This photo was taken a little bit past this shagbark’s peak fall foliage color on October 29th in south central PA, but you can still see some of the remaining vibrant orange that its leaves turn (Photo credit: Rebecca Lauver).

Seeing beautiful fall foliage is one of my favorite things about the changing of the seasons from summer to fall. Black gum leaves change into a fiery red while tulip poplars transform into vibrant yellows; the green canopy of the forest is now a kaleidoscope of colors.

Shagbark hickory, Carya ovata, is another tree with vibrant foliage. It turns a topaz orange as the leaves prepare to drop off the tree. Even more important than its visual beauty to humans, shagbark hickory is a crucial species for wildlife food and habitat. It produces a plethora of nuts roughly every 1 to 3 years and helps to feed black bears, raccoons, squirrels, some bird species, and the eastern chipmunk, which actually consumes 5-10 percent of its diet in shagbark nuts (Graney). The nuts are also nutritious for humans; Native Americans relied on them as a source of food and the word hickory actually comes from the Virginia Algonquian word pawcohiccora, which referred to hickory-nut meat.

There are 17 species of hickory and 15 of them are native to portions of the United States. Shellbark, mockernut, pignut, bitternut, pecan, and shagbark hickory are all native to PA and the surrounding region. Shagbark hickory can grow to be over 100 feet tall and 350 years old; it begins to bear fruit once it is around 40 years old.

The leaves of this shagbark, shown on the left, have already dropped, exposing the numerous nuts that still remain on its branches. The husk of the nut, shown in the middle, normally splits freely when the nut is ripe, revealing the inner shell, shown on the right (Photo Credit: Rebecca Lauver).

During this spooky season of bat-based decor, shagbark hickory also gets special attention as it provides important roosting space for a variety of species of bats. As the name suggests, the bark of this tree is rather shaggy and peels away from the trunk of the tree as the tree ages. This provides ample space for bats to roost on the underside of the bark.

An Indiana bat, Myotis sodalis, tucks itself under some tree bark (not a shagbark hickory tree, but you get the idea) (Photo credit: John Macgregor).

Shagbark hickory bark peels away from the trunk, creating lots of nooks and covers all throughout the tree for bats to roost under (Photo credit: Rebecca Lauver).

During a study done in the Hoosier National Forest in Indiana, bats were commonly documented using live shagbark hickory trees (along with the peeling bark of older white oak trees) as roosts, while pine, American elm, and northern red oak were used as roosts when the trees were dead (Brack, 2004). Another study focused on the endangered Indiana bat and recorded that shagbark hickory was the most commonly used maternity roost as both live and dead shagbark hickories provide plenty of crevices for bat pups (Schroder, 2017).

The winter is a perfect time to work on your tree identification using bark, so keep your eyes open for the distinct peeling bark of this tree. While they may take a little bit longer to grow and can be challenging to transplant due to their long taproots, shagbark hickories are a worthwhile investment if you are looking to add in some more native trees on your property- the bats (and other wildlife) will thank you for it!.

If you want to learn more about bat roosts, habitat, and other things bat-related, check out these articles from previous Forests for the Bats newsletters!