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Blane Klemek column: Dead, dying trees are homes for black-backed woodpecker

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While I was working as a interpretive naturalist at Itasca State Park during the summer of 1995, Ben Thoma, a since-retired naturalist who worked at the park every summer for more than 40 years, announced one afternoon to me in his gruff and commanding voice, "Go see the black-backed three-toed woodpecker right now!"

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I had learned fairly quickly during my employment at Itasca that one should never say no to Ben, so I immediately asked him where the bird was.

"Off the east entrance, right after you turn, right side, big dead jack pine with a hole halfway up!"

As I hurried out of the Forest Inn, he added, "The bark's all gone 'round the hole; you can't miss it!"

So off I went. And he was right, too. Halfway up a jack pine snag along the east entrance roadway was a conspicuous-looking cavity. All of the tree's bark surrounding the hole was missing, revealing the whitish wood underneath. A few minutes later as I stood examining the woodpecker hole, I saw, for the first time in my life, Ben's black-backed three-toed woodpecker (now referred to as simply black-backed woodpecker).

While it is true that black-backed woodpeckers possess only three toes on each foot (most woodpeckers have four toes), "three-toed" was probably dropped from the bird's name in order to avoid name confusion with another of the bird's close relatives--the aptly named three-toed woodpecker.

Both species have three toes and have yellow on their crowns, in addition to sharing similar habitats and feeding behaviors. Each bird favors forests with high numbers of dead trees, as well as employing foraging strategies that involve flaking bark from trees instead of excavating the wood when the bird hunts for food.

Only one other woodpecker in Minnesota has an all-black back. The other is the unmistakable and twice-as-large pileated woodpecker. However, both species of birds occur in similar habitats, though the black-backed woodpecker's preference includes ample amounts of coniferous trees, especially those conifer forests with plenty of standing-dead and dying pine trees; also know as "snags."

This oddly-toed bird showcases two front toes and one back toe on each foot. The reason for such an adaptation or divergence from the usual four toes that other species have is anyone's guess. Yet whatever the reason, three toes evidently do just fine.

As already mentioned, a tip-off to the presence of black-backed woodpeckers within their favored habitat is dead conifer trees with missing bark. As the woodpecker hunts for wood-boring insects that make their homes in dead and diseased trees, black-backed woodpeckers flake away patches of bark from these trees in order to better locate and capture their food.

Of course, no tree lives forever. But what many people may not be aware of is that the sign of a healthy forest is not so much the number of living trees growing within, but also the amount of dead trees. The specialized black-backed woodpecker plays an important ecological role within the forest.

There are instances, however, when too many trees die all at once. In recent years, jack pine trees in parts of northern Minnesota, including the Bemidji area, have suffered high mortality.

A native forest pest that occurs in great numbers from time to time, the jack pine budworm, has devastated thousands of acres of jack pines in the region. The resultant defoliation by feeding budworms will often kill or severely stress living, otherwise healthy jack pines.

Thus, the affected jack pine trees, no longer alive, became an enormous fire hazard. So, in order to capture some value of an important timber product, much of these forestlands were logged and subsequently cleared. Even so, such activities do not necessarily benefit species of wildlife like black-backed woodpeckers.

This rarely observed bird is dependent on dying and dead coniferous trees for feeding and nesting. Whether their residences come from fires, floods, and insects and disease, black-backed woodpeckers are just one of many creatures that rely on snags in the forest for their survival.

Black-backed woodpeckers can also benefit enormously from wise and thoughtful forest and wildlife management activities, like carefully planned timber harvests that allow for optimum numbers of snags and logs to remain on-site, as well as conducting prescribed burns that are designed to facilitate forest regeneration.

As the new forest regenerates and grows, critical habitat continues to exist for such species as the black-backed woodpecker.

If you're a forest landowner, you can try to emulate the temporary characteristics of this uncommon woodpecker's ideal habitat by not removing dead-falls and snag trees following management activities. After all, Mother Nature has been managing quite well through the ages and continues to do so, thus guaranteeing that black-backed woodpeckers persist for us to watch and appreciate as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. He can be reached at bklemek@yahoo.com.

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