Resilient Woodpeckers hard to knock – or stop

Resilient Woodpeckers hard to knock – or stop

By Rex Graham

During the final round of the 2014 men’s U.S. Open in Pinehurst, N.C., there were double bogies, bogies and pars on the difficult 529-yard par-4 fourth hole. Birdies and eagles were extinct.

However, in a remarkable coincidence, a federally endangered woodpecker had earlier chiseled a nest hole in an old, slightly bent Longleaf Pine at the edge of the 4th green.

2014 PGA U.S. Open Championship,

The world’s top golfers and their caddies walk down the fourth fairway during the 2014 U.S. Open at Pinehurst Resort and Country Club. The bent tree next to the grandstand (upper left corner of this photo) has a woodpecker nest hole. (Photo: Copyright USGA/Darren Carroll)

Endangered woodpecker species like the one nesting at Pinehurst usually chip and peck in obscurity, but in 2014 woodpeckers have been a focal point of ecology, natural pest control, forest management, and logging. A salvage logging bill that the Sierra Club says “risks complete ignorance of the strong scientific research” threatens the fire-dependent Black-backed Woodpecker in California, Oregon and South Dakota.

The Nature Conservancy is logging ash trees used by Pileated Woodpeckers and other birds in a Pennsylvania preserve “based on ecology.” A Conservancy blog post says that a “maximized financial return” is somehow consistent with ecological science.

“It would be intriguing to know what ecological goals the Nature Conservancy believes it is advancing,” said David Foster, an ecology professor at Harvard University and Director of the Harvard Forest. “Much more understandable if they simply cited the need for ash wood and income.”

Woodpeckers hard to knock

Woodpeckers are found throughout the Americas and birding tours to North, Central and South America seek them. Often, the knock on the woodpeckers of America is their unwelcome knack for tapping holes in homes, commercial building, aging Frank Lloyd Wright landmarks, NASA space shuttle fuel tanks, and utility poles from Alabama to Idaho.

In North Carolina, the story is much different. There, woodpeckers symbolize a more nuanced and flexible approach to managing endangered species on private property.

At the Pinehurst Resort and Country Club, each family group of the non-migrating endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker makes 18 or more holes in the oldest Longleaf Pine trees it can find. Each family’s home territory is about the size of an 18-hole golf course.

Range of the Red-cockaded Woodpecker,

North American range of the Red-cockaded Woodpecker. (Interactive map: Great Backyard Bird Count)

The pre-settled U.S. had about 90 million acres of old-growth Longleaf Pine and wiregrass forest. Today, nesting Red-cockaded Woodpeckers are found primarily in trees at least 60 years old in scattered forest remnants.

Ravaged beauty reborn

“Pinehurst is keeping their pines on a longer rotation, and now more of their trees have a good ratio of heartwood to sap wood under the bark,” said Susan Miller, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) in Southern Pines, N.C. “The country club also keeps the mid-story open, which mimics the way the original forests looked when fires routinely cleared them of bush.”

What had been 5,800 acres of ravaged timber in 1895 has been beautifully reborn as  “The Cradle of American Golf.” It’s also a nursery for nine families of Red-cockaded Woodpeckers, and an example of how regulatory compromise inspired by environmentalists can benefit private landowners and birds.

Cutting red tape, not trees

Red-cockaded Woodpecker,

Red-cockaded Woodpeckers nest in pine trees at least 60 years old. (Photo: Jim Hanula)

Decades ago, the mere presence of a federally endangered species was regarded as a legal hazard by golf courses and other private landowners. Rather than cope with onerous federal regulation, many landowners simply cut down their pine trees.

A voluntary U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) program called Safe Harbor has ended the defensive cutting. Landowners like Pinehurst have embraced the Safe Harbor ground rules, which give them flexibility to develop their property while helping the birds. Under its Safe Harbor agreement, if Pinehurst construction or development results in the loss of an endangered woodpecker, it can take a mulligan: there’s no penalty for “incidental take” on properties with numbers of birds above the initial baseline.

Safe harbor agreements give private landowners the flexibility to develop their properties as part of voluntary plans to benefit a threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

In return for maintaining the practices long enough to result in a population increase of the species, neither the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service nor the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will require additional or different management activities by the private landowners without their consent.

“It has made it advantageous to a landowner. It has made it appealing,” said North Carolina landowner Jean Powell. “The carrot is mightier than the stick in this case.”

