pileated woodpecker

Pileated Woodpecker

Mama pileated is bringing home the bacon... errrr, bugs for her young nesting in a tree at Madison Audubon's Otsego Marsh. Photo by Mark Martin

Mama pileated is bringing home the bacon... errrr, bugs for her young nesting in a tree at Madison Audubon's Otsego Marsh. Photo by Mark Martin

Mark Martin and Madison Audubon board member John Shillinglaw were touring the prairies at Goose Pond Sanctuary on August 25th. They had just left Sue Ames Prairie and were going past the Hopkins Road Prairie when Mark spotted a large crow-sized bird flying over Hopkins Road Prairie. He excitedly said to John what is that bird? John must have been a Boy Scout because he was ready with his field glasses around his neck and cried “pileated woodpecker”!  It is nice when two people confirm the same species with confidence.

This is a new bird for the Goose Pond Bird List.  It is not often we can add a bird to the 250-plus bird checklist, and this brings the tally of woodpecker species up to seven. We learned that these large woodpeckers have a home range of around 300 acres that must include a lot of wooded land.

With our lack of trees, woodpeckers are uncommon at Goose Pond. The last yellow-bellied sapsucker was recorded in 1991. Last year we saw a red-headed woodpecker fly past the back yard, our first sighting in 38 years! In the past two years, birders have observed northern flickers, downy, hairy, and red-bellied woodpeckers.  The downy woodpeckers are sometimes seen in winter in our food plots looking for insects in the stems of corn, sunflowers, and sorghum.

A pair of pileated woodpeckers navigate the entryway of a nest at Otsego Marsh in Columbia County. Photo by Richard Armstrong

A pair of pileated woodpeckers navigate the entryway of a nest at Otsego Marsh in Columbia County. Photo by Richard Armstrong

In 1991, Sam Robbins wrote in Wisconsin Birdlife that the pileated woodpecker “is a rare resident in southeast Wisconsin” and “is uncommon in the western edge of Columbia County.” Goose Pond Sanctuary is located in both.

The current breeding bird atlas shows eight atlas blocks in Columbia County with nesting confirmations of pileated woodpeckers compared to two blocks in the first atlas conducted 1995 to 2000.  

Pileateds are increasing in southeast Wisconsin as forested cover increases.  Atlasers in Dane County have found pileateds in Madison at the UW Arboretum, Owen Park, and at the Madison School Forest just southwest of Madison.

 We wonder if someone will see this bird again in our area. It pays to always be observant and ready with your field glasses when out birding, especially at Goose Pond Sanctuary.

Written by Mark Martin and Susan Foote-Martin, Goose Pond Sanctuary Resident Managers

Breeding Bird Atlas II – Year 3

Pileated woodpeckers   at Otsego Marsh  , photo by Mark Martin

Pileated woodpeckers at Otsego Marsh, photo by Mark Martin

Midway through the five-year Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas II, we have had many memorable sightings including:

  • frequent observations of a raven and later locating a nest,
  • three active ospreys nests at Baraboo River Waterfowl Production Area and an osprey nest on the lights at the Pardeeville High School football field,
  • a landowner with 160 nesting pairs of purple martins,
  • 30 Amish families with purple martins,
  • three families of red-headed woodpeckers and observing the parents catching flies,  
  • a calling northern saw-whet owl,
  • nesting chimney swifts, and
  • frequent observations of a pair of trumpeter swans. 

Observations this week included seeing a belted kingfisher carrying a fish to a nesting hole, hearing a food begging great horned owl, hearing a Virginia rail, and seeing and hearing a black-crowned night heron at Goose Pond Sanctuary.

Brood of Ruddy ducks, photo by Mark Martin

Brood of Ruddy ducks, photo by Mark Martin

The first atlas was conducted from 1995–2000 by over 1,600 (mostly) volunteer observers, and the information they collected proved to be a landmark tool guiding species management and conservation activities by federal, state, and private natural resource groups. The second, five-year atlas will document changes the last two decades.  Major partners leading the atlas project are the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology (WSO), the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, the Western Great Lakes Bird and Bat Observatory.

