Not so many years ago, a group of 3- and 4-year-olds hunted all over Bienville Square at Eastertime, but couldn’t find the special golden egg that brought with it the promise of a prize for its finder. The egg in question was found some time later on a tree branch in the furry paws of one of the park’s popular inhabitants — a squirrel.
“Because of the squirrels, some little kid didn’t get their prize,” Downtown Mobile Alliance spokesperson Carol Hunter said.
Visitors to the park can’t help but come across the big-toothed rodents scampering in the grass and up the trees, but other than wreaking havoc on holiday fun, how much harm do the critters actually cause to the live oak trees that share space with them in the square?
When Hurricane Sally hit the area last month, the unwanted visitor took down a dizzying number of oak trees that had stood in the park for decades. Mobile had seen a number of similarly sized storms in the past, but few, if any, caused the kind of destruction to Bienville Square’s tree life like Sally.
Following the storm, Mayor Sandy Stimpson tweeted out an explanation for the unusual chaos, blaming factors like compaction and the health of the trees. But he also mentioned the ravenous activity of the squirrels as playing a part.
Former Director of Mobile Botanical Gardens Bill Finch, who advised Stimpson on the trouble, confirmed to Lagniappe squirrels are indeed a hindrance to the health of trees in Bienville Square, but said they didn’t play a huge role in the destruction.
Finch said squirrels and their proclivity to destroy tree foliage only accounted for about 10 percent of the issues with the trees uprooted in the park. The other 90 percent came from issues with the trees themselves or the soil beat down from years of foot traffic, he said.
The issues with the trees in Bienville Square start with the roots.
“It’s a part of the tree nobody thinks about and that’s the part underground,” Finch said. “The tree roots only go as far as there is oxygen in the soil. That’s about six inches.”
With foot traffic in the park causing compaction, especially in areas like Mobile where there is wet, sandy soil, Finch said, trees have a hard time digging their roots into the ground.
“They’ve lived there as kind of fossils for a long time,” he said of the trees. “They can’t develop their roots.”
Add to that the urban environment where roots are being cut often to place or repair sidewalks, and it just makes it worse, Finch said.
Here’s where the issues with the squirrels come in, Finch said. A tree’s roots are driven by its foliage. However, if a tree can’t grow foliage, the roots have a hard time as well. In the case of the Bienville trees, Finch said, squirrels had damaged so much of the foliage it impacted the root system in addition to the compaction.
“If you have one squirrel, it’s always gnawing on something,” he said. “They see the world through their teeth. When you start feeding squirrels, it supports a huge population and they begin to defoliate those trees.”
Another issue for the Bienville trees is the length of the limbs. In a forest, a live oak grows around other trees and that works as a way to prune their limbs naturally, Finch said. That way, the limbs stay short. In the park, there isn’t as much natural pruning help, so the limbs get long and cause a problem.
Imagine a seesaw with only one end, Finch said.
“It’s a fulcrum; it is a lever,” he said. “Limbs have gotten way, way out and there is so much weight on the branches.”
While Sally’s winds weren’t as bad in Mobile as some other places, Finch said, they were sped up by the downtown corridors and buildings leading to a bigger problem.
As for a solution, Finch does not believe the live oaks currently in Bienville Square should be removed. He said the city should be wary of planting more for the time being. Finch said the remaining trees can grow and fill in the gaps in the canopy.
Live oaks, Finch said, are typically fairly disease resistant, but that’s not necessarily the case when it comes to trees planted en mass in an urban environment. With diseases popping up as close as Florida, this could be a concern for Mobile, he said. It’s also a reason, he said, Mobile should plant smaller trees in places.
“When every block has them and they’re stressed, they are a huge disease risk,” he said. “You don’t want to put an elephant in a cage designed for a raccoon.”
On Tuesday, Oct. 13, a group of foresters from around the southern region gathered in Bienville Square to help the city assess the trees left standing after the storm.
Seth Hawkins, a certified arborist with the Georgia Forestry Commission and leader of the Urban Forest Strike Team, told Lagniappe the group represented portions of a 13-state region and would be looking at the health and safety issues related to the remaining trees. They would make recommendations to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which would then determine if the city should be reimbursed for any additional trees that would need to be removed.
After an initial inspection, Hawkins believed a few additional oak trees would need to be taken down due to the likelihood damage caused by Sally will result in them falling. Hawkins said he sees the unfortunate news as an opportunity for the city to re-establish its tree canopy.
As for the city, there are no immediate plans. Officials plan to meet with experts in the coming weeks to determine what direction is best to deal with the park’s squirrel population and how to handle the trees.
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