For the Birds Radio Program: Black-backed Woodpecker

Original Air Date: Jan. 17, 2000

Laura and her friend Holly had a wonderful treat January 7: a Black-backed Woodpecker.

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On January 7, my birding buddy Holly and I drove up beyond Two Harbors on my annual pilgrimage in hopes of finding a Spruce Grouse. Spruce Grouse are dark, lovely relatives of our good old partridge or Ruffed Grouse, and are sometimes called fool hens for their extraordinary tameness in the presence of humans. This foolishness extends to their habit of playing in the road—almost all the Spruce Grouse I see are in the middle of Highway 2, 40 or so miles north of Two Harbors. Once you reach the Sand River up there, you start paying close attention to the road ahead, partly so you’ll get a good look at the grouse if they’re there, and partly so you don’t run over them. But you have to get there by first light or you miss them.

The grouse gather on the road, probably picking up grit and salt, when they first awaken before dawn, but retreat when logging trucks start roaring along. Twice the only Spruce Grouse I’ve seen were dead. One was till warm, hit by the truck right in front of me. Overall I’m batting about .500 on my trips up there to see live grouse, but this year my first trip was a miss. I felt bad because Holly had left Forest Lake at 3 am just to see them, but on our way back to Two Harbors, we saw something that made up for the loss. A dark woodpecker flew across the road and landed in a spruce tree right near us—a glossy male Black-backed Woodpecker.

Black-backed Woodpeckers are closely related to Downies, yet while Downies are generalists who live in just about every neighborhood and woodlot, Black-backed Woodpeckers are specialists. They thrive in areas where dead trees are abundant, especially in burned tracts. Their favorite feeding technique is to flake dead bark off trees to get the insects beneath—they specialize on wood boring beetle larvae, weevils, ants, and other destructive species. Last year my friend John Heid and I went to a tract in Ontario about 50 miles north of Thunder Bay and saw at least 50—possibly 100—of these magnificent birds along the highway in an enormous section of burned forest. They were feeding and calling and doing what woodpeckers do in the spring to guarantee that there will be woodpeckers the following year. This year Black-backed Woodpeckers have been much more common in northern Minnesota than usual, with several spotted on the Isabella Christmas Bird Count—perhaps some are offspring of this enormous gathering. With the devastating storms that hit the Boundary Waters last summer, there is a possibility that Black-backs will have a population surge there, too. Isn’t it intriguing that the brightest side of a dark situation is the darkest woodpecker of them all?

Holly and I enjoyed seeing our bird, the early morning light gleaming on his brilliant yellow crown, his black back shining in the light. We had spotted him from the car as he flew over the road, but if we’d been walking along the highway we couldn’t have missed noticing the noisy way he attacked the tree, ripping off chunk after chunk of bark in his eagerness to get at the nourishing bugs beneath.

We only watched him for five minutes or so—we were in a hurry to move onto Two Harbors and other birds—but it was some of the most pleasing five minutes I’ve spent in a long time. He didn’t even notice us, but that was understandable. At breakfast time, how could mere humans possibly compete with juicy grubs and tangy carpenter ants?