Klemek Column - The Black-backed Woodpecker

Blane Klemek

There are only two species of woodpeckers in Minnesota that have all black backs—the appropriately called black-backed woodpecker and the pileated woodpecker. Both species of birds occur in similar habitats, though the black-backed woodpecker’s preferred habitat includes ample amounts of coniferous trees, especially those conifer forests with plenty of standing-dead and dying, pine or “snag” trees as they are also called.

Black-backed woodpeckers are oddly toed birds that showcases two front toes and one back toe on each foot (most other woodpecker species possess four toes per foot). Why such an adaptation or divergence from the usual four toes of other species of wild birds is anyone’s guess. Yet for whatever the reason, three toes do just fine.

A tip-off to the presence of black-backs 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 peel away patches of bark from these trees in order to better locate and capture their food.

This special woodpecker exemplifies a very important ecological association within the forest. As anyone knows, 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 within, but the amount of dead trees too.

Obviously, though, there are instances for which the latter isn’t necessarily the case. In the past 20 years, jack pine forests surrounding the Bemidji area have suffered a great deal. A cyclic phenomenon that occurs naturally by a native forest insect pest—the jack pine budworm—has devastated thousands of acres of jack pines throughout the region. The resultant defoliation by feeding budworms killed or severely stressed living, otherwise healthy, jack pines.

Hence, the affected jack pine trees, no longer living, became an enormous fire hazard and so, in order to capture some value of an important timber product, much of these forestlands were logged and subsequently cleared. And, accordingly, here is—or was—an opportunity for wildlife habitat enhancement.

Also affecting coniferous forests as well as deciduous forests are the numerous wind events that occur from time to time, and arguably occurring more often than in the past. Over the past ten to fifteen years alone several serious wind storms have toppled thousands of acres of trees from the Boundary Water Canoe Area Wilderness to places throughout all of northern Minnesota. These areas, especially former pine forests where plenty of dead trees remain, attract black-backed woodpeckers.

Indeed, the rarely observed black-backed woodpecker, so dependent on dying and dead coniferous trees for feeding and nesting, is just one of many species of creature whose survival hinges on snags in the woodland: be that through natural occurrences such as from forest fires, windstorms, floods (rain or beaver-caused), disease, and insect outbreaks.

On a recent outing to La Salle Lake State Recreation Area where a jack pine woodland was leveled by the powerful windstorm of 2012, I observed a black-backed woodpecker feeding from a dead jack pine tree. The bird, in typical woodpecker fashion, pecked the bark and pried beneath it while it busily fed on various insects that it found. The diet of these attractive birds is mostly beetles and beetle larvae.

Black-backed woodpeckers can benefit enormously from wise and thoughtful forest and wildlife management activities, such as carefully planned timber harvests that allow for optimum numbers of snag-trees and down logs to remain on site, as well as conducting prescribed burns that are ultimately designed to facilitate forest regeneration while, as the new forest grows, simultaneously providing critical habitat. Other species are attracted to these habitats, too, including other woodpeckers, nuthatches, brown creepers, and scores of woodland warblers, black-capped chickadees and many more cavity nesting birds.

The beautiful black-backed woodpecker—the males with their yellow crown patches, white eye stripes, and barred sides—are unmistakable though uncommon forest birds. A highly interesting species (both males and females share in incubation duties and feeding their young), black-backed woodpeckers are sure to please whenever encountered as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

Outdoors Columnist Blane Klemek