For the past week, each time I’ve entered my driveway, I’ve startled a male pileated woodpecker who has suddenly decided the old stump of a long-dead tulip poplar is his new favorite restaurant. Pileated woodpeckers are the smaller cousin of the birding world’s latest star—the ivory-billed woodpecker.
In some ways, the birds are similar. Their body shapes are virtually identical, with the only obvious differences being that the ivory-billed is larger, has more white on its wings and possesses its namesake ivory-colored bill. Both look like Woody Woodpecker. Both have raucous calls, and even the smaller pileated woodpecker is a large crow-sized bird that rockets through the eastern forests with amazing speed. The pileated is also a shy bird but obviously not as reclusive at its larger cousin.
Unlike smaller woodpeckers, such as the downy or hairy woodpeckers who are often seen on small dead tree branches, pileateds work the bottom of a tree. If you see bored woodpecker holes near the base of a dead tree in a southern or mid-Atlantic state eastern forest, you’ve found a pileated’s work.
So typically, pileateds are found in unmanaged forests away from houses. A dead tree, rotted at the base, makes homeowners nervous when that tree is near their house. And in forests that are managed or cleared of larger timber, those kinds of dead trees are among the first to go. So with it goes the pileated woodpecker.
Other birds also prefer dead trees—bluebirds are one. Bluebirds like to nest and roost in the hollows of dead trees. I have bluebirds all around me even though there are no nest boxes, as the birds have so far been able to find natural nesting and roosting areas.
I think it’s strange that people profess love for the very birds they are often so instrumental in destroying. Yet, we don’t seem to make the mental connection that if we didn’t destroy the habitat, including the dead trees, we would still have those animals to watch and enjoy. Far beyond any reasonable potential fire source or danger to a house, we simply consider dead trees to be an eyesore and remove them for that reason alone.
I think we need a redefinition of what is and is not an eyesore. A forest without pileated woodpeckers would be an eyesore. A meadow without bluebirds would be an eyesore. That dead tree, on the other hand, is suddenly starting to look pretty good to me.