Making Your Christmas Tree Wildlife Friendly

Buy a sustainably and locally grown tree, then use it to help wildlife after the holidays are over.

  • Doreen Cubie
  • Garden for Wildlife
  • Dec 01, 2018

When a northern flicker visited on Christmas Day, it turned a window at Sandy Goble’s Indiana home into a holiday idyll.

WITH AN EYE TOWARD HELPING WILDLIFE while also making a living, Pat and Betty Malone grow 70 acres of Douglas fir, noble fir and other conifers on a Christmas tree farm near Philomath, Oregon. “We have lots of birds and other critters,” says Betty, ranging from bobcats to violet-green swallows to wild turkeys. Integrated pest management, which minimizes insecticide use, plays a big role on their farm. The Malones also use ground covers to control erosion and boost beneficial insects. “We delay mowing in summer,” she adds, “to give meadowlarks and other ground-nesting birds a chance to fledge young.”

Buying local

Not all Christmas tree farms are as environmentally friendly as the Malones’, but more and more are. Buying a real tree instead of an artificial one is the best option anyway, says National Wildlife Federation Naturalist David Mizejewski. “While purchasing an artificial tree doesn’t require cutting down a tree, it’s made from unsustainable fossil fuels and will persist for centuries in a landfill once it’s disposed of. Most artificial trees are also shipped from China, increasing their carbon footprint.” Oregon State University tree specialist Chal Landgren ticks off more reasons to get a real tree. “They are totally recyclable,” he says, “and a good use of agricultural land that helps the local economy.” And tree farms, especially those like the Malones’, also can help wildlife.

But it’s important, if possible, to buy a locally grown tree, emphasizes Mizejewski. Buying local reduces the carbon footprint of your purchase along with the risk of introducing nonnative pests. “Trees grown in one location and then sold in another can spread invasive forest pests such as gypsy moth and balsam woolly adelgid,” he says. Mizejewski does not recommend buying a living tree to plant outside, however. “After spending time indoors, the trees seldom survive,” he explains.

Once the holidays are over, be sure to keep your tree out of the landfill. One possibility is to recycle it by using the tree as the base for a wildlife brush pile. Another option is to turn it into mulch, which many municipalities now do. Some communities recycle trees in more creative ways. In Brigantine, New Jersey, hundreds of trees are collected every winter to build up dunes on beaches battered seven years ago by Hurricane Sandy. And in Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana, Christmas trees contribute to retention fences that slow erosion along the Intracoastal Waterway near Mandalay National Wildlife Refuge, an important wintering area for wood ducks, blue-winged teal and other migratory waterfowl. For recycling options in your area, check local newspapers or city and town websites during the holidays.

Doreen Cubie wrote about rodenticides in the October–November 2018 issue.

More from National Wildlife magazine and the National Wildlife Federation:

Choosing a Wildlife-Friendly Christmas Tree »
Make Edible Ornaments for Birds »
Provide Cover for Wildlife in Your Backyard »
Shop NWF: Plant a Tree Ornaments »

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