BY C. L. BOTHWELL III
I don't want to be alarmist, but there is a monumental mob of Pileated woodpeckers in the woods near here. I thought you might want to know, though I don't suppose there's much you can do about it.
The Pileated woodpecker is a great big handsome black and white bird with a brilliant red crest and a wild laughing cackle like some jungle creature. It has a distinctive swooping flight and makes an astounding racket when it drums "lunch-time" on a dead limb. Since the demise of the Ivory Billed in the past few decades, the Pileated is the largest woodpecker in North America.
The field guides tell you that the Pileated is rare but locally common which may seem like a contradiction but isn't. These gorgeous birds are sort of shy around humans. (That's a good plan for any brightly feathered creature; animals with attractive feathers or skins tend to become fashion statements when humans get hold of them.)
On top of their skittishness, they demand extensive territory. A bird one and a half feet long eats a heap of ants and grubs every day. That means woodpeckers need a lot of dead wood particularly when three to five hunky youngsters hatch with their hunky youngster appetites. So Pileated's do real well in mixed-age forests full of snags and devoid of people.
That description pretty near fits my neck of the woods. Although it has been logged a couple of times since the white people chased the red people out, a few decades have expired since the woods were last scalped. Even then, the loggers were high-grading. Some gnarly, forked and twisted old oaks here are easily 100 years old and others twice that.
City folks look around this mountain and think I live in a primeval forest. I like to take them to see the old chestnut stumps up in the hollow. Standing beside a stump four or five feet across makes the modern woods seem remarkably puny.
But, as available habitat goes, this is a bearably decent place to raise a woodpecker family. We've always had a few Pileateds that cackle and hammer and swoop about when we hike in the area.
What bothers me is that now there are more than a few. We have a crowd. When I first noticed the increase in their numbers I was pleased. It seemed like a good thing to have more big, beautiful birds on this mountain. But then my partner pointed out that woodpeckers, like any other animal population, react to their food supply. We talked it over and took a good long look at the trees. I'm afraid she's right.
There are too many dead and dying trees in this forest. All the old dogwoods are dead experts say it is a blight. An insect that kills hemlocks is moving into our region too. The sourwoods all appear weak, most of the locusts have shelf fungus growing on them and the oaks carry more than their share of dead limbs.
The trees seem to be succumbing to one natural enemy or another, but I suspect the cause isn't "natural" in the sense that we usually use that word.
I have lived in and visited a similarly sick woods in New Hampshire over the past 20 years. In New England, scientists have squarely pinned the blame on acid rain, although some suggest that global warming and the thinning ozone layer are beginning to affect the trees as well.
I carry a gut-level certainty that we are killing the forest in these Southern Appalachians in the same fashion. Our culture is addicted to some very poisonous habits that we don't have the will power to quit.
The Pileated woodpeckers, at least, will do well in the interim and don't they have good reason to laugh? We two-legged flightless idiots have provided them with one heck of a send-off buffet.
I suppose after the forests are gone we can let them eat cake.
C.L. Bothwell III hails from the other Carolina. Duck Soup is also served up twice every Tuesday on WNCW-88.7FM.
The Pileated woodpeckers have good reason to laugh. We two-legged flightless idiots have provided them with one heck of a send-off buffet.