For the Birds Radio Program: Pileated Woodpecker

Original Air Date: Sept. 2, 1994

One of the most important creatures in the forest ecosystem is also the inspiration for Woody Woodpecker. 4:18

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Of all the birds of the forest, the one family that has the greatest impact on the other plants and creatures of the communities is the woodpeckers. As Dieter Blume, a German ecologist, put it:

Woodpeckers play an important role in the earth’s forest eco-systems. They help to control numbers of bark- and wood-boring insects, thereby contributing to the health of the tree trunk and its bark covering. Where woodpeckers have pecked, other smaller birds (tits, nuthatches, treecreepers) can forage successfully for any remaining insects and spiders, and woodpecker holes are used for nesting or roosting by many other hole-nesting insectivores. Owls, martens, and other mammals also benefit from using woodpecker holes. Woodpeckers thus help indirectly to exert pressure on the huge population of insects and mice or voles. They also play an important part in the cycle of decay and regeneration of matter in so far as they peck at huge amounts of dead wood, making it accessible to other decomposing organisms.

In the north woods the Pileated Woodpecker plays a critical role in the lives of all kinds of species. Pileateds require a large territory to provide them with food enough to keep their 10-16 ounce bodies in top condition. They’re usually found in forests with a rich understory and plenty of dead, rotting wood on the ground, where they do much of their hunting for carpenter ants. In our part of the country, Pileateds are found in forests of mixed conifers and hardwoods, in balsam fir and white cedar swamps, and on wooded ridges. They often build their nest cavities in aspens. Once these short-lived trees reach the age of forty or so, they are often attacked by fungus which soften and kills the heartwood. At that point, it’s a simple matter for a pileated to chisel out a nice-sized hole with a chamber for raising babies. Since pileateds builds a new cavity each year, the abandoned cavities provide homes for Wood Ducks, goldeneyes, mergansers, Boreal and Saw-whet Owls, flying squirrels, and other creatures.

Although pileateds steer clear of the earliest stages of forest succession, there are some steps that foresters can follow to encourage pileateds to return to a tract as soon as possible after disturbance. If loggers leave some dead snags for food and a few old but living green trees standing for nest sites, even in a clearcut, the tract may fairly quickly accommodate a pileated or two.

Although the Pileated Woodpecker used to be considered strictly an old growth species, more and more individuals have adapted to Northland cities for at least part of their annual cycle, at least in older neighborhoods with lots of mature trees. As Dutch elm disease and the many diseases currently attacking Northland birches and spruces make more and more insects available, at the same time that old forests reach their rotation targets and are cut, pileateds have discovered that cities are safe and offer plenty of food. A few years ago, a pileated spent a couple of days hammering out the base of a dead elm right on Superior Street in Duluth. One news station sent a reporter and camera man, and the Duluth News-Tribune ran a photo of it. It didn’t surprise me that the media were so taken with this bird. Pileateds are impressive for more than their sheer size. Chiseling the bark on a tree, a pileated’s snaky neck and crest somehow call to mind a Pterodactyl rather than a bird, and even its flight pattern somehow seems prehistoric. These shy residents of the north woods enrich more than the forest community–they enrich our lives as well.