White hats arrive

Pinehurst’s agreement includes a clause that protects adjacent landowners if Red-cockaded Woodpeckers expand their ranges off the resort’s property. Private landowners can even get partial funding for improvements to conserve key habitat.

“I help landowners get cost-share money to do restoration work,” Miller said. “Now, I’m the good guy – I get to come in with the white hat.”

The Safe Harbor program now covers 4 million acres and 63 rare species. Originally the brainchild of the Environmental Defense Fund, Safe Harbor agreements are administered by the FWS, the Peregrine Fund, the Nature Conservancy, the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, and other state agencies.

The Safe Harbor program is part of a mixed bag of stories in 2014 about woodpeckers behaving, well, like woodpeckers.

For example, aside from providing birders with sheer joy, woodpeckers, sapsuckers, and flickers cause an estimate $300 million per year in damages to residential homes.

Red-bellied Woodpeckers thriving

On the good side of the 2014 woodpecker ledger, the numbers of Red-bellied Woodpeckers are way up in Ohio and other parts of the U.S. Midwest.

Red-bellied Woodpecker,

Red-bellied Woodpeckers, a male is shown here, are feasting on Emerald Ash Borer larvae infesting and killing millions of ash trees in Midwestern states. Note the zygodactyl foot with the first and fourth toes facing backward and the second and third facing forward. (Photo: Ken Thomas)

Biologists say Red-bellied Woodpeckers and other woodpeckers and nuthatches are providing pest-constrol services, feasting on Emerald Ash Borers infesting and killing millions of ash trees.

The invading beetle, which first arrived in Michigan as stowaways in wooden pallets in cargo ships from Asia, is spreading from the epicenter in every direction.

Natural pest control

A study published in the February 2014 issue of Forest Ecology and Management found that Red-bellied Woodpeckers have increasingly honed their foraging to focus on ash borer larvae. A single infested ash tree can generate 1,000 adult Emerald Ash Borer beetles, but woodpeckers can remove up to 85 percent of the larvae before they emerge.

“At least woodpeckers are benefiting from this disastrous circumstance for ash trees,” said Charles Flower, a co-author of the study and a graduate student at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He said the dead ash trees left standing make excellent nurseries for many species of woodpeckers and other birds.

Nature Conservancy ash-for-cash scheme

Nature Conservancy ash-for-cash scheme,

The Nature Conservancy is logging ash trees in its Pennsylvania forest (shown here) to “maximize financial return” to “do what’s best.” But for whom? (Photo: George C. Gress)

The Nature Conservancy is taking the opposite tack. It is preemptively logging ash trees in a forest preserve in Pennsylvania before the borers get there to get a “maximized financial return” by selling the non-infested ash logs.

“There are times when an invasive forest pest can’t be stopped,” said a post in the organization’s Cool Green Science blog. “After all, the trees are doomed anyhow, so this is one positive thing that could be done to benefit the forest.”

The blog post said the ash-for-cash scheme will benefit Eastern Hemlocks, another tree being decimated by a different pest. An earlier blog post about the Pennsylvania hemlocks says in 2015 selected individual trees will be injected with “a pesticide.” However, the specific chemical isn’t named in any of the Cool Green Forest blog posts.

A comprehensive 2014 Nature Conservancy/Institute of Agriculture report titled Fading Forests III says, “Eastern Hemlocks can be kept alive in areas like campgrounds and popular trails by applications of imidacloprid.”

The imidacloprid approach

Imidacloprid is an insect neurotoxin linked to declining bird and bee populations in Europe.  The neurotoxin kills any insect, including Hemlock Wooly Adelgids, an aphid-like insect that kills hemlock and spruce trees by sucking out sap from their needles. Pileated Woodpeckers and other birds at the Pensylvania preserve feed on insects, but not adelgids.

Imidacloprid-injected hemlock trees may be devoid of all insects. Some trees that don’t get insecticide injections will be seeded with a non-native beetle that eats the wooly adelgids if they are plentiful enough. Sustained cold winter temperatures kill both adelgids and bio-control beetles.

While the The Fading Forests III report says use of imidacloprid “can be effective and desirable,” it doesn’t mention preemptive logging as part of any strategy to manage an insect-threatened forest.

Do-nothing approach

A 2006 study in Conservation Biology by Harvard ecologists David Foster and David Orwig, said sometimes the treatment of a threatened forest is worse than what’s ailing it. Doing nothing in the face of an approaching insect infestation is actually a viable alternative to preemptive logging, they said.

