Animal Life in the Yosemite
NPS Arrowhead logo


That forests afford the means of existence for a great number of animals, with reference to both species and individuals, is a trite statement which no one is likely to question. We would offer, however—albeit with some caution—a second statement: Forests depend, for their maintenance in the condition in which we observe them in this age of the world, upon the activities, severally and combined, of the animals which inhabit them.

Beginning at the root of the matter, in a double sense, as we have emphasized beyond in the chapter on the pocket gophers, mammals which burrow are of importance to forests. The pocket gophers, the ground squirrels, the moles and the badgers, are natural cultivators of the soil (see p. 142), and it is, in considerable degree, the result of their presence down through long series of years that the ground has been rendered suitable for the growth of grasses and herbs, and even of bushes and trees, particularly in their seedling stages. A host of insects, also, which live in the ground at least part of their lives, contribute to rendering the soil more productive of vegetable life.

Vegetable materials, leaves, twigs and trunks of trees as well, contribute to soil accretion by reason of their being torn to pieces by animals (see p. 322), their particles scattered by animals, and these finally overlaid by the earth brought up by animals from deeper substrata. The animals which figure conspicuously in this process are the woodpeckers, chickadees, and nuthatches, the tree squirrels, chipmunks, and porcupines, the burrowing beetles, the termites, and the ants, and then the burrowing and burying mammals already referred to. This process of incorporating humus into the soil, accomplished in large measure by animals, is of direct and lasting importance to the forests.

We do not make any claim that all animal life is directly beneficial to the forests. For many insects may be seen to feed upon the foliage, the bark, and even the live wood of individual trees, and in so doing such insects shorten the lives of these trees or even sometimes kill them outright within a single season. It is obvious that a sudden overabundance of such destructive insects would bring serious injury to the forests.

But observation has led us to recognize, in certain groups of birds, natural checks to undue increase of forest-infesting insects. Insects of one category inhabit the bark of a tree or the layers of wood immediately beneath; others pursue their existence among the smaller twigs; still others live amid the foliage of the tree. In all these cases the substance of the tree is levied upon by the insects for food, and if levied upon unduly, the trees suffer commensurately. But, as counteracting factors, we find corresponding categories of birds, each specially equipped to make use of one of these categories of insects. The woodpeckers, nuthatches, and creepers search the tree trunks and larger limbs; the chickadees comb the finer twigs; while the kinglets and warblers go over the foliage leaf by leaf. The great value of the bird to the tree comes when the harmful insects have begun to multiply abnormally; for birds are well known to turn from other food sources and concentrate upon the one suddenly offering in generous measure.

It is to the interest of the forest at large that a reserve nucleus of birds be maintained constantly, as a form of insurance, to he ready at just such a critical time. Incursions of insects from neighboring areas, as well as eruptions of endemic species, have probably occurred again and again from remote times. In other words, as we see the situation, it is an advantage to the forest that a continual moderate supply of insects be maintained for the support of a standing army of insectivorous birds, which army will turn its attention to whatever insect plague happens suddenly to manifest itself.

We would claim, then, a nice interdependence, an adjustment, by which the insect and the bird, the bird and the tree, the tree and the insect, all are, under average circumstances, mutually benefited. Such a balance is to be found in the primeval forest, where thoroughly 'natural' conditions obtain as a result of long ages of evolution on the part of all the animate things there touching upon one another's lives. These relations may, of course, be entirely upset where man has interfered, directly or indirectly; as, for instance, when he brings in insects or plants alien to the original fauna and flora. Then an entirely new program, one of readjustment, begins.

After a good deal of study, and contemplation of the modes of life of various kinds of animals, naturalists have come to recognize as essential three factors which seem inseparably bound up with the successful existence of any one species of vertebrate animal. These factors are: (1) presence of safe breeding places, adapted to the varying needs of the animal; in other words, depending upon the inherent powers of construction, defense, and concealment in the species concerned. (2) Presence of places of temporary refuge for individuals, during daytime or night-time, or while foraging, when hard pressed by predatory enemies, again correlated with the inherent powers of defense and concealment of the species involved. (3) Kind of food supply afforded, with regard, of course, to the inherent structural powers in the animal concerned to make it available.