Kim Kreitinger, WSO President, said, “The second Atlas project will provide a new snapshot of Wisconsin’s bird community, which will help us address important bird conservation issues in the state. Because the Atlas requires such a massive volunteer effort, it will also help us to elevate public awareness of nature and directly connect Wisconsin’s citizens to conservation.”

Over 1,300 volunteers in Wisconsin have submitted almost 72,000 checklists and confirmed 219 species.  In Columbia County 101 volunteers have submitted almost 1,500 checklists and confirmed 117 species. 

In Columbia County, we are finding increases and decreases in some bird populations. Bald eagle and ospreys are increasing while other birds like the ruffed grouse and ring-necked pheasant are decreasing.  We added common ravens to the list of nesting birds in Columbia County while finding that gray partridge no longer live in Columbia County.

Osprey nest at Pardeeville High School, photo by Mark Martin

Osprey nest at Pardeeville High School, photo by Mark Martin

The atlas work is done by birders that adopt a block and others that submit random observations. There are 18 priority blocks in Columbia County and an additional 67 blocks.  Each block is 3 by 3 square miles.

We are looking for the common birds as well as uncommon birds to atlas.  In Columbia County some birds of interest include: northern bobwhite quail; great blue heron rookeries; green herons; turkey vultures; ospreys; Cooper’s hawks; bald eagles; red-tailed hawks; American woodcock; eastern screech-owls, great horned , barred and northern saw-whet  owls; eastern whip-poor-wills; chimney swifts; belted kingfishers (nesting cavities); red-headed woodpeckers; purple martins; brown thrashers; scarlet tanagers; dickcissels; bobolinks; eastern meadowlarks; and orchard orioles.

Mourning dove nest on a purple martin box  , photo by Mark Martin

Mourning dove nest on a purple martin box, photo by Mark Martin

Overall we are doing very well, however we need more volunteers to cover priority blocks and report incidental observations.  All the county coordinators can use additional help.  The more eyes and ears we can get out there, the better our Atlas results are going to be.

You don’t have to be an expert birder to be part of the atlas! All you need is to be a careful observer, learn the data collection and reporting procedures, and then go out and watch birds.  Those wanting to learn more or want to sign up to help should visit the project’s website, www.wsobirds.org/atlas and http://ebird.org/content/atlaswi/

In Columbia County you can contact us at 608-333-9645 or goosep@madisonaudubon.org.  We are having people meet at Goose Pond for “atlas searches”, divide up into teams, and atlas priority blocks.  We also welcome incidental sighting and can report incidental sightings for you.  Hopefully you will have many memorable atlas sightings and contribute to the largest citizen science project in Wisconsin.

By Mark and Sue Foote-Martin, Resident Managers, Goose Pond Sanctuary and Atlas Coordinators for Columbia County

Pileated Woodpecker

The “Reckless Wrens” Great Wisconsin Birdathon team included Jim and Kathy Shurts, Heather Inzalaco, and Mark & Sue Martin. The big day count was held on May 12th. We visited Madison Audubon’s Otsego Marsh where we found a good variety of warblers and saw a couple scarlet tanagers. However, we missed a family of barred owls that was found on May 13th.

Pileated Woodpecker

If you've seen a Pileated Woodpecker, you remember. I first saw North America's largest woodpecker about a year ago, deep in the woods.

The big bird left me breathless as it swung away from a towering maple into the mist of a mid-march drizzle. The size of a crow with a two to three foot wingspan, this remarkable bird likely shredded a nearby tree for carpenter ants. If you live in a house with cedar siding, you might believe the Pileated to be a carpenter—a bad but persistent one at that.

How does this bird survive the repeated impacts to the head? With head trauma in football at the forefront of a national discussion, I've pondered how woodpeckers survive impacts to the brain, how bighorn sheep withstand violent collisions. After all, the force of each woodpecker strike is equal to a human sprinting headfirst into a wall at 16mph, probably top speed for most people. That passive curiosity went unfulfilled until I started researching the numerous physiological quirks of woodpeckers. Here are five key adaptations of the Pileated Woodpecker.

