woodpecker

A male Pileated woodpecker at Whitman Mission taken last spring.

With August about to vanish into history, I write this column about members of a community that live with hard time constraints. 

Migration for all kinds of wildlife species is underway as you read this. 

Native birds, bugs and mammals all are headed south to escape the approach of shorter, cooler days and longer, colder nights.

The leading edge of migration arrived in Walla Walla County with the shorebirds out of the Arctic back on the 19th of June. 

It is now the passerines (perching songbirds) and raptors that have started their long, slow drift south into Central and South America — that is, if the Amazon Basin is not all burned up by then. 

The American monarch butterfly is also on the move south on their way to Monterey and Pacific Grove, in California, or on into Central Mexico. These big butterflies are struggling due to loss of habitat and unrestricted pesticide use, along with being struck by the ever-increasing numbers of vehicles as they try to cross roads. 

Late August was also the beginning of bat migration from out of the great boreal forests of Canada.

Bats are so important to a balanced ecological system, but due to their low birth/fecundity rates, more may be lost in migration to mortality caused by wind turbines, fungus and disease than are being born in certain populations. 

So, anything you can do to create habitat/cover for wildlife is very important. Plant native forbs, trees and woody scrubs that will provide high diversity of flowering plants, trees for shade and feed, and native grasses for cover. 

Take a walk at Whitman Mission National Historic site for some ideas on what great cover and habitat looks like. The super-nice trails south out of the mission site are great places to walk, listen and relax. 

Walking there is a real stress killer.

These last three weeks, while on our walks on the trails at Whitman Mission National Historic Monument, we have chanced upon a family of four Pileated woodpeckers.

These are the largest woodpecker species in the Pacific Northwest. At 16.5-inches long, they are only an inch shorter than the American crow. 

These big, red crested, yellow-eyed, mostly black-and-white birds have some gender differences in plumage. 

The adult females have a black forehead, bright red crest, a white stripe from the base of the upper mandible across the cheeks, down the sides of the neck and down the flank and under the folded wings. 

The entire rest of the body and tail are coal black, save for the white throat patch. 

The under-wing coverts are all white, with the secondaries being all black, and the primaries half white and the outer third being black. 

Adult males have a scarlet red forehead and crest, a black mask around the golden eye, and a black nape below the red crest.

They have a big, white stripe starting at the base of the upper mandible that runs under the black mask across the cheek and down the side of the neck and under the folded wing. 

It also has a patch under the eye as part of a black line that starts at the corner of the mouth and runs along the lower cheek between the white throat and the white line running down the side neck. 

These big birds are zygodactyl, which means they have two toes forward and two toes to the rear. 

They have a very stiff set of tail feathers, or retraces. These birds use these tail feathers as a prop as they scoot up big snags or living trees. 

Pileated woodpeckers are the primary cavity excavators in big dead and dying trees. They go after big wood bore grubs, some of which are six to eight inches in the trunk. 

This is no issue for these big, chisel bills as they can hear the grub chewing deep in the tree trunk, and by hammering wood chips out of the tree it will reach the grub in a few seconds. They remind me of woodsmen with great Australian competition axes at a log-cutting contest. 

These woodpeckers have a harpoon for a tongue that shoots into its excavation and skewers the big wood bore grub.

Pileated woodpeckers excavate holes in trees that can be four inches across, 12 inches long, and go clear to the core of the tree. Their nest cavities are rectangular holes that go deep into big snags. These entrance holes can be 5.5-inches wide and very large inside to over 18 inches deep in a snag. 

They lay four eggs and frequently raise four young. 

They are a very vocal, loud woodpecker that, once they locate a big dead branch, will use it as a sounding board to hammer on. This sends messages that the territory is occupied and all other pileated should stay out.

Their wood hammering can get so loud it can be heard for up to a mile away.

Many forest species rely on these large cavities for their breeding, denning and hibernating sites. 

Butterflies, beetles and many other insects all hibernate in these cavities, birds like owls, other woodpeckers, swifts and swallows use them.

Bats, bears, flying squirrels, chipmunks and pine martins all use these big cavities, as well.

Many amphibians like tree frogs, and reptiles like snakes and lizards, search for these big cavities to get out of all kinds of weather.

The multi-unit cavities that these big woodpeckers create are the condominiums of the forest/riparian buffers throughout the forested lands in southeast Washington.

Dead snags are so very important to all kinds of wildlife — please do not cut these valuable dead trees down. 

Several times I have found big dead conifers felled by Pileated woodpeckers that drill so many excavated holes in a tree trunk that they cut it down. Often there will be a pile of wood chips three or four feet deep below one of these snags.

So, this next month, remember to get outside and walk, listen and relax. 

Leave the screen at home.

Remember, life is good!

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