365 Days of Christmas
As a consequence, insecticides, herbicides, and fungicides are used on most Christmas trees, and more than 20 different pesticides are employed in tree production. One of the most commonly applied is chlorpyrifos (which may sell under the trade names of Lorsban and Dursban), an organophosphate that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency phased out for home use because of its neurotoxic effects. Lindane, an organochlorine pesticide in the same class as DDT, is considered highly toxic to some birds and extremely toxic to fish, and has been phased out for use on trees, though existing stocks are still in use, particularly in North Carolina. Insecticides of a third group, the synthetic and natural pyrethroids, are slightly toxic to birds and mammals but very toxic to fish.
It's not just wildlife that may be threatened, warns Kagan Owens, a former program director of Beyond Pesticides, a nonprofit organization working to reduce pesticide use through policy and education. “When we buy Christmas trees, we just don't think about whether we're bringing those chemicals into our home. It's possible that you'd be getting a tree where they just applied it, and depending on the environment—the tree's exposure to light, moisture, where it's been stored—residues sometimes can last for days or weeks.”
Don't panic and abandon your local tree farmers altogether, though. Ask about their growing practices, and assure them that you can live with an imperfect tree if it means cutting down on chemicals—that, in fact, you'd prefer it. They need to know you'll support them if they decide to experiment with more natural methods. If you live in North Carolina, Texas, Maine, or Pennsylvania, odds are good that you can find tree farmers who have already made this commitment. These states are leading the growth of the burgeoning organic tree industry.
In 2002 Curtis Buchanan of Mitchell County, North Carolina, became the first grower to certify organic acreage, for his field of Fraser firs. Since then he and other organic growers have been refining nontoxic remedies, such as fighting needle fungus with hydrogen peroxide. Another environmentally friendly option is seeking out farmers who practice integrated pest management, or IPM. They reduce chemical use by diligently monitoring fields for insects and disease. Instead of wholesale preventive chemical spraying, farmers inspect trees, and might, for example, selectively prune branches damaged by shoot-boring insects. By scouting for signs of pests before economic damage happens, farmers don't have to resort to heavy spraying for every infestation.
Even after the last presents have disappeared from beneath its drooping branches, your Christmas tree can keep on giving. A survey commissioned by the National Christmas Tree Association found that 93 percent of people who bought a real tree recycled it in some way. Many wildlife refuge managers, for example, are happy to receive donations of old Christmas trees. Put in ponds, the trees give fish a place to lay their eggs, and on land they provide small animals with shelter from the elements. Or they can be placed in your own yard as important winter habitat for birds and other wildlife.
For the past 20 years Margaret O'Bryan, a former president of Virginia's Richmond Audubon Society, who lives in Mechanicsville, has been doing just that. “I visit Christmas tree lots and ask them what they do with their unsold trees,” she explains. “And usually they say, ‘Well, we take them to the dump.' So I ask if I can get whatever they don't sell.” O'Bryan then uses these castoffs to build towering, 15-foot-high piles on her property. “We call it the Great Wall of Mechanicsville,” she says. This eighth wonder of the world offers cover for wildlife year-round. “It is just incredible how many birds immediately find it. Within a day they're all in it, from brown thrashers to cedar waxwings. It's really wild. We also have lots of box turtles and toads. Chipmunks love it. From the brush pile across the yard, they've actually worn a little path.”
Bedecked with fruits and berries, popcorn, nuts, and seeds, a Christmas tree can provide a festive banquet for the birds and wildlife that visit your yard. The decorations can be as pretty as they are practical. Garlands of unsalted peanuts, popcorn, and fruits entice titmice, jays, and mockingbirds. Cups made from halved oranges and filled with sunflower seeds lure chickadees and purple finches. Wreaths made from millet seed stalks attract pine siskins and goldfinches.
Even just one tree can serve as a hiding place for birds. “We put our cut tree out after Christmas, propped up near the feeding platform in the backyard,” says Jennifer Wilson-Pines, president of the North Shore Audubon Society in Port Washington, New York. Though she has shrubs, vines, and small trees planted, “the dense branches of the Christmas tree provide an even better refuge. I've seen the tree stuffed full of sparrows and finches.”
Trees can be decorated outdoors as well, providing birds with an important source of food in winter. In addition to her brush piles, O'Bryan creates a feeder out of at least one tree: “I melt peanut butter, butter, and a little cornmeal together, and while it's still soft, I pour it all down the tree. Hermit thrushes, kinglets, and yellow-rumped warblers all get deep into the branches to get the peanut butter off the trunk.”