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Wildfire, fire management and air quality news for western Montana and the Northern Rockies.

How Black-Backed Woodpeckers Thrive After Wildfires

Female black-backed woodpecker.
Mike Laycock, USFWS (PD)
Female black-backed woodpecker.

Most of you have probably seen or heard woodpeckers. Whether attracting them to your backyard with suet feeders, or hearing them drill on the side of your house, you have probably noticed their large pointed beak and ability to climb tree trunks.

But besides downy and hairy woodpeckers, which are seen often in Montana, we also have some types of woodpeckers that live in some of the most unique habitats and do some of the most peculiar things of any animal in the Rocky Mountains.

There are species such as the yellow-bellied sapsucker, that drill holes in trees, let the sap collect in the holes, and then return to drink the sap just like humans have been harvesting sap for maple syrup in Vermont for hundreds of years. There is the pileated woodpecker, which eats ants almost exclusively and lives in large dead Ponderosa Pines. Also there is one of the most unique species of woodpecker in all of Montana, the black-backed woodpecker.

The black-backed woodpecker is one of the most rarely seen birds in the northern Rocky Mountains. It is a burn specialist, meaning that it occurs almost exclusively in severely burned forests. Burned forests are one of the least understood and most dynamically changing forest types we have, and these special birds have evolved to exploit them.

Almost immediately after a high-severity fire goes through a forest, wood-boring beetles fly in from far away to lay their eggs. Ask any forest fire fighter and she can tell you about the swarms of beetles flying among the still smoldering trunks. These amazing little beetles have heat receptors which can detect the intense heat of a fire from many miles away. These beetles come in to lay thousands of their eggs in the freshly killed trees. From all these eggs, thousands of larvae hatch and chew away at the nutritious cambium layers of the tree, eating continuously so they can eventually mature into adult beetles. These beetles then continue the cycle of reproducing and laying more eggs to provide more larvae, which again eat and mature. This cycle continues for about 3-5 years in the same area, and then the food is used up, and the beetles move on.

This 5-year explosion of insect activity after a forest fire creates a true “garden of Eden” for the black-backed woodpecker. There is food literally “growing in the trees” and it has a place to find a mate and start a family anew. But how do the woodpeckers find these patchy burned areas? Burns occur sporadically and are rarely close together. Can they smell smoke? Do they follow beetles? These questions are still a mystery, but recent research on banded birds in California reveals that it is mostly the youngsters who disperse from one burned area to establish their own territory in a newly burned forest.

What is not a mystery however, is that if you want to see black-backed woodpeckers, your best bet is to venture into a recently burned forest. You must look closely, since they have black backs and are nearly invisible on the burned trunks. But, if you are lucky enough to see one, you know you have seen one of the most unique and secretive birds in all of Montana.

Beyond the thrill of finding and appreciating the black-backed woodpecker itself, we can discover a deeper message. Fire is known to help wildlife through opening up forests and increasing the amount of grasses for elk and deer, but this little woodpecker also shows us how burned forests are ecologically unique and necessary. The black-backed woodpecker is a species that is so specialized, it rivals the parrots of the Amazon or the penguins of the Galapagos. Montana has traditionally been known as a wild place, both in its mystery and undeveloped places.

So as smoke rises this summer from your local forest, recognize that a new and wild habitat is being created. A habitat that will provide a home for one of Montana’s most unique and poorly-understood species -- the black-backed woodpecker.

"Field Notes" is produced by the Montana Natural History Center(Broadcast: "Field Notes," 6/17/18 and 6/22/18. Listen weekly on the radio, Sundays at 12:55 p.m., Tuesdays at 4:54 p.m., or Fridays at 4:54 p.m.,  or via podcast.)

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