“Preemptive harvesting may affect a larger area or create a greater impact on forest ecosystems than the disturbance [insect infestation or disease] itself,” Foster and Orwig wrote in their study. “Whereas there are many reasons to harvest forests preemptively or following disturbances, there are equally viable and different arguments for a conservative approach of leaving the site and its dead and dying trees intact. From a biogeochemical, ecosystem function, and water-quality perspective there is strong evidence that a no-management policy is prudent.”

Trees wanted: dead and alive

Transport of borer-infested firewood is strongly discouraged, but biologists say nothing can slow the Emerald Ash Borer invasion for long. Yet, forests have shown resilience in the past from many other insect infestations and diseases similar in scope to the ash borer onslaught.

“Even though it’s too late to save millions of these trees, if the dead trees are left standing, they can provide valuable ecosystem services,” Flower said. “Cutting down dead ash trees is a misguided waste of money. Municipalities are hard pressed for money and they have taken our advice. Some have put up signage explaining the ecosystem benefits of dead snags to birds.”

The Forest Preserve District of Will County, Illinois, is not removing dead or dying ash trees from its natural areas except when they pose a public safety risk.

Black-backed Woodpeckers threatened

Dead trees are the focus of a log-it-or-leave-it legal battle involving woodpeckers in burned forests from Yosemite National Park in California to the Black Hills of South Dakota.

The U.S. Forest Service manages national forests. In response to federal legislation to remove billions of board feet of salvage timber, it has proposed logging several burned forests such as California’s Stanislaus National Forest.  The Forest Service proposal ignores longstanding rules protecting old-growth trees. Salvage logging would destroy habitat for roughly 60 percent of imperiled Black-backed Woodpeckers.

The blacked snags represent a financial windfall for logging interests. However, it’s difficult to find a Ph.D. biologist at any college or university who favors salvage logging – except under smart-logging limitations that would essentially preclude commercial logging.

The John Muir Project of the Earth Island Institute, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Blue Mountains Biodiversity Project, and the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance petitioned the FWS to list the Black-backed Woodpeckers in the Oregon Cascades-California population and the Black Hills population as threatened or endangered subspecies under the federal Endangered Species Act.

Protection ‘may be warranted’

On June 17, 2014, the Center for Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit under the Endangered Species Act in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, Calif., against the FWS for failing to protect the Black-backed Woodpecker from the Forest Service’s logging proposals.

The FWS doesn’t comment on lawsuits, but Robert Moler, a spokesman for its Sacramento office, said in a telephone interview that the agency will conduct a comprehensive review of woodpecker.

“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has determined that the petition to list the Black-backed Woodpecker contained substantial information to indicate that listing of the Black-backed Woodpecker as a threatened or endangered species may be warranted,” Moler said.

The FWS’s 12-month finding of the review represents the next step in the process.

Red-headed Woodpeckers and golf

Red-headed Woodpecker,

Red-headed Woodpeckers are more likely to nest in golf courses if they have larger dead hardwoods or dead limbs on live trees. (Photo: Mongo)

A study published in 2005 in the Wildlife Society Bulletin said that if golf courses are managed with wildlife in mind, they “could play a valuable role in the conservation of wildlife associated with open, disturbance-maintained woodlands, including the declining Red-headed Woodpecker.”

The study was based on census studies in 2002 and 2003 of 100 randomly selected Ohio golf courses, 26 of which had nesting Red-headed Woodpeckers. The study had three main findings:

  • The golf courses with woodpecker nests had trees 12 percent larger in diameter than the courses without nests.
  • The courses with nesting woodpeckers had twice as many oak, hickory and American beech trees than the woodpecker-free golf courses.
  • Golf courses with woodpeckers were twice as likely to have standing dead trees and dead limbs on live trees compared to courses without woodpeckers.

Dead limb society

While woodpeckers forage on both dead and live trees, 67 percent of the 49 nest holes found on the golf courses were in the dead limbs of live trees.

Hairy Woodpecker,

The red on the back of the head identifies this as a male Hairy Woodpecker. (Photo: Mdf)

Pileated, Downy, Red-bellied and Hairy Woodpeckers are benefiting from the non-removal of dead snags in a forest near Gladwin, Mich. It is owned by Wes and Cyndi Alexander. The birds feed and nest in the Alexander’s trees – live and dead –and visit their suet feeders.

