Read the full issue of NEBRASKAland Magazine from the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. See stunning photographs of Nebraska outdoors.
Issue link: http://digital.outdoornebraska.gov/i/298740
36 NEBRASKAland • MAY 2014 MAY 2014 • NEBRASKAland 37 36 36 36 NE NE NEBR BR BR BR B AS AS AS ASKA KAla la l nd nd nd n • MA MA MA M Y Y 20 20 20 2014 14 14 14 MA MA MAY Y 2014 14 • NEB EB E RASK SK SK SK SKAland 37 37 at exploiting "mast years" when big-seeded trees produce acorns, hickory nuts or walnuts in abundance and they hoard and cache this bounty. Since the last Ice Age, oaks, beeches, and American chestnut provided many opportunities in Eastern woodlands for seed-caching species like jays and woodpeckers, just as mature pine forests in the west offered abundant pine nuts. The red-headed woodpecker seems to be an edge-dweller whose native range followed the Prairie Peninsula eastward. But over the last century, disease and harvesting of these hardwoods has shifted the balance toward shade-tolerant softwoods such as maple that do not have hard seeds suitable for caching. Early reports of red-headed woodpeckers in Nebraska were mostly from the southeastern or northwestern counties, but now the bird may be found nesting statewide. This trend no doubt can be attributed to the spread of trees along rivers and in farmyards, coupled with the abatement of prairie fires. However, there is increasing evidence that suppression of the fires that created the oak-savanna ecotone in eastern Nebraska is hurting redheads. All hole-nesting birds depend on a resource of dying mature trees, and the incipient ash disease could result in a temporary opportunity for additional nests, however this would only be one aspect of their overall requirements and wouldn't guarantee a population increase. In fact, many birds that rely on insects during the nesting season, such as redheads, can find that their anticipated resource boom came too early as a result of climate change. This pattern has been documented already in birds of European forests and the Missouri Ozarks. The redhead typically nests in June, later than its relative the red-bellied woodpecker, and could face a scarcity of insects during the critical time it needs to feed its nestlings. Annual bird counts show that red-headed woodpeckers have declined sharply in the Midwest since the 1970s, while the red-bellied woodpeckers, favoring more dense forest growth, have steadily increased. The red-headed woodpecker is a remarkably adaptable species. It can employ short-distance migration to track resources, and can oftentimes complete a second nesting effort in the summer if its first nest fails. I would like to see this magnificent bird inspire all of us to consider the re-creation of the bur oak savanna of times past. Pawnee Prairie Wildlife Management Area presents one such opportunity, and perhaps those corners left by center pivots could create a multitude of other areas where a bur oak could be planted. There would, no doubt, be other native species that would benefit as well. ■ William Beachly is a biologist at Hastings College. His last NEBRASKAland article, "Sojourn at Rock Glen," appeared in October, 2011. I t was one of those winter days that remind us of purity and essence, when vision seems clear yet distances are illusory. Cross-country skiing through a foot of soft, fresh powder in the absolute stillness of Indian Cave State Park where we were the only human intruders, my wife spotted something in the middle of the untracked whiteness of a clearing: something dark, small and moving. As we slowly approached, its red head seemed like a totally new and unnatural color in a world of gray and white, save for the contrasting deep blue of the vaulted sky. The woodpecker had evidently landed there, not realizing the snow depth, and could not find enough air beneath its wings to take off. It seemed exhausted, though we could see no emotion in that dark eye. On that day, in that lighting, its colors were so bright it seemed not to belong as a natural object. Yet the woods there were as likely to be the work of this bird's ancestors, and similar birds that carry and cache seeds, as the many other environmental forces that created this wonderland of oak and hickory. With clumsy, mitten-bound hands, I gently lifted the bird from the snow and placed it in the hood of my wife's parka, and we silently swished ahead. Minutes later, the bird must have warmed up, and with a flurry it emerged from the hood and took flight, a spirit released, into the edge of trees with confident, purposeful, powerful strokes. I envied those strokes as I attempted to keep my slow, rhythmic motion through the snow and was reminded of a similar episode of resurgent life witnessed by the young Loren Eiseley when he was growing up in Lincoln. It was a childhood memory retained "as bright as yesterday" in the "unseen artist's loft" of Eiseley's mind. He had found a woodpecker, apparently dead on the ground, behind his house and picked it up to admire its red head and black-and-white feathers. It might have contacted an electric line and been stunned, but only temporarily, because it revived and hopped to the corner of the house. There it "began to ascend in true woodpecker fashion – a hitch of grasping feet, the bracing of the tail, and then, wonder of wonders, the knock, knock, knock of the questing beak against our house … somewhere amidst the obscure timber loft of my head that persistent hammering still recurs. Did it stay because it was my first glimpse of unconsciousness, resurrection, and time lapse presented in bright color? I don't know." The red-headed woodpecker is a member of one of the most specialized orders of birds, the Piciformes. Their X-like toe arrangement is diagnostic and critical to their firm grasp of tree trunks, but it is in their head that we find anatomical specializations for excavating cavities in wood to both retrieve hidden insects and create nesting holes. Their heavy beak has a shock-absorbing articulation with the skull, while the peculiar, muscle-sheathed horns of the hyoid bones operate a tongue capable of extending four times the length of the beak. The red-feathered hood is worn by both male and female, and plays a role in species recognition because woodpeckers don't "sing" like passerines, and probably in aggressive defense of nest cavities (imagine that red head and formidable beak zooming straight at you). Drumming is typically a declaration of territory and may be done by both sexes of a mated pair. Studies have shown that their aggressiveness helps them compete for limited nest cavities against the likes of European starlings that have so impacted our native bluebirds. Because bluebirds cannot excavate cavities on their own, they depend on woodpeckers that continually make new holes to nest in. In many ways, redheads have benefited from the spread of suburbs in Midwestern towns where a variety of non-native oaks are planted in well- spaced arrays. Meanwhile, our native oaks that once occurred in open savannas or scattered along stream banks have been encroached on by fast-growing elm and ash trees with smaller, wind- borne seeds. Woodpeckers are good The Redheads By William Beachly A banded red-headed woodpecker at Audubon's Spring Creek Prairie in Denton, Nebraska. The red-bellied woodpecker tongue (pictured) has a hard, barbed tip for impaling larger insects and coated with sticky saliva for gathering small insects. Conversely, the red-headed woodpecker's tongue is not barbed. Instead, the red head has hairlike processes on its tongue possibly adapted for a more general diet, which includes flying insects during the summer. ARTWORK BY MICHELE FARRAR PHOTO BY ADRIAN OLIVERA