BLACK-BACKED WOODPECKER
 

by Mary Merriman


For the last two years Tulare and Fresno counties have seen unprecedented fires
consuming almost half of Sierra and Sequoia National Forests. Much of the western
slopes of Sequoia and Kings Canyons burned at high intensity in the lower elevations.
Historically, after the Big Burn in 1916 which burned more than a million acres in 4
states, fire prevention became the top concern of the newly formed Forest Service
under Gifford Pinchot. A century of successful fire suppression followed. This allowed
the accumulation of massive amounts of fuel on the forest floor. The drought years
weakened many trees and the lack of winter cold allowed bark beetles to proliferate,
then attack these trees. More than 100 million trees died in the Sierras, but remained
standing like matches. We humans are devastated by the multiple fires, the smoke filled
air lasting for weeks, the incineration of millions of acres of forest and the scorched
scenes along the mountain highways.
In contrast, many creatures and plants of the forest need fire to survive. The Black-
backed Woodpecker is an example of a fire dependent species. Some wood- boring
beetles have infrared sensors on the bodies. They detect the intense heat of a forest
fire and come flying in before the smoke clears. Eggs are deposited under the burned
bark which develop into nutritious grubs. Black-backed Woodpeckers are also attracted
to the heat and smoke and are especially adapted to hammering into the fire hardened
wood to reach the grubs. Characteristically they often peel off the top layer of bark and
send it flying, then extract the grub. Their solid black back makes them difficult for
predators (and birders) to see against the burned trees. Because their heads are even
harder than most woodpeckers, they can build nest cavities in these same fire-hardened
trees. When the nests are abandoned they become homes to many other cavity-
nesters, including Mountain Chickadee, Mountain Bluebird, House Wren, Pygmy Owl,
Nuthatches and Tree Swallow. Black-backed Woodpeckers depend on standing dead
burned snags to feed their young.
Black-backed Woodpeckers are difficult to find in the Sierra Nevada but this summer
would be one of the best times to find one in the Tulare and Fresno mountains in the
post burn areas. As you are driving or walking through the armies of burned conifers, be
on the lookout for these uncommon woodpeckers. Cornell University has a website
called allaboutbirds.org where you can listen to the calls, the drumming and see the
differences from male Williamson’s Sapsucker. The yellow head patch is often difficult to
see. It has no white on the back and no white wing patches. There is only one white face stripe.