Thursday, October 25, 2012

An Enounter with a Pileated Woodpecker



Last week, my husband and I were puttering around outside as we do every day that the weather is decent. I had the chickens out, letting them enjoy the last of the crickets before cold weather really set in.

While scanning the woods as I often do, I caught a flicker of movement on the ground. "Ah, a squirrel," I thought-- this is a very squirrely time of year, and they are foraging heavily for their winter survival. But no, something was wrong about the movement. I caught a flash of red; it was a Pileated Woodpecker! There was a tangle of brush and we couldn't see the bird very well-- certainly not well enough to merit running back to the house for my camera. We enjoyed the knowledge that they were still hanging around in "our" woods, and continued with our chicken time.

Some time later, my husband had to walk back into the woods a ways to check on a neighbor. I had forgotten all about the woodpecker, as I willingly admit that I am very easily distracted by Chicken Antics! I glanced over to see my husband returning through the woods, and another movement by him caught my eye. The woodpecker was still there! Amazed, as these birds are generally quite shy, I hurriedly sent him a message on his phone, letting him know he was not alone. Pileated woodpeckers are one of his favorite animals. He quietly watched it from where he was, mere feet away!

A Female Pileated Woodpecker.
I watched too, from afar, though admittedly I couldn't see much other than the movement and sometimes a smear of red. Surprised by the bird's nonchalance for my husband's presence, I regretted not having my camera and went to remedy that fact. Circling far around as not to disturb the woodpecker, I walked back to where my husband was.

Together, we watched the bird for quite a long time. Being close enough to see it well, it was clear that it was an adult female and possibly one of the pair that we'd been seeing glimpses of for the last three years. She was working a fallen Ash Tree, chiseling away at it for buried grubs and ants at an amazing rate. Over the course of an afternoon, she demolished some six feet of the 9-10" diameter log.

Watching her work left me with a deep appreciation of the importance of her place in the ecosystem, and how she depended on the ecosystem in turn. When a tree is dead or dying in this type of forest, it is not long before boring insects set in, such as beetles and carpenter ants, that work into the wood and start slowly decomposing it. Their holes are also inlets for bacteria and fungus to better take hold and aid in the process. When a woodpecker discovers these insects, the woodpeckers greatly accelerate the decomposition process by essentially chipping the log, and also help to keep insect populations in check. This is especially important for boring-type beetles, for they attack live trees as well, and when populations get out of check there can be a lot of forest die-off. The now quickly decomposing log returns its nutrients to the loamy forest soil, so that new populations of trees can benefit.
She was very skilled with her chisel-like beak.

In the Northeast, Pileated Woodpeckers once were greatly diminished, and at one time, a population of 1 pair per 10 square miles was very lucky. Clearing of the ancient Eastern forests due to clear-cut logging, cutting of trees for tanning, and huge forest fires in the 1700s and 1800s harmed their population greatly. A great deal of land was cleared for agriculture by individual farmers as well. After the turn of 1900, as forestry practices became more regulated, and more responsible, the woodpeckers have slowly made a comeback. Most of the individually owned farms are now gone, being driven out by time and industrial farming to the west, and the cleared land is turning into early successional forest once again.

Complicating things these days is the new type of habitat fragmentation; that is, development of homes, industry, and shopping locations. Pileated Woodpeckers can survive fragmentation of habitat to some level, and have adapted to human habitation as easily seen by the frequency of suet-feeder visits as long as there are stands of mature trees in the area. Unfortunately, what is an eyesore to many people is vital habitat for woodpeckers, and it is common practice to remove dead or dying trees, cut them up, and remove them entirely. Dead tree removal has been an especially big problem for Pileated Woodpeckers in the west, where entire stands of forest have dead trees and material removed to help reduce fire hazard and intensity. If you have dead or dying trees on your property, consider leaving them standing if they do not present a hazard to health or home. If you need to cut, consider leaving the logs in an out-of-the-way area, though not too close to your home (you don't want to needlessly attract carpenter ants to your dwelling!). Small gestures like these can really make a difference for local wildlife.

A closer look at the zygodactyl (two toes forward, two back) foot of a Pileated Woodpecker.