  1. Elongated tongue—the bird's tongue wraps around the back of its head and fuses to its nasal passage. Tongue is really a misnomer, as its actually called the hyoid bone. Wrapping around the brain, this tongue diffuses energy around the skull. You can see the shock absorption of the hyoid bone here.
  2. Makeup of lower beak—the upper beak overlaps the lower beak which is an advantage during foraging. The beak has a strong and dense layer of bone within the flexible outer layer. The flexible outer layer handles the initial shock and vibration. The strong and dense bone in the lower beak occurs a few millimeters in front of where it occurs in the upper beak. This positioning of strong bone in the beak allows the shock to be absorbed along the neck and throughout the body.
  3. Tightly packed cranium—the Pileated Woodpecker has reduced space between brain and skull. Upon impact, the bird's brain and skull decelerate at the same rate, rather than the brain crashing into the skull like a human brain would. The tight arrangement allows for the forces to be more efficiently diffused throughout the body.
  4. Spongy skull—the skull at the front of the head is spongy and absorbs forces well. Its flexibility acts like the crumple zone in a car where the front of the car crumples and absorbs energy while the car decelerates.
  5. Perfect Form—woodpeckers strike with perfect form. This limits the rotational forces acting upon the bird. A UCLA study found that when primates were struck with a linear force, they did not suffer concussions. Conversely, adding rotational forces will greatly increase the risk of concussions in primates. An example of a rotational force is whiplash in a car crash. Here is a great article talking about rotational forces and concussions and how bicycle helmets are (not) being developed to prevent concussions. Much of the information gleaned from rotational vs. linear forces was obtained from woodpecker research.

The Pileated Woodpecker has other adaptations as well, such as eyes with limited movement. If the woodpecker opened its eyes completely while striking 15-20 times per second, its eyeballs might pop out of its head! With these precise and efficient tools, the large bird can make quite the mess. Therefore, it has developed fine feathers within the nostril that prevent dust and wood chips from entering the nasal cavity.

We know a little bit about the Pileated Woodpecker. It's a big bird that's not difficult to study. Its habit of hammering its head against old and decaying trees makes one wonder how the bird withstands such a lifestyle. That's an easy question with some difficult answers. The harder questions might be more like, “How does a woodpecker locate its food?” “How did evolution balance the development of these features and brain trauma?” “Do the birds innately have perfect form, if so, how?” There are more questions that haven't been asked than answers.

Within the adaptations of this bird lie bigger questions about nature. One might ask, what good is the bird anyway?

The pileated woodpecker has informed research about concussions and the forces that cause concussions. The pileated woodpecker was a natural model for looking at eye movement in shaken baby syndrome and pinpointing how infant's eyes were being damaged. Today, there are thousands of people marveling at the big and curious bird as it drills through a decaying beech tree in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, an ancient cypress in Florida, or a western hemlock in Washington state's Puget trough. Near that region of hemlock, researchers concluded that the Pileated Woodpecker is a keystone species, meaning it is an uncommon species functionally linked to the survival of a suite of other species. Pileated Woodpeckers play a keystone role in organizing the old to mid-successional forests where they inhabit. At least twenty species can occupy a Pileated Woodpecker's cavity, including: wood duck, kestrel, saw-whet owl, big brown bat, fisher, and marten. The birds accelerate woody decomposition and nutrient cycling; they control insect outbreaks and modify the behavior of insects; they change the thermal properties of wood and open up overwintering insects to desiccation.

These are remarkable animals. Remarkable in their own right, but also remarkable for what humans can learn from them. Biomimicry—the imitation of models, systems, or elements of nature to solve complex human problems—is a fascinating field and provides a strong argument for the conservation of the world's biodiversity. A cure for cancer in the tropics is often tossed around, but there are animals, plants, and ecosystems here on the southeast glacial plains, organisms of which we know very little and of which we could learn very much. Aldo Leopold said “who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”

Who but a fool could look at the earth and perpetuate only what is useful to him or her. Our entire world comes from the earth, that raw material of civilization. The earth, provider of things. But is that all? Look at the pileated woodpecker, look at anything in nature, really, and you'll also see ideas, the fabric of humanity. Recognize nature as an idea and you might reap its ideas—a sustainable vessel of creativity.

You might be able to find a pileated woodpecker in Faville Woods this winter. If not the bird, then certainly its large excavations on dying trees.

Written by Drew Harry, Faville Grove Land Steward

Photo by Photo by Nicole Beaulac, Flickr Creative Commons