A couple of weeks ago I described the devastation being caused by the Mountain Pine Beetle. Happily, there is one bright spot in the middle of the dead trees. Stands of beetle-killed pines create an ideal habitat for the American Three-toed Woodpecker.
This species isn’t rare, but it lives in the boreal forest, out of reach of most birders. This far south it is only found at higher altitudes, and prefers to nest in areas of old-growth spruce, larch, fir and pine.
When it comes to finding a meal, these woodpeckers are dead tree specialists. I was lucky enough to stumble across one of these hard-to-find birds as it was drilling holes in a beetle-killed pine looking for borers. Wood boring insects are the favorite food, but they also eat other insects, berries and sugar-rich sap. Burned tracts are particularly favored, where the dark bird is well camouflaged against charred black bark. In fact, the easiest way to tell that Three-toed Woodpeckers are in the area is to look for pale patches of recently-peeled bark on the blackened tree trunks.
After years of fire suppression, these burn area specialists could have been faced with a challenge. I was relieved to learn that they don’t rely completely on fire to kill trees, and that beetles can create the desired habitat as well. Our forests are overgrown, full of fuel, and now full of beetles as well. While this mess is largely due to misguided policies, nature is resourceful. These beetle-eating birds are an example.
The question now is how do we fix things? Sometimes, it takes a conscious effort to rectify our past mistakes. Other times, the best course is to stand back and do nothing, while our environment regains its equilibrium. Remembering the law of unintended consequences, maybe some humility is in order. Either way, I’m pretty sure we don’t know as much as we think we do.