By Maymie Higgins
One of the most gratifying tasks in caring for captive animals is to provide them with environmental enrichment. Environmental enrichment is the use of items, scents and activities to stimulate natural behavior in captive wildlife. After the holiday season, this often includes the use of donated live Christmas trees that were unsold leftovers. The mere presence of a Frasier fir, with its spicy aroma, is particularly stimulating for animals with highly developed nasal mucosa such as big cats, canids and bears. Over the course of several days, zookeepers will reposition trees within enclosures and hide novel food items within their branches to create new daily experiences for as long as possible.
Captive animals are not the only recipients of the benefits of recycled live Christmas trees. All over the United States, local and state agencies are accepting donations of trees to be used for creating and supplementing aquatic habitats for fishes. Fisheries biologists use discarded Christmas trees to maintain many fish attractor sites by sinking selected trees and other suitable materials where they will provide a surface where aquatic insects live and grow. These insects attract small fish that are fed upon by larger fish.
One example in my home state of North Carolina is at the John H. Kerr Reservoir. In the 1950’s, Kerr Reservoir, also called Buggs Island Lake, was constructed primarily to provide for flood control and hydropower generation. Kerr Reservoir has 900 miles of wooded shoreline that stretch across three counties in Virginia and three counties in North Carolina. The US Army Corps of Engineers will be accepting used live Christmas trees and at the end of January will take the donated trees, bind them together and sink for fish habitat. “These trees are some of the best natural forms of underwater structure. Crappie, bass, bluegills and other fish will often use the tress to hide in and around,” according to Chris Powell, Conservation Biologist at Kerr Reservoir.
While some trees are submerged into bodies of water, others may get a second life on the beach. Collecting and placing Christmas trees in the dunes of North Carolina beach communities is a long-standing post holiday tradition that has spread to other states, including those affected by Hurricane Sandy. North Carolina scientists developed a technique of sea dune development by strategically placing Christmas trees along dunes to help the natural process of collecting sand through Aeolian action. This is the pattern of movement that results in capture of sand particles by sand fencing and or other vegetative materials such as sea oats (or Christmas trees). This helps build dunes that experience harsh wave action and escarpment during the winter ocean movements and Nor’easters. Dunes are critical for stabilizing beaches and preventing inland flooding and are important habitat for beach dwelling wildlife.
There are some areas where donated Christmas trees are used to create bird and reptile habitats. Poplar Island in the Chesapeake Bay had become three separate islands by 1990 due to erosion. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has restored the island to 1,140 acres and growing by using soil dredged from the Baltimore shipping channels. Half the acreage is now wetlands and half is uplands. Every January since 2005, residents of Easton, Maryland, have donated their old Christmas trees to become shelter and nesting habitat for black ducks, snowy egrets, red-winged blackbirds and diamondback terrapins. Biologists who are monitoring wildlife on Poplar Island report use of these donated trees by several bird and turtle species. For more details, be sure to watch this short video clip. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g0YxCpfns6o
Another terrific place to recycle live Christmas trees is your own backyard. The National Christmas Tree Association provides recycling options and tips, including safety tips because it is very important that all tinsel and decorations be removed so as not to jeopardize the safety of wildlife. My favorite method of recycling Christmas trees or any other brush obtained from pruning shrubs around my lawn is to add it to the permanent brush pile on the back of my property. Over the years I have sat on my deck and watched wrens, nuthatches, titmice, bunnies and many other species use the brush pile for cover and nesting activities. You could say that recycling is the gift that gives all year long. At least, that’s the way I feel as I enjoy the free and never ending wildlife documentary that happens in my own backyard.
Happy New Year, everyone!