Greetings Doug,

We have a place in South Windham where we have yearly visits from a pair of woodpeckers. The birds arrive, feast for 30 minutes or so, and then they are off until we see them the next year. They return only to this one tree we have at the property. A friend of ours who is an arborist by trade has been trying to convince us that this tree is old, rotted, full of ants and bugs, and needs to come down before it hits one of our cars or us on the head. We counter that the woodpeckers are helping the tree stay alive by removing the harmful insects that have been eating away at the tree. Despite signs of aging, the tree is still beautiful and should be preserved as long as possible. The question we have is: Are the woodpeckers helping save the tree or contributing to its demise?

– Paul Strout, South Windham

From Paul’s photo, we can see that these are a pair of pileated woodpeckers. What a treat to have a pair of pileated woodpeckers around, if even for just a short visit. These are the largest woodpeckers in North America and can easily remind you of their dinosaur ancestors when you see them swoop onto a dead tree. And, it is a really fun question to ponder if any of the actions from one of these woodpeckers could help save the tree that they are feeding on. The answer probably depends on the timing.

A pair of pileated woodpeckers make a yearly stop in Paul Strout’s yard, but are they a help or hindrance when it comes to the health of the tree they target? Paul Strout photo

To start, it is worth noting that the diet of pileated woodpeckers shifts throughout the year, based on what they’re doing and what food is abundant. Thanks to research done as far back as 1948, we know that in the summers, especially when raising young, these woodpeckers are eating (and feeding to those young) a large variety of insects. Come fall, they’ll feed on abundant fruits. Then as winter sets in, their primary food source is carpenter ants, which are often found in the tunnels the ants have formed in rotting wood. By early spring, the larvae of various wood-boring beetle species, also found in dead or dying trees, becomes the most sought-after food target.

Biologist Richard Conner, in his 1981 research paper “Seasonal Change in Woodpecker Foraging Patterns,” writes about the differences between our smallest woodpecker, the downy woodpecker; our intermediate, hairy; and the largest, the pileated. Conner found that since the downy was not as good an excavator, it would have a more diverse diet compared to the pileated that could hammer into a trunk to reach more concentrated food sources. The hairy woodpecker represented a middle approach, putting more excavating effort in than the downy but also having more diversity in its diet than the pileated.

With those favorite foods most likely to be found in dead or dying trees, we may be getting closer to our answer of how helpful these woodpeckers are. Research in New Brunswick found that of the things pileateds would forage on, 45% were in dying trees, 39% were in dead trees, and 16% were in living trees. So we are left with a pretty small group of trees that their excavating could help “save.”

One way to look at it is that since they are removing insects that are decomposers, they may be helping a tree stand a bit longer, although it may be mostly dead (remember, there is a big difference between mostly dead and all dead!). Either way, the arborist telling you to chop down the tree reminds me of Warren Buffet’s advice: “Don’t ask the barber whether you need a haircut.” Perhaps the advice from a naturalist is just as biased, but leaving the tree will keep feeding the woodpeckers and bringing you the joy from their visit.

Maybe you can attract orioles, but whip-poor-wills are a tough find.

Maybe you can attract orioles, but whip-poor-wills are a tough find

About 20 years ago, I lived in rural New Hampshire in a wooded setting. One night, a whip-poor-will started sounding in the woods nearby. It remained there most of the summer. I hadn’t heard one since I was a child. It is my favorite songbird and I love to hear it. Currently, I live in a very quiet, wooded area of Wells with two freshwater ponds, and I am wondering if there is anything that I can do to help attract those wonderful birds. I have many eastern bluebirds, cardinals, finches, blue jays, etc., at my feeders. I would also like to attract orioles, but I know that that is somewhat difficult (the last one I saw was at my home in Dover-Foxcroft about 10 years ago, and for only one day). Thanks for any advice you might offer.

– Tom Sheffield, Wells

It is unfortunate how rare eastern whip-poor-wills have become. It was once common to hear these nocturnal songs across Maine, and most eastern states, but these birds are now only locally common and mostly quite scarce. Habitat loss is apparently the largest culprit. Whip-poor-wills like nesting in forest openings, but management changes and forest succession have made those areas less common. A steady spread of suburbia has also aided in wiping out the whips; Breeding Bird Surveys (BBS) shows a 5% annual decline in eastern whip-poor-will populations in Maine. The declines in the insect population, largely due to pesticide use, have also had a negative impact on these aerial insectivores. The giant silkworm moths, like the Luna or Cecropia moths, are (or were) a preferred food for whips – and they are also becoming quite rare.

Cut oranges in half and balance them on a feeder or branch to set the stage for Baltimore orioles to visit your yard. Ariana van den Akker photo

While it will take a lot of work to bring back whip-poor-wills, I do have some advice on attracting Tom’s other target, the Baltimore oriole. These neotropic migrants are unfortunately also seeing pretty astonishing declines in their populations here, with BBS trends showing a 2.7% annual decline for orioles in Maine.

It won’t be until around the second week of May that Baltimore orioles really migrate back here, but it never hurts to be prepared, and maybe you’ll see one of the first to arrive. Oranges cut in half and either stuck on a branch or balanced on a feeder are a great way to attract these black and orange birds. Grape jelly is also a common offering that is favored by orioles, but please avoid the artificial sweeteners that aren’t providing any nutrition for the birds. Put oranges out – with the caveat of “everything in moderation” – and keep things clean (bacteria free, no mold), and I bet you’ll be seeing orioles in another month or so.

Do you have a nature question for Doug? Email questions to [email protected] and visit maineaudubon.org to learn more about virtual and backyard birding, online classes and other programs about wildlife and habitat.

Related Headlines


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.