To say all this a bit more simply, not alone food is necessary to the bird life or the mammal life in our forests, but also safe places for rearing young, and places of refuge when needed, for the grown-up individuals themselves. Referring again to the relationships borne between certain insects, birds, and trees: The White-headed Woodpecker (see p. 320) is a species which does practically all of its foraging on trees which are living, gleaning from them a variety of bark-inhabiting insects. But the White-headed Woodpecker lacks an effective equipment for digging into hard wood. It must have dead and decaying tree trunks in which to excavate its nesting holes. If, by any means, the standing dead trees in the forests were all removed at one time, the White-headed Woodpecker could not continue to exist past the present generation, because no broods could be reared according to the inherent habits and structural limitations of the species. Within a woodpecker generation, the forests would be deprived of the beneficent presence of this bird. The same, we believe, is true of certain nuthatches and of the chickadees—industrious gleaners of insect life from living trees. They must have dead tree trunks in which to establish nesting and roosting places, safe for and accessible to birds of their limited powers of construction and defense.

We would go so far, even, as to urge that down timber, fallen and decaying logs, are essential factors in upholding the balance of animal life in forests. Certain kinds of chipmunks, and rats and mice of various kinds, find only in fallen logs homes adapted for their particular ways of living. And these chipmunks and other rodents have to do with seed scattering, with seed planting, and with humus building, again directly affecting the interests of the chaparral, of the young trees, and even of the older trees of the forest.

It is true that there are some kinds of birds and mammals which at times directly injure trees to an appreciable extent. The birds of the genus of woodpeckers called sapsuckers (see p. 327) drain the vitality of the trees they attack. An overabundance of these birds would bring disaster to the forest at large. An overabundance, likewise, of tree squirrels (see pp. 202, 208) would probably play havoc with certain trees, beyond the powers of these trees to meet the crisis.

Just as in the case of the leaf-eating insects and of the kinglets in the arboreal foliage, these birds and mammals of the sapsucker and tree-squirrel category are kept in check by other, predatory birds and mammals. In the Sierran woods are Great Gray Owls and Spotted Owls, Cooper Hawks, Martens, and Weasels, levying upon the vertebrate life about them, and each equipped by size, degree of alertness, or time of foraging, to make use of some certain sort of prey. The longer we study the problem the clearer it becomes that in the natural forests, which, happily, are being preserved to us in our National Parks, a finely adjusted interrelation exists, amounting to a mutual interdependence, by which all the animal and plant species are within them able to pursue their careers down through time successfully.

The opportunity here to moralize is tempting. If the above course of reasoning be well founded, then, to realize, esthetically and scientifically, the greatest benefit to ourselves from the plant and animal life in Yosemite Park, its original balance must be maintained. No trees, whether living or dead, should be cut down beyond what it may be necessary to remove in building roads or for practical elimination of danger, locally, from fire. Dead trees are in many respects as useful in the plan of nature as living ones, and should be just as rigorously conserved. When they fall, it should be only through the natural processes of decay. The brilliant-hued woodpeckers that render effective service in protecting the living trees from recurrent scourges of destructive insects, in other words, in keeping up the healthy tone of the forest, depend in part on the dead and even the fallen trees for their livelihood.

No more undergrowth should be destroyed anywhere in the Park than is absolutely necessary for specific purposes. To many birds and mammals, thickets are protective havens which their enemies find it difficult or impossible to penetrate. Moreover, the majority of the chaparral plants are berry-producing and give sustenance to mountain quail, to wild pigeons, to robins and thrushes, to chipmunks and squirrels, and this, too, at the most critical times of the year when other foods for these animals are scarce or wanting. The removal of any of these elements would inevitably reduce the native complement of animal life. Nor do we approve, as a rule, of the destruction of carnivorous animals—hawks, owls, foxes, coyotes, fur-bearers in general—within the Park. Each species occupies a niche of its own, where normally it carries on its existence in perfect harmony on the whole with the larger scheme of living nature.


Animal Life in the Yosemite
©1924, University of California Press
Museum of Vertebrate Zoology

grinnell/interrelations.htm — 19-Jan-2006