Little Trees, Big Benefits

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Published on: Aug. 2, 2003

Last revision: Nov. 15, 2010

Because they live so much longer than people, we often perceive trees as being practically immortal. However, trees also follow the same cycle of birth, growth, reproduction and death that governs all living things. Whether a forest is managed or left alone, the changes it goes through during its lifetime are referred to as succession.

Trees are valuable at every age, but their ability to provide wildlife habitat varies greatly throughout their life cycle. Mature trees shade the ground and provide little cover for wildlife species. Whether the result of natural disturbance or human harvest, the removal of mature trees from a forest allows the sun to reach the soil surface, stimulating a flush of new vegetation. This new growth contains grasses, legumes and forbs, but the dominant group that will spring up in a Missouri oak-hickory forest is woody plants.

These plants may sprout from seed germinating under the conditions provided by the new forest opening, or they may be existing sprouts that have languished in the shade of the mature trees. They may sprout from shoots that come from dormant buds on the stumps and roots of the trees that were removed. Whatever the source of the new growth, a vigorous young forest normally appears in a forest opening within the first growing season or two after the disturbance takes place.

The period of vigorous regrowth and renewal of a forest is called regeneration. Regeneration conditions usually last between 10 and 20 years under average forest conditions. The regeneration forest may not be as aesthetically attractive as the cathedral-like setting of mature trees that previously occupied the site, but what a haven it provides for wildlife!

No other stage in the life of a forest provides so much for so many different species of animals. The abundant, low-growing foliage provides browse for mammals and insects during the growing season. The proliferation of insects, in turn, becomes a high-protein food source for many bird species during their brooding period. The numerous herbaceous plants provide seeds and fruit to sustain wildlife through the fall and winter, as well as nesting and protective cover.

In contrast to abandoned cropland or pasture that is being reclaimed by woody plants, forest openings are used less frequently by less desirable animal species, such as cowbirds that compete with neo-tropical migrant songbirds. Nor can many introduced foreign plant species, such as dense, sod-forming grasses, successfully compete

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