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Laura Erickson: How planting a tree can ensure a brighter future

Tiny Ruby-crowned Kinglets are often found in spruce-fir forests. Photo by Laura Erickson.
Tiny Ruby-crowned Kinglets are often found in spruce-fir forests. Photo by Laura Erickson.

Sometime in the 1990s, I got a phone call from a man who had grown up in the house we live in. He had been born in the 1910s and wondered what had become of the place since he had moved away.

He was delighted when I told him we bought the house specifically because I’d fallen in love with a huge spruce tree in the backyard.

He remembered when his big brother planted it, in 1919. He got the seedling from a friend who lived kitty corner from the property and planted several spruce seedlings in his own yard as a memorial to a big brother killed in World War I. I told the man about the birds I’d seen in the tree: Boreal, Saw-whet, and Great Gray Owls, Boreal Chickadee, a huge assortment of warblers, vireos, and flycatchers. He was thrilled — the last time he’d seen that tree, he and it were still young sprouts.

Planting a tree is an act of faith in a future we may never see — an act of faith that ensures a brighter future for people and wildlife.

When that spruce lured me here, in 1981, it was already over 60 years old. My in-laws told us we better take it down before it fell on a power line or the house. But it looked healthy, and the power company assured us it would be fine “for the present.” More than three decades later, it’s still doing fine.

One of my friends, when he was in his early 50s, planted a stand of oaks. Foresters had urged him to plant something he’d be able to make a profit on during his lifetime — it takes at least 60 to 90 years before oaks are ready to be harvested for lumber — but he said he was growing the trees for wildlife, not for lumber.

Friends argued that it would be more than 35 years before the trees produced acorns, and 75 to 100 years to reach optimum acorn production. According to them, he’d not see any wildlife value during his lifetime. But budding oak leaves are magnets for warblers and tanagers, providing an abundance of tiny caterpillars to fuel migration. He started reaping rewards the very next spring.

This spring, the spruces planted almost a century ago were the magnets that drew a pair of Ruby-crowned Kinglets to my neighborhood — the first nesting record in the city. I never found the nest itself, which was probably high in the larger stand. But the male frequented my yard, singing often from my old spruce’s branches, where I finally saw him collecting and carrying insects, confirming nesting.

One simple act of faith in the future by two little boys trying to commemorate a past has given food and lodging to birds and decades of joy to me, inspiring my own commitment to the future of our lovely little planet.


This article from Laura Erickson’s column “Attracting Birds” appeared in the November/December 2015 issue of BirdWatching magazine.

How habitat created by neighbors brought waxwings and other birds to Laura’s yard.

Minor yard enhancements can have a big collective effect.

Basics of bird-friendly yards.

Read more “Attracting Birds” columns by Laura Erickson.


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Laura Erickson

Laura Erickson

Laura Erickson is the 2014 recipient of the American Birding Association’s highest honor, the Roger Tory Peterson Award. She has written many books about birds and hosts the long-running radio program and podcast “For the Birds.” Her column  “Attracting Birds,” about attracting, feeding, sheltering, and understanding the birds in your backyard, appears in every issue of BirdWatching. “Snow Bird,” her first article in the magazine, appeared in December 2003. It described the migration and winter habits of the American Robin.

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