plant, he notes that maple trees, including red maples, provide food for more than 200 species of butterflies and moths!

It’s amazing to realize that my very common red maple tree is part of a much larger ecological community of plants, insects, birds, and mammals; and it plays a very important role in that community by serving as habitat.

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19 Comments leave one →
  1. July 12, 2015 9:44 pm

    A lot to think about Jean…It is true that one person can impact and change the world.

    • July 13, 2015 12:06 pm

      Charlie, Tallamy’s work had a big impact on how I think about my garden and particularly about insects in my garden. (He argues that a plant that isn’t feeding any insects isn’t doing its job!) I’m not averse to cutting down trees that are diseased and/or dying or growing in unfortunate places. But, in this case, I decided it didn’t make sense to cut down trees just to create a woodland garden made up of plants that served less ecological function than the trees — especially since I have lots of other places that I can grow ornamental plants. Someday, I still hope to create a woodland garden, but along the edge of the woods by the driveway.

  2. July 13, 2015 8:09 am

    Hi, Jean. I’m sorry you can’t see the link box. It is certainly there but I’ve heard from someone else that they can’t see it either. It may be down to changes to some browsers and versions of internet security. (Someone else encountered a new kind of verification which isn’t meant to be there and isn’t visible to me!). I’m thinking of leaving the box open for longer than usual because of these hiccups. In the meantime I have taken the liberty of entering a link to your post myself and have put a link to it on Twitter too. Hope this is ok. Lucy

    • July 13, 2015 12:07 pm

      Lucy, Thanks so much for taking care of this for me. Often these problems are Blogger/Wordpress interface problems.

  3. July 13, 2015 8:28 am

    I would love to know why my Acer negundo is of such little interest to my birds, who gravitate readily towards the Silver Birch! How lovely to have a red acer! So glad Lucy made it possible to find you! What wonderful names your birds have …

    • July 13, 2015 12:13 pm

      Caroline, Doug Tallamy’s work provides a ready explanation for the situation you’ve observed. He argues that plants and animals in an ecological community develop relations of interdependence with one another over time. (Think evolutionary time, not human time). Species in the same community co-evolve to need and use one another. When a new (non-native) plant is introduced to the community, it doesn’t have any of these established relationships with the other inhabitants; and no one knows how long it takes (centuries?) for such relationships to evolve. In your case, Acer negundo is native to my part of the world, but not to yours — so your native birds have not evolved a relationship with it. Your Silver Birch, on the other hand, is a UK native and your native birds recognize it as a good place to build a nest.

    • July 13, 2015 1:44 pm

      Also, the insects that your native birds have evolved to eat hang out in the Silver Birch, not in the Acer negundo.

  4. July 13, 2015 10:53 am

    I often think of trees as giant apartment buildings for nature — multiple floors and a diverse group of residents. I’m glad you kept the tree(s) and adapted your plans for a garden. I’ve often seen people leave the city for a suburban home, and the first thing they do is remove all of the trees from the property so they do not have to rake. Huh? Be well!

    • July 13, 2015 12:19 pm

      Kevin, What a great metaphor! The woods are a big part of what attracted me to this property, so I’m not likely to clear them. Fortunately, I have a big enough buffer from my neighbors to the northeast and southeast that I’m not bothered by their logging activities. (It’s not uncommon here for people to sell off some trees to a logger as a way of raising money for some project.) I have cut down trees around the cleared areas of my property; I don’t want to live in the woodsy dark without sunshine, and the forest is always creeping (or leaping!) in from the edges to reclaim ground.

  5. July 13, 2015 1:33 pm

    Thank you, Jean, for giving me so much to think about. I’ve just put myself on the wait list at my local library for “The Living Landscape.” I’m aware that lots of birds inhabit the forest that backs (“leaps”) onto us, but I’d never considered all the insects that make use of the trees as well.

    • July 14, 2015 2:09 pm

      Emily, Have you read Tallamy’s earlier book, Bringing Nature Home? That’s where he really develops the argument about the role of insects in thriving ecosystems. The Living Landscape summarizes that argument but focuses more on how to implement it in landscape and garden design.

  6. July 13, 2015 2:22 pm

    Thank you for emphasizing the big picture when it comes to trees. While birds make their use of trees known, I can’t say I’ve thought about how they support some of the smaller creatures in our midst. Come to think of it, the tree as ecosystem would make a great theme for a children’s book – or perhaps a poem.

    • July 14, 2015 2:11 pm

      Kris, I can imagine the children’s book! The right illustrator could have a great time with Kevin’s metaphor (above) of the tree as apartment building. 🙂

  7. July 13, 2015 2:31 pm

    I have the first Tallamy book, I’d like to get the new one also. That appendix sounds fun for perusing. I’d be curious to see what’s written about my silver maple.

    • July 14, 2015 2:15 pm

      Jason, The Living Landscape is really focused on landscape and garden design, beginning with the premise of Tallamy’s argument in the first book. The appendix uses symbols to indicate the ecological and landscape functions of each listed plant, so the entries are very brief. Here’s the listing for silver maple: Ecological functions – cover for wildlife, bird nesting site, pollen/nectar producer, food for caterpillars; Landscape functions – spring flowers, fall foliage color, shade and cooling.

  8. July 13, 2015 3:18 pm

    Very thoughtful post. It’s amazing what type of wildlife — animals, insects, plants, fungi — inhabit our trees and/or use them for sources of food. Can you imagine how many creatures lose their homes when just one tree is cut down? It really makes one think…

    • July 14, 2015 2:19 pm

      Anna, What I’m enjoying most about this process of following a tree is the way it focuses my attention on the tree in the context of its larger ecosystem. I agree; it does make one think!

  9. July 13, 2015 5:38 pm

    I remember when our neighbour’s (alien) acacia collapsed and was then removed.
    The first evening when the doves circled in to spend the night in the tree. And sat on the fence looking mystified. That tree was here yesterday!

    I am enjoying planting my way thru my list of nectar for sunbirds plants. And the first flowers.

    • July 14, 2015 2:20 pm

      Diana, This sounds like a fun planting project, with the reward of attracting all those sunbirds 🙂

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