The Living Dead of the Forest: Snags and Nurse Logs

Adrienne Domingus
6 min readDec 29, 2022

I sat and watched a pileated woodpecker build a nest for twenty minutes recently. Minutes I meant to be spending doing other things. These largest of Pacific Northwest woodpeckers can be heard from quite a distance — pecking, I suppose, though that word seems too small for the sound they make: a deep, hollow, echoing tone, rapid, but not as quick as some of their smaller cousins. This sound is often the first hint they are there, before they are spotted. It is impossible to ignore, impossible not to stop what you’re doing and look up for the accompanying motion and splash of red.

I’d almost walked by, having heard and spotted it, when it disappeared into the hole it had been building, and kept knocking. First just its head went in, its tail still sticking out of the hole, nearly upside-down, so it could peck at the tree from the inside, just below the hole. And then it disappeared fully inside, though I could still hear it working. It would pop its bright red head up periodically, throwing wood chips out of the hole to rain down on the ground below. It was the quietest of dramas unfolding in front of me, the kind with no real end, but from which I could not, did not want to, look away.

It was doing this maybe forty feet above the ground, in the trunk of a dead but still standing alder tree — dead trees that remain standing are called snags. The holes a pileated woodpecker makes on the surface of the tree are only about the size of a tennis ball, but inside the tree is a cavity large enough for two adults — each roughly the size of a crow — and their young. Pileated woodpeckers abandon their nests each year to excavate a new one, leaving the abandoned ones free for the taking by other birds. They are what’s known as primary cavity excavators. This behavior also makes them keystone species in pacific northwest forest ecosystem — one that helps shape or hold together an entire ecosystem. They can’t do this without snags.

I’m not shopping for real estate right now, but as seems to be a trend among so many of my age-mates, I spend a fair bit of time skimming real estate listings anyway. There’s something irresistible about seeing all the different ways there are to live and to make a home your own, even while knowing that real-estate listings are necessarily a home at its best, a home…