Home sweet cavity

A continual knock on woodpeckers (Pileated Woodpeckers and flickers are most often singled out) is their habit of pecking wood. Holes in homes can be expensive to fix.

A study published in 2007 in Wildlife Management by scientists at Cornell University quoted an earlier study that said woodpeckers cause about $300 million a year in damages to houses.

Researchers at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology are studying woodpecker damage and technologies to minimize it. The scientists, led by Professor Sandra Vehrencamp, analyzed the effectiveness of six woodpecker control products made by Bird-X, Inc. Of the 16 homes studied with woodpecker damage, “None of the deterrents we tested were completely successful,” the researchers said.

Bird-X’s Mylar tape deterrent worked the best.

“My own house, which has cedar siding with natural stain, was getting a lot of woodpecker damage,” Vehrencamp said. “We finally repainted the house using solid acrylic paint, rather than the stain. Even though it is a similar natural red-brown color, the paint keeps the insects out and we haven’t had any more damage. But we have the mylar tape all over our house just in case.”

In the U.S., it is illegal to kill songbirds, including woodpeckers, which are protected by the Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

Prowler owl appeal

In their study, the Cornell researchers actually saw only Downy and Hairy woodpeckers on the study houses, although six wood-pecking bird species nest in the New York region.

They found that artificial snakes and methyl anthranilate repellent don’t deter hole-making. Some houses actually attracted more damage after fake Prowler Owls were installed.

Other studies have found that variety of species-specific woodpecker alarm, territorial and predator-distress calls work temporarily. However, the birds catch on and come back.

Homes stained or painted in earth-tone colors suffered “significantly more woodpecker damage than those painted with bright pastel or white colors, after we adjusted for siding and yard type,” Vehrencamp said.

Bauhaus to bird feeder

Frank Lloyd Wright's Spring House,

The cypress siding of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Spring House have attracted local Tallahassee, Fla., woodpeckers. (Photo: Alan C. Spector)

The Cornell study of New York homes would suggest that the soft, natural cypress siding of Frank Lloyd Wright’s historic Spring House in Tallahassee, Fla., would attract woodpeckers. That’s exactly what’s happened.

Pileated Woodpeckers are foraging in the cypress exterior. “We’re pretty sure they are after the carpenter bees who bore in the cypress,” said Ms. Byrd Lewis Mashburn, of the Spring House Institute. “Fortunately, the woodpeckers aren’t always a problem or things would be much worse!”

Of course, utility poles have the right natural color. They look like dead tree because, well, they are. Many poles are pressure treated with preservatives, but still attract carpenter ants and other woodpecker prey. For decades, woodpeckers have been busily foraging and nesting in utility poles from Idaho to Alabama. But some have loftier ambitions.

Flickers ground Space Shuttle

Yellow-shafter Flicker damage to Shuttle Discovery's external fuel tank.

Yellow-shafted Flickers inflicted 195 holes in the foam insulation of the external fuel tank for NASA’s Discovery Shuttle Mission in 1995, delaying the launch until technicians repaired the holes. (Photo: NASA)

A nesting pair of Yellow-shafted Flickers inflicted 195 holes in the foam insulation of the external fuel tank for NASA’s Discovery Shuttle Mission in 1995. (NASA has a video of the enterprising flickers at work.) The holes delayed the launch until technicians repaired them.

The space agency purchased Terror Eyes balloons from Bird-X to keep the flickers away. The bright balloons were the only thing separating NASA’s fuel tanks from thousands of birds on adjacent wildlife refuges.

Flickers seem to like Styrofoam exteriors.

In 2014, Flickers chiseled 53 holes through the brown, Styrofoam-plaster exterior of the brown buildings in a strip mall in Medicine Hat, Alberta. Public reaction to local newspaper stories was “overwhelming,” said Gillian Slade, a reporter with the Medicine Hat News.

“On site, I would see grandparents with their grandchildren who’d read the story and were there to see the holes and hopefully the woodpeckers.” Slade said the mall’s developer is evaluating various technologies to keep the flickers away in 2015.

There came a tapping

Wodpeckers’ skulls are designed to absorb the shock of the drumming. It’s humans who get the headaches.

The birds “drum” in the spring to announce territories and attract mates. Aluminum siding or utility poles located in forest openings make great, noisy drums.

Tapping on a house’s siding could also mean that woodpeckers have found wood-boring beetle larvae, bees, carpenter ants or other prey.

