Rhode Island woods provide many different habitat features which are required by our wildlife species, including tree age class diversity, dead woody material, natural food sources, and clean water. You can support wildlife on your own property by enhancing the availability of some or all of these features. For example, maintaining a diversity of tree age classes allow species such as American woodcock to find the young forest habitat they need while Scarlet tanagers utilize a nearby mature forest. These habitats are important for mating, foraging, and nesting alike. Dead woody material is important for many species – insects and amphibians, such as the Eastern newt, can be found living under decomposing woody material on the forest floor where the local environmental is cool, moist, and nutrient-rich. Vernal pools, streams, lakes, and ponds are also heavily influenced by forest dynamics, and the quality of the water can determine which species thrive and which make their homes elsewhere.
Tree Size and Age
Rhode Island currently has greater numbers of larger and older trees than we’ve seen for more than a century. According to a 2012 Forest Service Report on the forests of Southern New England, 70 percent of our forests are between 60 and 100 years of age, with the majorit in the 6080 year class. The number of large trees has been steadily increasing, while the smallest size class has decreased from 10 percent in 1985 to 4 percent in 2007. The increasing age and size of our forests is beneficial for some wildlife species. However, this trend means that the extent of shrubby young forest habitat is decreasing, and many species which require young forest habitat are now at risk. A recent study of young forest habitat by the University of Rhode Island concluded the extent of this type of habitat in upland non-coastal areas is decreasing by 1.5% per year, and recommended increased forest management on private and public land.
Dead Woody Materials
Standing dead trees, or snags, provide habitat for birds, mammals, reptiles, insects, fungi, and bacteria. Softwood species, such as soft maples, white pine, and hemlock, make up the highest presence of snags in our forests today. Small mammals, reptiles, amphibians, insects, and bacteria will also make their homes under fallen trees and branches, where they aid in decomposition and nutrient recycling.
Food for Wildlife
Every layer of Rhode Island woodlands has something to offer. Shrubs and other undergrowth provide food, cover, and nesting habitat for many woodland wildlife species. Fruit-bearing and mast-producing trees, such as black gum, cherries, oaks, hickories, and beech, also produce a steady food source that can be stored throughout the year. Even large and/or dead trees are available as feeding sites for species that prefer to eat insects or small mammals.
Forests and Water
Trees and other vegetation improve drinking water and habitat quality by obstructing paths of erosion, sedimentation, and nutrient overloading in water bodies. These natural filters also provide the shade that makes temperatures tolerable for freshwater fish and invertebrates. See Forests and Clean Water for more information.