By Naturalist Eric D'Aleo
It’s early spring, the snow has disappeared, the pussy willows are out, flowers are beginning to emerge from the soil, and yet, the trees are still bare. At this time, even with warm temperatures and longer days, it’s still possible for a late winter storm to dampen your spirits. However, regardless of the weather I like to search in the woods near my home for what I call “woodpecker sculpture”.
“Woodpecker sculpture” are the dead and dying trees that have seen a lot of recent woodpecker activity, usually fresh holes drilled into the wood or scattered wood chips on the ground near a tree that has been excavated. The holes created by Pileated woodpeckers are the easiest to spot since these crow sized birds create the largest holes in dead trees and can send large chips of wood flying with a single blow. Although woodpeckers search for insects under bark and in the wood of dead and dying trees year round they appear to be more active during the early spring. It seems that the birds know that milder weather is on its way, even when winter still has a strong grip on the land, and they exuberantly peck away at the wood, announcing spring’s imminent arrival. I have watched several woodpecker species pound away on a dead tree in what seems like reckless abandon, from the Pileated woodpecker to the small Downy woodpecker.
Woodpeckers excavate holes into tree bark and wood for various reasons including to feed on insects, but during the spring it may take on the added importance of defining a territory and finding a mate. As the spring progresses, male woodpeckers will drum on anything they can find that makes a good sounding board. In the wild this may include trees, logs, and stumps. But woodpeckers such as the Downy woodpecker, which live close to humans, may also use the wood siding of buildings, rain gutters, utility poles, chimneys and trash cans. The drumming sound that results from his “sounding board” will warn other males to stay out of the territory while alerting potential females of his presence. Once a male has found a mate he excavates a nest in a dead tree. The height of the hole and type of tree varies among species. The female takes an active role in constructing the nest once it nears completion and then, depending on the species of woodpecker, lays between three to eight eggs, which are incubated for twelve to eighteen days.
Several years ago I left several topped pine tree trunks standing on my property and an aspen tree that had broken off during a thunderstorm in the hopes of attracting woodpeckers to nest and feed. This spring I’ve spotted three different woodpecker species perching and searching for food on these snags: the Downy woodpecker, Hairy woodpecker and Pileated woodpecker. Although I haven’t found a definitive woodpecker nest in the trees yet, there are some promising locations. Last year both Downy and Hairy woodpeckers in the area brought their young to the bird feeders by the end of June.
So, keep an eye out for woodpecker handiwork in your yard over the next few months and consider leaving dead trees standing for woodpeckers and other wildlife that are attracted to the snags as long as there is no danger to nearby buildings.