For the Birds Radio Program: Woodpeckers: Aldo Leopold's sawyers?

Original Air Date: March 28, 2007 (estimated date) Rerun Dates: March 23, 2017; Nov. 25, 2015; Nov. 3, 2014; Nov. 14, 2013; June 12, 2012; Nov. 30, 2010; Dec. 29, 2009; June 30, 2009; Jan. 15, 2009

A drumming Pileated Woodpecker sets Laura to wondering whether woodpeckers are considering the history of the trees they dig into as Aldo Leopold did in A Sand County Almanac.

Duration: 5′02″


When Aldo Leopold felled a dead oak, he “sensed that these two piles of sawdust were something more than wood: that they were the integrated transect of a century; that our saw was biting its way, stroke by stroke, decade by decade, into the chronology of a lifetime, written in concentric annual rings of good oak.”

In the February entry of his Sand County Almanac, Leopold writes about the history of his farm as his saw cuts through the decades. Starting with the outer wood on one side of the tree, he slices through annual ring after ring until reaching the core, the tree’s birth in 1865, while recounting historical events that shaped human history and the tree’s own life. After reaching the center, he continues to saw through ring after ring back toward the present until the tree finally topples. When I watch a Pileated Woodpecker chopping through layer after layer of wood in a box elder in my backyard, I ponder whether woodpeckers think about history as they cut through a tree’s rings. As my woodpecker works, he pulls up short every now and then, as if deep in thought, or, possibly, for the same purpose as Leopold pulled up short every now and then. “Rest! cries the chief sawyer, and we pause for breath.”

Whether deep in thought or taking a moment to rest, woodpeckers dig deep into the recesses of local history, probing yesteryear for nourishment, and digging into the very heart of our past to carve out a chamber for nesting. These cavities are also used for shelter in storms and for sleeping, fitting nighttime quarters to allow them to dream of days gone by.

Interestingly, one myth of ancient Rome was about Picus, a gentle forest god able to see not into the past, but into the future. Picus was a son of Saturn and the father of Sylvanus, and was so beautiful that all who saw him fell in love. When the sorceress Circe saw him and fell in love, he spurned her advances, and she vengefully transformed him into a woodpecker. The woodpecker family name, Picidae, is derived from this story.

It may be nothing more than a myth that woodpeckers foretell the future, but they certainly plan for it, excavating holes that provide not only for themselves and their families but for many other creatures. Flying squirrels, mice, little owls, and many songbirds are among the animals that take shelter in woodpecker holes.

Migratory woodpeckers such as flickers and red-headed woodpeckers excavate holes on their winter as well as breeding territories. When they return in spring, they move back into last year’s summer home if it’s available. Even if the tree is still standing, the hole may have been taken over by a starling or other competitor. But woodpeckers are well-equipped avian carpenters, literally “carpinteros” in Spanish, fully prepared to build a new one whenever they need. Because the wood used for nest cavities is already somewhat decayed, woodpeckers don’t trust that their nest holes are permanent structures anyway, and work little by little on new cavities even when they have a good one already.

Days lengthen dramatically as we approach the equinox, and this revs up woodpecker hormones as well. By March, these supercharged avian carpenters are making their presence known throughout the north woods by hammering on the most resonant structures on their territories, from dead trees to oil drums and drainspouts. These loud, rhythmic drum rolls are both enticements to potential mates and proclamations to all rivals that this prime real estate is already occupied. Of course, this thrilling sound, so wonderful on our late winter walks, may become a bit more tiresome as we start sleeping with our windows open in April and May, but right now it’s a sign that winter will soon ease its grip. Perhaps this welcome annual foretelling of spring is the basis for the ancient Roman belief that woodpeckers predict the future. Throughout our past, woodpeckers have been a magnificent and important part of our forest world. A future without them would be bleak, indeed.