Female black backed woodpecker [Scott Sinclair]

Rare birds cooperate

The Nature of PEI | by Gary Schneider

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It really is a lovely thing when rare birds cooperate with passionate bird lovers. Too often I’ve been notified of sightings of snowy owls, cattle egrets, Northern cardinals or Eastern bluebirds, and by the time I arrived they were nowhere to be seen. Which is fine, not every bird sits waiting for a travelling birder to come by and take its picture.

On a recent trip to Eastern Kings—one of my favourite birding areas in the province—a pair of black-backed woodpeckers showed up. They were in a wet, rather sparse black spruce woodland, and came right out to the roadside. You could hear the tapping from a distance as they searched for ants in the dead trees. These are birds that I rarely see and I’ve never seen a pair before, only single birds. They were extremely cooperative, coming very close and staying for a long viewing period.

Black-backed woodpeckers are perfectly named, as they are the only one of our many species of woodpeckers with a solid black back. And of course they do peck on wood, whether that is to find food, create a nest, scare away competing males, or attract a mate. Black-backs are handsome birds, especially in breeding plumage. They are mostly jet black, with a white front and striped black and white sides, almost as though they are wearing a tuxedo. The males also have yellow feathers on their heads.

People regularly call Macphail Woods and ask about the woodpeckers that are killing their trees. Yellow-bellied sapsuckers are the woodpeckers that make the lines of holes around trees, causing the sap to run, and ants (and hummingbirds) to be attracted to the liquid. This practice occasionally kills trees, although I have seen very large trees riddled with holes that seem to be doing just fine. But in almost all other cases, woodpeckers are eating ants in the trees, which means the trees are dying already. The woodpeckers are just being opportunistic feeders, and probably helping to keep the ants somewhat under control.

Downy and hairy woodpeckers are our most common year-round woodpeckers, and are regularly seen at feeders. Pileated woodpeckers are also year-round residents. These crow-sized birds were once extirpated (they were here but then became extinct) from the province, but they are now regularly seen. The three-toed woodpecker can be mistaken for the black-backed, though the back of this rare species has a white “ladder.” Other woodpeckers, such as Northern flickers and sapsuckers, are more commonly seen in the summer. And lately we’ve been seeing rare species such as red-bellied woodpeckers and even red-headed woodpeckers.

Woodpeckers are cavity nesters, carving out a home within a living or dead tree. A pileated woodpecker needs a tree both large enough to accommodate the nest hole and also with enough remaining wood to keep standing. Woodpecker nest sites often become homes for secondary cavity nesters. These are birds that nest in cavities but not built to bang their heads against wood. Species such as saw whet owls, barred owls, and kestrels have hooked beaks for ripping their prey apart. They can’t excavate cavities, but they will take over holes that have been abandoned.

Finding the pair of black-backed woodpeckers got me thinking of this interesting family and the various roles they play in a healthy forest. The native Acadian forest would have always had lots of large trees, as well as some dead ones. Otherwise, where would the woodpeckers, chickadees, nuthatches, and flying squirrels live? Just something to think about.

Gary SchneiderThe Nature of PEI
Gary Schneider

Gary began writing for The Buzz in the May 2018 issue. He co-chairs ECO-PEI and started the Macphail Woods Ecological Forestry Project in 1991. The project demonstrates ecologically-sound forest management, with a focus on environmental education, conservation of rare plants, and the restoration of PEI’s native forest. He is an avid birder and lives in Tea Hill.