Woodpecker

A male black-backed woodpecker in the Blue Mountains near a burn.

It appears September was here but a few days and then was gone in a pall of smoke and dust, faded into history and soon to be a distant memory.

Life in the Walla Walla Valley this fall has started out smoky and dry.

Many plants and animals are stressed in this ongoing drought.

We humans continue to be targets of COVID-19 as some mask up and take precautions, while others do not believe they could possibly get hit by this worldwide pandemic.

Nature continues and persists despite all the many challenges most species face in order to survive on this earth that we dominate.

Lowering water tables, fires, floods, climate shift and mega storms, habitat loss, diseases and human overpopulation and natural resource demands.

As I write this column, the air outside is filled with smoke from massive fires in Northern California that have burned out millions of acres of trees and hundreds of human homes and whole communities.

The role of fire in the natural world is so interesting. Fire is particularly important to many plants and absolutely devastating to others.

In this column, we will look at two species that totally depend on fire and its results.

These creatures have adapted to a post-fire world. In fact, their futures are dependent on fire occurring from time to time.

Our first subject is a native bird known as the black-backed woodpecker. This 9.5-inch-long, all black-backed woodpecker is attracted to fires and burned-over wooded areas in western North America.

The adult males have a bright golden-yellow nape crescent above a black neck. It has black and white flank barring and a white belly and vent.

The adult female looks identical, save for a lack of a golden nape patch.

This species of woodpecker is known as a flaker, as it goes along burned stumps and dead standing trees listening for beetle grubs just under the surface of the burnt bark.

It has three forward toes and no back toe. Its stiff black tail acts as a third prop to its two legs and feet as it climbs up a burnt tree trunk.

This bird advances up a vertical burnt tree trunk by pushing up the trunk with short hops up the trunk.

Upon hearing a grub under the bark of a tree, this bird will stop and, with its inch-and-a-quarter long beak, will flake or chisel off the outer burnt bark until it exposes the beetle grubs’ tunnel system which lays between the inner bark and the surface of the wood of the tree.

Once the grub is located, this bird skewers it with its harpoon-like tongue and then pull the grub into its mouth at the back of its beak.

One of the amazing behaviors this woodpecker species has is the ability to locate fresh burns. They can come from many miles away from a burn and locate it with pinpoint accuracy.

Even small burns are located with ease.

The largest number of this typically solitary species I have ever located in a burn that was less than three weeks old was 21 birds all working the burned conifers over-flaking bark off all over this burn.

So, shortly after a summer or fall season forest fire, sometimes within a few days bark beetles arrive.

They can follow a scent trail in the air that moves out of a burn.

These beetles lay their eggs just under the recent fire-killed tree bark.

Newly burnt black bark is moist next to the wood of the tree.

So, the eggs not only are in a moist place, but it is also warm from the summer sun on a black surface, which causes the eggs to hatch into grubs, which start eating on the recently killed tree trunk.

These grubs grow fast, and as they enlarge over time — often within a week to 10 days — they are a half-inch long.

That is when the black-backed woodpeckers arrive to reap the rewards of the fire in the forest.

Burns go through stages over time. And for the first 10 months the bark is still on the dead and dying trees.

Often the black-backed and many other woodpecker species will excavate cavities in the area and that next spring will lay eggs in these cavities.

With an abundance of grubs under the bark of the tree’s woodpeckers will pull off their broods of young birds in and around the burned site.

As time progresses, the bark on fire-killed conifers weathers off due to the trees drying out and windstorms.

At this time, the beetle populations are all but gone and once again the black-backed woodpeckers fade into the unburned forest to forage on sick and dying trees and awaiting the next forest fire in their region.

The next fire obligate species is a tree, a lodgepole pine. This native, very pitchy conifer must have fire for its cones to open and release its seeds.

If no fire comes along, the cones remain closed and the seeds sealed until such time that a fire goes through.

This beautiful evergreen likes stand-replacing fires where all the adult trees go up in smoke and fire.

This conifer species produces copious quantities of pitch to both keep fungus and insects out and to also guarantee that the next fire will really burn hot in order to liberate its seeds from its cones.

There are more fire obligate species, so look them up — you will be amazed.

Remember, life is good!