BLACK-BACKED WOODPECKERS DEPEND ON BURNED FORESTS
By Jeannie Marcure
As I write this article, the summer fires in our area have consumed more than 120,000 acres of timber in the Flathead and Glacier Park areas. For more than three weeks now our skies have been choked with smoke and our news reports filled with the depressing reports of a 50-year fire event that shows no hint of abating. How will this catastrophic event affect the bird populations in our area?
Surprisingly, for at least one rather rare species and birders who want to see it, the news could be good!
Black-backed woodpeckers converge on forests after raging crown fires have created an abundance of charred trees and they are superbly adapted to life after a fire. Blending perfectly with the burned forests, these restless birds favor the trees left standing in burned over woodlands—especially old growth stands such as those that have been lost in the Robert Fire near Lake McDonald. in Glacier Park.
The reason for this seemingly bizarre habitat preference is simple. Almost before the smoke has cleared, wood-boring beetles who use infrared-like sensors to find burned forests more than 100 miles away, make a beeline to the burned areas. These insects quickly get down to the business of mating and laying their eggs under the charred bark. When these eggs hatch, the larvae tunnel a couple of inches into the dead trees and feast on wood for a year until changing into adults. The speared tongues of Black-backed woodpeckers capture millions of these grubs. A single woodpecker can consume more than 13,000 grubs in a year.
The window for black-backed woodpecker activity in a burn area is narrow, because beetle numbers decline after 5 or 6 years. At that time the birds must either move on or rely on stands of insect-ridden trees for survival. However, during this interval of plenty, area birders will have a unique opportunity to view this uncommon bird in its preferred habitat and see the master exterminator hard at work.
Here are a few tips to help you locate the Black-backed woodpecker and distinguish it from its close relative the Three-toed woodpecker:
* Dress appropriately. You will get dirty!
* Before entering a burn area, always check with the proper officials to be sure that dangerous trees have been removed and then watch carefully for unstable trees.
* Once in the area, listen for long volleys of drumming and inspect the trees for large patches of missing bark.
* Look for nest holes 3 to 12 feet above the ground. There may be bark removal around the hole. Listen for chicks clamoring for a meal.
* Males of both species have a yellow crown patch.
* Three-toed woodpeckers have black-and-white barred backs while both male and female Black-backs have clear, glossy, black backs. By the way both species have only 3 toes!
* The Black-backed is also slightly larger—9 inches, compared to 8 for the Three–toed.