Death of a dying blue spruce

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By Brett McNeil


The trail is cold and misty and ends at the wood chipper. 

One day before the gods of Bavarian Alpine myth whipped up a furious little snow cyclone and introduced us to the word graupel, I watched a man with a visored helmet and comically small pruning chainsaw dismantle my neighbor's dying blue spruce. 

It was a mercy killing, and long overdue.

Regular readers know I have several good oak tree friends around town and would not be writing a local nature column if I didn't have a thing for trees of all kinds. But this sad character had seen better days. The tree's last year, I can say, was one of steep and messy decline, its brown needles and desiccated pine cones raining onto our patio and into our gutters in profusion, a shedding of life force. 

An arborist recently diagnosed the tree with advanced cytospora canker, a fungal disease that caused the spruce to ooze sap like the gutshot Tim Roth in "Reservoir Dogs." This milky gunk dripped down its trunk and off its overhanging limbs onto our hedges and garage roof, hardening into a gray, clinging cement. 

The lower limbs died and dried up and a wind chime that was ostensibly hung off the tree to enliven the yard's death-bed pallor clanged tunelessly, but only in the stiffest winds. 

Even the birds stayed away. In a year of watching this tree, I never saw a nest and rarely saw or heard a bird in the spruce. 

But a funny thing happened as it began to come down -- in clumps of wet, heavy bough thudding to ground, the chainsaw stopping and starting and tearing the tree from the bottom up. 

Birds gathered to watch and to chatter. 

A half-dozen house sparrows perched nearby along a rain gutter that hangs above sparrow nests hidden inside ivy on another neighbor's garage. They watched the sawman slice up the old tree, jabbing spurs into its soft trunk as he worked. The sparrows alighted and fluttered closer to the tree and retreated to their gutter perch. Some cycled into the ivy while others came topside to spectate. 

And three mourning doves, at intervals, flew in and observed from the power lines along the alley. I could not hear them over the sawing, but the doves clearly faced the tree-cutting scene and each spent about five minutes taking it in. 

The work continued into dark and when it was over, long after the sparrows are normally down for the night and the back yards are silent, I could hear them jabbering -- upset or excited or both. 

Then this morning, two days after all the pieces of that spruce were fed into a roaring and belching red wood chipper and carted away, a female house sparrow landed on a window ledge overlooking the tree's still-yellow stump and its meager remains: twigs, sawdust, lingering scent of pine sap. 

The bird saw me and flew to a nearby branch and hung there, regarding the space where the spruce recently stood. 

Empty. Open. Anew.


Trail Conditions explores the woods, waters and trails out our back doors. Brett McNeil lives in North Riverside. Write to him at

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