Wednesday, February 10, 2010

A Remarkable Peckerwood

February 10, 2010

As I walked in the woods yesterday, I saw a large bird wing silently away from me through the trees. I thought it was a crow; certainly it had mostly black coloration. But, on the way back past that spot, I suddenly heard a loud “….kak, kak, kak, kak” call that told me the bird I had seen was a Pileated Woodpecker. BTW: it’s prounounced ‘pie-le-ated’, not ‘pill-e-ated’. I don’t know where this biggest of woodpeckers lives in these woods, but I do know where his job-site—or at least one of them—is. Last summer I marveled at a pile of wood-chips over a foot deep and about three feet wide at the base of a dead spruce tree.
One morning we were even scolded for interrupting the work in progress. The tree is pictured above and is about a foot in diameter. The chiseled cavities are at least 8 inches deep and run up the trunk for about 15 feet or so. Think about it: this crow-sized bird did all of that, in search of grubs. And, he/she did it with a chisel-tipped beak with a cutting edge not much wider than ¼ inch. It gives me a headache just to imagine that much hammering with a tool that also has the bird’s brain contained within it. Of course, evolution—that creator of slow-moving miracles—has provided woodpeckers with a special cushioning around the brain, to help it withstand that kind of punishment.
Where I lived in Center County Pennsylvania, during my college years, Pileateds were plentiful. Locals called them “Indian Hens”, and it was a common occurrence to hear their distinctive call. One old boy told me that I could call them within eyesight by rapping on a tree with a stick. I tried it, using the familiar rapidly increasing tempo, and, sure enough, I soon had a Pileated scolding me from about 30 yards away. I would guess he was annoyed by my trickery because he could certainly see that I was not another rival woodpecker.
A close cousin of the Pileated, the Ivory-billed woodpecker is now thought to be extinct,. In 2004, someone claimed that they had captured images of a fleeing Ivory-billed on video, in a swamp in Arkansas. It triggered a vibrant local industry in all manner of catering to visitors who came in search of the next glimpse of the ‘holy grail’ of birding. In 2006 there was another claimed sighting in Florida, along the Choctawhatchee River. But Cornell University offered a $50,000 reward to anybody that could lead one of their ornithology field teams to a living bird…and there were no takers.
And, there you have it. One more beautiful and amazing denizen of the forest. This morning I saw Fisher tracks. I will tell you about this critter Mainers call the ‘Fisher-cat’ next time. The name is spoken with a mixture of hate and admiration….you will find out why.

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