While many households have made the switch to artificial Christmas trees, real ones are still popular, with the family getting together for the annual tradition of trimming the tree.
However, the question of what to do with real trees after the holidays can be a vexing one. Many communities offer free pick-up of Christmas trees, or have somewhere they can be dropped off for chipping and recycling. However, in communities without these services, too many Christmas trees end up in the landfill, where they can generate methane gas and carbon emissions.
The Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) has a novel suggestion for your real Christmas tree: instead of kicking it to the curb, take it into your backyard and give it a second life as a place of habitat and a source of food for birds.
“We’re trying to encourage people to give Christmas trees an extended life,” explains Andrew Holland, the NCC’s National Media Relations Director. “Even if it’s just for a few months, it can really benefit bird populations during the tough winter months when they’re trying to hack our winter climate.
“We can put on long johns to keep warm, but the birds can’t. Not all of them migrate south; a lot try to tough it out and tolerate our cold temperatures, and they need a warm habitat. Christmas tree can be a safe, warm haven over January, February, and March.”
He notes that giving your tree a second life in the backyard can become a fun family tradition.
“A lot of families have fun decorating the tree in the living-room, and they can have fun putting on coats and boots and going into the backyard. You can trim the tree again, with pine cones that have peanut butter or suet on them. It’s a good food source for birds.
“And it can be a fun activity for the family between Christmas and New Year’s. You can start a new tradition.”
Holland points out that we need to do all we can to protect birds.
“Bird populations are declining in North America. Over the last 50 years, 2.9 billion birds have disappeared in Canada and the US, which is significant.
“The main drivers are climate change, loss of habitat, and loss of food. It goes back to our advice not to rake your leaves in the fall. They provide cover for insects, which are a good food source for birds.”
He notes that some people don’t have a backyard, or might not like the idea of looking at a dead tree for several months. However, he says that there are more benefits to leaving a tree in the yard than just providing food and shelter for birds.
“As long as it’s contacting the ground, the tree will break down quickly, especially if you cut the branches off. Drilling holes in the trunk will speed up how fast it decomposes, and the needles will fall off and help the soil.” He adds that drilling holes also helps pollinators like carpenter bees.
Around Mother’s Day—about the time many people are cleaning up their yards and gardens after winter—the tree can be cleared up as well, and turned into compost if possible. “The idea is to give that Christmas tree a better fate after Santa comes.
“We don’t necessarily think of nature in our own backyards. We think we have to drive to provincial or national parks. These small acts of backyard conservation help birds, and nature in general.”
Holland says that one of the NCC’s mandates is connecting Canadians to nature. “We hear about climate change and ask ‘What can I do?’ We give people ideas about what they can do in their own backyards and feel good about it.”
Holland adds that the NCC often fields questions about which is better: a real tree, or an artificial one?
“There’s no wrong answer, and at the end of the day it’s up to the individual. We feel that real trees are a valuable renewable resource. Christmas tree farmers are important for local economies. They employ lots of people in rural areas, and create spin-off jobs, such as transportation [of the trees].
“They harvest trees, but they also plant them, and that acts as a carbon store or sink for carbon emissions, helping on nature’s scorecard. Artificial trees have a much greater carbon footprint, and you have to use one for 15 years to mitigate those effects.”
Holland cautions that you might not see many birds the first year, but adds that birds remember where the food is, and will come back.
“You have a beautiful tree that you’ve taken the time to buy or cut down, and it becomes a family tradition.
“We hope that another tradition can be throwing it in the backyard and letting it help birds. That Christmas tree in the backyard might give them a fighting chance to survive over the coming weeks.”