Idaho Power woodpecker-damaged pole,

Pileated Woodpeckers and flickers cause the most damage to Idaho Power’s wood poles. (Photo: Idaho Power)

The cedar or redwood siding of a house can be excavated for a nest hole, although it is fairly rare. Red-cockaded Woodpeckers never excavate nest holes in siding.

Power pole woes

Raptors and other large birds don’t damage poles, instead they are sometimes electrocuted when they perch on poles or power lines, especially in treeless areas with abundant prey.

Woodpecker damage to wood poles is the most significant cause of pole deterioration in the U.S. Alabama Power Company spent $3 million in a single year to replace woodpecker-damaged transmission-line poles.

Hydro One, an electricity distributor in Ontario, Canada, said it found 16,000 woodpecker-damaged wood utility poles in its transmission network between 2006 and 2010. Not all the poles needed to be replaced.

“Pileated woodpeckers and flickers cause the most damage,” said Brad Bowlin, a spokesman for Idaho Power in Boise.

Richard Harness, a certified wildlife biologist with EDM International, Inc., a utility consulting company, said there are no easy fixes for power companies, but they can reduce damages in a variety of ways.

Woodpeckers will be woodpeckers

Pileated Woodpecker,

Within one week of the installation of this pole to replace a damaged one, a Pileated Woodpecker had already chiseled out a nest cavity. (Photo: Richard Harness, EDM International)

Some wood poles are almost manufactured to attract woodpeckers.

“When heat- and pressure-treated poles cool, you could end up with voids in the pole. If a woodpecker detects a void, they tend to think there are insects in there and drill exploratory holes,” Harness said. “Pileated Woodpeckers will go through a standard plastic-mesh-wrapped pole, but not a pole wrapped with 16-gauge mesh.”

Once a woodpecker starts pecking, they’re hard to stop.

“I’ve gone to locations where a utility has just replaced a pole, and within a week, a woodpecker has already nested in the new pole,” he said. “If they map woodpecker habitat, maybe there are stretches where alternatives, such as steel or fiberglass poles could be used instead of wood.”

Harness said wrapping wood poles with impenetrable material is a less expensive alternative to using expensive steel or fiberglass. Poles are easier to wrap on the ground, before installation.

“Birds are doing what birds do,” Harness said.

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Woodpecker videos we love


This shot of a Red-bellied Woodpecker calling from its nest is quite nice. Anybody who has ever spent times in an Eastern U.S. forest would immediately recognize the sound.



This Red-headed Woodpecker loves suet and creatorwise captures the feeding.



Sierra Willoughby filmed a Northern Pygmy Owl moments after it brought down a Nuttall’s Woodpecker.



This Hairy Woodpecker at a pair of feeders has great sound by Mingus O’Bannon, Chris Carlisle notes the Pileated Woodpecker audio bomb.



This Gila Woodpecker may be a little nervous as Rosmarinusofficialis films it at its nest hole in an upright saguaro cactus stump. The bird moves its head nicely so you can see its beautiful red cap.



A Golden-fronted Woodpecker claims a half-eaten orange at a feeder, much to the disappointment of a male Hooded Oriole. BirdsOnLiveCamera shot the scene in Texas.



Here’s one of my favorites. Wild Bird Video Productions catches a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker with a bill full of insect prey as it continues to lap up tree sap.



Birds, Other Wildlife and The World Around Us captures a Three-toed Woodpecker in Colorado.



This Williamson’s Sapsucker filmed by Stoil Ivanov in Yellowstone National Park preens and sings.



Here’s a White-headed Woodpecker by Khanh Tran.



This Lewis’s Woodpecker is shown here as an efficient forager. Nice steady shot by bocriss.



The Ladder-backed Woodpecker in this shot by Robert Zeller excavates a nest hole on the underside of a horizontal limb.



Martyn Stewart filmed this Pileated Woodpecker chipping out a large section of a dead snag to nab three grubs. Nice work on a Sunday morning with a Nikon D4 with a telephoto lens and extender.



This Discovery clip catches an Acorn Woodpecker confronting a nut-thieving squirrel. “It’s just too tempting. But risking retaliation from a beak that can jack-hammer solid wood is a bad idea if you don’t have a thick skin.”



Frank Ritcey catches a Flicker flicking its long tongue.



These Downy Woodpecker chicks are insistent. SteamUP was able to aim his camera directly into the nest hole.



There is a nifty shot of the tongue of a Great Spotted Woodpecker by wildaboutimages