Last day of April. Last chance to write a second blog of the month. On a morning walk, I admit my topic quest tended toward despair at human-caused destruction, after listening to Oregon Public Radio’s latest news of horrific logging of centuries-old trees after the wildfires of 2020, the very worst action possible for biodiversity, for protecting watersheds from landslides, and for storing massive amounts of human-induced excess carbon. (See the article, “The Secret Power of Old Growth” ). As the mayor of Gates said in a legislative hearing, “This is not OK with me. We have a major problem going on here in Oregon. I believe our beautiful state is being rampaged.” Yes. Beauty is at stake, too.
Returning to my desk facing our front yard feeders and native plant tangles of last year’s stalks and this spring’s greening, the messenger for our beloved and irreplaceable ancient forests flew in on strong black glossy wings and soft churring.
The white-headed woodpecker I first saw a couple weeks ago has returned for a taste of suet. I dropped everything to witness this emissary from a fast-vanishing home east of the Cascades, where ancient ponderosas and sheltering snags grow ever fewer. Like the polar bear is to melting sea ice, this woodpecker with a clown-like face is irrevocably linked to life in forests chock full of immense pines, of life-giving dead and dying trees, and of places that offer both park-like forests and closed canopies. They favor recently burned forests, too, but only if they are not logged of big trees.
Back in the 1980s, I remember seeing white-headed woodpeckers often on the Malheur National Forest and always the birds flew where the red-gold ponderosas grew tall and wide. But it was there I also saw firsthand the rampant logging of their homes with what the Forest Service called its policy of “complete overstory removal”– timber sales designed to cut down the overstory of big pines and left only scraggly firs and pine saplings.
Already in trouble, this stunning woodpecker has few places to turn with just 3% of Oregon’s big trees east of the Cascades remaining. This small fraction of trees happens to store a whopping 42% of the carbon in the forests. We should be doing everything possible across the U.S. and the world to protect every big tree of every species and every standing dead tree, but instead? The Trump administration in its last days illegally got rid of the one rule that protected our carbon-storing, biodiversity-protecting trees across 9 million acres of eastern Oregon’s national forests. Environmental groups and scientists are challenging the lifting of rules prohibiting logging of trees of 21 inches in diameter and larger.
Writing this blog, I had the chance to read a 2013 science paper from the U.S. Forest Service, “A Conservation Assessment for the White-headed Woodpecker (Picoides albolarvatus). Several points stood out that serve as reminders; Every species has complex needs to thrive and those with the most narrow adaptations are at highest risk of going extinct. With climate change accelerating, keeping places of refugia is one of the most important actions to take.
The story of the white-headed woodpecker reminds us of how important it is to understand the full life cycle of a bird in every season and from birth to death. (And bird scientists are doing amazing things on that front. See this article on high-tech bird tracking.) When we don’t know, we must err on the side of caution and conservation always. The more we know, the more we also see the dire consequences of industrial one-size-fits-all forestry. I hope that means we become advocates for a better way of proforestation and rewilding nature.
White-headed woodpeckers this time of year are gleaning for insects and seeking trees where they can find sap to sip. Only later in the summer and fall when ponderosa pine cones ripen do they feed on those seeds, a critical food. One report showed these percentages for foraging in a year–35% gleaning, 31% cone feeding, 24% pecking, 7% sapsucking, and 3% other behaviors. The parents feed their young ants, beetles, and cicadas. Their diet changes with the seasons, and so their habitats must include the foods they dine upon.
The birds are also seeking nest cavities in ponderosa pines where the heartwood has softened with the passage of time, and in forests where there are higher densities of centuries-old trees and snags than in surrounding woods. Their success is higher in burned versus unburned forests, again as long as there are plentiful big trees and snags. Salvage logging spells disaster.
For those who like to cherry pick science to fit their inclinations to log their way to “solutions,” this science paper offers a bit of that. White-headed woodpeckers decline where younger trees have grown up thick within big park-like stands, because fire suppression interrupted the natural cycle of frequent fires (only for this kind of habitat). That’s where the folks who argue for removing the 21-inch-rule like to point. In some places, grand firs have grown large beneath the ponderosas. In the case of a fire, the crowding firs might ignite the big pines. Foresters say some version of this: “To save the big pines, we have to cut down the big trees that threaten them.”
That’s a problematic premise. Open Pandora’s box and way more than a few firs in the few remaining stands of old-growth ponderosa pines will be logged. Without protections, there’s local pressure to log log and log some more of trees with the highest commercial value at the expense of our future. With the “eastside screens” or 21-inch-rule in place, there’s plenty of forest restoration going forward that science supports and that could be improved with strengthening protections for intact forests.
Even the premise that we should cut down giant fir trees within elder pine forests fails to recognize the biodiversity and carbon value of all big trees of every species, and the impossibility of returning to some historical time before climate chaos. (To go deeper, please read Dr. David Mildrexler‘s paper on big trees and carbon values). There’s also the problem of oversimplifying the ecology of forests and their fire regimes. For example, a mixed-conifer forest historically did not burn often and the density of trees is important to their resilience to wildfire.
Meanwhile, here at my desk looking out the window, I long for the ponderosas in our yard to be welcoming enough to lure a pair of white-headed woodpeckers to stay, but the chances are slim. Reading again in the science paper, I saw references to the forests where I live in Central Oregon. Studies in 1995 that showed white-headed woodpecker were doing well in the Black Butte and Metolius study areas, then replete in red-gold ponderosa glory.
But there are thousands fewer big pines along Highway 20 outside of Sisters after the Oregon Department of Transportation accidentally poisoned them with roadside weed killer and then the Forest Service logged the dead and dying trees in summer 2019. It was heartbreaking to drive past the log decks. Even the Metolius does not feel safe from logging, despite how beloved that river corridor is to people for the beauty of towering pines, cedar, fir, and larch. Just recently, the power company logged centuries-old ponderosa pines in the utility corridor not far from the river.
Please forgive me. I really have fought the blues today and don’t want to pass them on. So take heart while the remaining great trees stand, and in all the positive news under the Biden Administration and a return to embracing science and addressing climate change and environmental justice. I can feel kindness and empathy renewing our souls, and how good it feels to hug a friend, thanks to the Covid vaccine.
Everywhere there are stewards, groups, and people who speak for the wilds, including Friends of the Metolius, Oregon Wild, Oregon Natural Desert Association, and the Greater Hells Canyon Council ( I’m a board member).
If you are looking for a way to contribute, I have a timely suggestion. Please consider joining the Greater Hells Canyon Council for a marvelous fundraiser online May 8th (with the online auction opening May 1st). The keynote speaker is Renee Patrick who coordinates The Desert Trail for ONDA and completed the first solo thru-hike of the new Blue Mountains Trail (an exciting new conservation project of GHCC). Find out more here: Hellraiser.
With that, I’m going outside on this almost May afternoon of blooms and leafing and new birds arriving to look for the messenger–that jocular male white-headed woodpecker. As I’ve learned from tracking belted kingfishers, every time you head out with one bird in mind, you find a marvel of unanticipated wonders.
Nature has many emissaries for those who welcome them in. Our best hope lies in action and our best strength comes from renewing ourselves personally in the wilds, from our bird-filled yards to the forest homes of woodpeckers and the river haunts of kingfishers.