Blue River

Oh the Things You Can See in a Very Dead Tree

Southern Indiana Program Director Allen Pursell struck gold on a recent forest outing.

I could hardly believe our luck. I was standing in my yard relating to a co-worker that I had seen a pileated woodpecker sitting in a tree near the front porch. I went on to tell her that throughout the past week I had seen pileated woodpeckers sweeping across my yard, giving me reason to believe that perhaps a nest was nearby. At that very moment we heard the call of a pileated and just as before, here it came whooshing across the yard and into the forest.

Immediately we heard unfamiliar animal cries that compelled us to investigate. In less than a minute we found two baby pileated woodpeckers with their heads sticking out of a cavity about 20 feet up a very dead tuliptree squawking loudly to be fed. In 25 years of being a forester I had never seen a pileated woodpecker nest with young in it. I could hardly believe our luck.

To capture this fortunate event, I invited a photographer friend to try his hand at getting close up photos of the parents feeding the young, or at least of the little ones with their red and black Mohawk heads sticking out of the holes. To increase our chances I set up a blind the evening before. Sure enough, twice in the space of 45 minutes he captured one of the parents coming to feed its babies.

Now the sound of the pileated woodpecker is unmistakable. Once I was with my youngest daughter when we heard a pileated make its loud laughing call. I asked her, “What animal makes that sound?” She paused a moment, then with knowing eyes she looked at me and said confidently, “Monkeys!” Of course this was quite funny, but I had to admit the sound was somewhat like the call monkeys would make.

So why was it that these woodpeckers had chosen to make a home so close to mine? Dead trees are there. I have made it a practice to always leave a dead or dying tree in the forest near my house, but at a safe distance. If there is not a tree dying naturally, I choose a tree 12” in diameter or bigger whose removal would improve the woods and I kill it where it stands. In the 20 years I’ve lived there red-bellied woodpeckers have nested almost every year in one of these dead trees, and they are nesting there again this year. But this was the first time for a pair of pileated woodpeckers.

Some people believe if a tree dies in the forest it’s a waste, but in the eyes of a woodpecker a forest without dead trees is like a human neighborhood without grocery stores or houses. It’s not a place anyone would want to live.


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