The Circle of Life In My Garden

Can Woodpeckers and other birds slow the spread of Emerald Ash Borer?


“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”  ~R. Buckminster Fuller




As the snow has piled up and the mercury has dipped into sub zero digits, I have been contemplating what will be next in changes for my wildlife garden this year.  I have been making changes now for about 3 years to build a habitat for wildlife.   And this year is no different in that I need to continue the changes, but what changes?


80 foot ash tree felled

I want to have a better plan so I am going to do more maintenance and observing before I design and replace.

One of the plans was to continue to take down our precious white ash trees (pictured throughout the post).  Last spring we removed half of the white ash trees.

With the onslaught of the Emerald Ash Borer (EAB) here in our county, we were slated to remove the rest this coming spring.  While this seems extreme, we were left with little options.  We could treat the trees with a barrage of chemicals.  That is not an option as I will not subject the wildlife that live off the trees to these chemicals.

We have many woodpeckers and nuthatches who visit and find tasty morsels in the trees.  And our precious songbirds love to hang out in the trees as they scope out the insect treats moving about the garden…or they rest and recreate.  These trees provide our canopy and shade that is essential for our wildlife as well.  The idea that we would have to remove 80% of our trees, all white ash, because of the Emerald Ash Borer and have to wait another 10-20 years for a canopy to reappear was heartbreaking.  But we knew it was our best option.


ash tree branches

That is until last week when I came upon an article that was published in December by the University of Illinois at Chicago online in the Journal Forest Ecology and Management.  They have been researching the decline of the ash tree  and Emerald Ash Borer since 2006.  And as part of their observations they wanted to see if birds like woodpeckers and nuthatches might be feeding on the EAB.  If these birds were feeding on the Emerald Ash Borer then this might turn out to be a great “bio-control”.

The article goes into how the researchers used school children to help them look at the Emerald Ash Borer infected trees.  What they found was that woodpeckers were burrowing into the trees where the EAB were living.

Their results proved that woodpeckers were indeed choosing to prey on emerald ash borers–eating 85 percent of the emerald ash borer in an infested tree.  Jeanne Galatzer-Levy


white breasted nuthatch

While this research has shown that trees cannot be saved once infected even with the birds eating most of the EAB, it gives hope that the foraging of these birds on the Emerald Ash Borer will slow down their spread, and give researchers more time to study this invader.

To say I was heartened by this news is putting it mildly.  The many woodpeckers and nuthatches that visit and forage all year are so precious to us, and to think these precious birds could be heroes in our war on these Emerald Ash Borer invaders, and may indeed help spare our trees or some else’s.

Downy Woodpecker

Downy Woodpecker

This is a fine lesson in being patient with Mother Nature….waiting to see the cycle of life take hold even when we have invaders that are massively destructive like the Emerald Ash Borer.

We have put our plans on hold.  We will not cut down the remaining ash trees this spring.  But instead will observe our habitat and see if the EAB finds its way here and if our local birds find them a tasty treat.  If the ash trees become infested we can still have the top 1/3 to 1/2 taken down leaving snags for our birds.  In this way we continue the important cycle of life with each critter, tree and plant.


I leave you with a great poem that explains why I garden for wildlife.  Nature always gives me hope….hope that we may still be able to keep our precious ash trees and maintain the habitat in the garden.


The Peace of Wild Things

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

— Wendell Berry

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  1. says

    What a beautiful poem Donna! I relate – that stillness. I am so sad for your Ash trees but happy some will be left standing! (I leave old logs in my garden beds for bugs and birds.) The other good news is this cold may also put a dent into the EAB population! I am sure you will see much activity in the Ash – even as a snag. A garden is beautiful in all of its evolving stages. I will be curious to watch yours.

  2. Susan says

    Thanks for that beautiful Wendell Berry poem! Our Ash trees here on my property in SE Michigan are mostly dead, although there are many seedlings sprouting. We live in the county on 10 acres so we can just leave the Ash trees until they fall across a road or path (or the power lines, which has happened a few times).

  3. Blair Hamilton says

    Enjoyed your post. I live about 2.5 hrs. north east of Toronto on pigeon lake and our ash trees are now a concern. in our area the emerald ash borer has so far not been found [although it is likely here] it is all around our area and I may lose the mature ash trees on our property, I will leave the dead ones standing for the wildlife to use but will have to remove the ones near the house. hope the birds you mentioned help? I’ll plant new trees and shrubs that are fast growing or plant things that create more levels on our property. just hope something good comes out in the end, although we hate to see the loss of such a native tree like the ash. keep us up to date on any new info. about the emerald ash borer and what others are doing . Thanks

    • says

      Yes Heather we have left a snag and stumps from the few we took down last spring. And we will be leaving the rest as snags if they become infested. It’s the least we can do for the woodpeckers who live nearby. I would love to see them nest in our biggest ash tree that we had to take the top half off of as it was infested with carpenter ants. They are having snacks daily there even in cold weather.

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