For the Birds Radio Program: Black-backed Woodpecker

Original Air Date: March 3, 1999

A huge colony of Black-backed Woodpeckers is drawing birders to the forest north of Thunder Bay. Also, an ad for Bakers Blue Jay Blend sung by the California Ravens. 4:24

Audio missing


Last week, I went on an adventure with my good friends John and Jane Heid. We’d heard via the Internet that there were a bazillion Black-backed Woodpeckers in a burned tract of forest about 140 km north of Thunder Bay on Highway 527, and we wanted to see for ourselves. There were also supposed to be a handful of Three-toed Woodpeckers in the area, which John especially wanted to see, since that would have been a lifer for him.

Once in a while, I’ll drive a long way to add a lifer, but I had no hopes of a new bird on this trip, and as it turns out, our total trip list was pretty short. I’m not exactly sure what it was that lured me up there—I think I just wanted to savor a bird that I usually get only brief, fleeting moments with. And that’s exactly what I did.

Black-backed Woodpeckers are specially adapted to feeding in dead trees. They often appear for several years after a forest fire—I saw several in Yellowstone after the huge fire there, and also a lot in the Black Hills of South Dakota in a burned tract. But nothing I’d seen before prepared me for this trip. I saw more black-backs in one hour than I had in my previous 24 years of birding, and immersed myself in their behaviors and interactions and vocalizations. They were as fascinating and wonderful as I had hoped!

John is an eager beaver kind of birder who headed off down the road the moment we stopped, and his sharp eyes picked out dozens of woodpeckers whose black backs precisely matched the charred tree trunks. Me, I’m poky. When we first got out of the car, I stood there, watching and listening and absorbing. There were five or six Black-backs right in my vicinity. They were tapping gently, sometimes loosening the bark, sometimes proving into the burned wood. Every now and then they called out, their calls sounding halfway between a Hairy Woodpecker and a raccoon. It took me a while to see the glistening yellow crown on males. It’s dull and muted until the sun hits it, but at the right angle, it simply glows. A couple of males drummed their spring territorial song, but they didn’t space themselves out, and I wondered whether this group isn’t going to nest in a while colony. A couple of them went in and out of cavities, but I didn’t know if these were nesting holes or just night-time bedrooms.

A lot of logging trucks roared through, and the road was winding and hilly, so there weren’t that many safe places to pull over. We moved through the burned tract, stopping just a few times, but everywhere we stopped, there were more woodpeckers. John even picked out one female Pileated who stayed in my scope for over 10 minutes. There was also one Hairy and one Downy Woodpecker, a small flock of redpolls, and some ravens. That was it. Oh, and on the way into Grand Marais that night we saw a wolf along the side of Highway 61. I never see wolves unless I’m with John Heid—he has some sort of magical Karma when it comes to majestic mammalian predators. I always think of John when I think of moose and coyotes, and now I’ll always think of him when I think of Black-backed Woodpeckers. This was one of those beautiful lifetime experiences—about as good as seeing your first Blue Jay. And speaking of Blue Jays, here’s a word from our sponsor, Baker’s Blue Jay Barn, catering to your Blue Jay needs since 1987.