Recently, I was in the woods of the preserve preparing for a field trip and noticed something that piqued my curiosity. Long pieces of bark had been stripped from a few trees. The bark was removed from several feet off the ground, so I knew it couldn’t be a buck rub. The trees were dead and all that was left were the standing trunks, yet I could tell they had been cedar trees. Cedar bark is easily distinguished by its reddish to gray color and long, stringy strands that can be peeled off.
After a little research, I found that several animals use pieces of cedar bark as a nesting material. Gray, red and fox squirrels will peel strands of the bark to make their nests. Flying squirrels, the only nocturnal member of the squirrel family, also use cedar bark in their nests. The presence of flying squirrels has not been confirmed in the preserve, but there is definitely suitable habitat to support them. Flying squirrels prefer mixed hardwoods and coniferous trees like the area of the preserve near Trillium Trail and Black Cherry Trail. They are discreet and are most active for a couple of hours at dusk and at dawn. If anyone has seen flying squirrels in the preserve, please let us know! I also found that some species of birds such as nuthatches and brown creepers, use cedar bark in nest construction.
So, why do they use cedar bark? At first, I thought these animals were using the cedar bark because it must help insulate their nests. Additionally, the bark is also pliable and likely easily manipulated to fit into tree cavities or weave among twigs. However, as always with nature, there is more to the story.
Cedar wood contains oils that are highly aromatic and smell quite pleasant. This oil can also repel insect pests. Europeans knew this and kept their woolen clothing in cedar boxes and cedar chests. Not only did this keep their clothing smelling fresh, it also protected it from damage from moths and other nuisance insects. People today still use cedar chests, shavings or other cedar products in drawers and closets. Even many natural insect repellents on the market contain cedar oil for this same reason. Perhaps animals use cedar bark in their nests to keep fleas, mites and parasites from invading them. This would help keep their offspring healthy during a vulnerable time of their life.
I guess I won’t know for sure which animal peeled the bark off the trees, but not knowing is part of the mystery and wonder of nature.