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Northland Nature: Pileated woodpeckers dine on crab apples

Retired teacher Larry Weber, a Barnum resident, is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods,” “Webwood” and “In a Patch of Goldenrods.” Contact him via Katie Rohman at krohman@duluthnews.com.

Pileated Woodpecker Wrenshall MN IMG_0003921-M.jpg
Occasionally pileated woodpeckers will eat crab apples to supplement their ant diet.
Contributed / Sparky Stensaas
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As we reach the second week of December, we enter an interesting time in the cycle of the year. We are at the time of the earliest sunsets. It appears to be still afternoon, not dusk, when the sun sets at 4:20 p.m. Sunrises also get later each day. After about ten days of pausing with this early exit time for Sol, by mid-month the sunsets start getting later again. Sunrises continue to be late until the end of the month. And when we get to the winter solstice on Dec. 21, we are at the shortest period of daylight for the whole year (about eight and a half hours). Some refer to this time as the “dark week.”

Along with the lessening amount of sunlight, temperatures are also quite chilly. Short daylight along with cold can make this a tough time for local wildlife that stay active all winter. Food finding can be difficult. We do not usually see what many of the wild mammals do as they search for food; often nocturnal, but we do see what some birds do.

I have noticed that during mild temperatures; especially on clear days, the bird feeders will often remain inactive. Local birds do not use these meals as much as they do in cold and snowy times. This is a little lesson they give us to let us know that they really do not need our handouts. But typically, I have six kinds of birds that choose to dine at the feeders. All of these avians will remain for the duration of the cold season. The regulars are: black-capped chickadee, blue jay, white and red-breasted nuthatches and threes kinds of woodpeckers; downy, hairy and red-bellied. (This last one was not here twenty-some years ago, but now is a regular winter resident.) Often others, such as turkeys, wander in from the surrounding woods. As the season moves on, I expect to see small wintering finches. And there may also be a pileated woodpecker.

When in the forests, woodpeckers use their powerful bills to break into the tree trunks. Here, within the wood, under the bark, they find insects; larvae and adults, that they feed on. When coming to the feeders, they devour suet. While the three smaller kinds of woodpeckers are frequent arrivals, the pileated woodpeckers are sporadic. Mostly, these large woodpeckers; about 17 inches long, with mostly black feathers, white undersides of the wings and red crests, spend the winter excavating sites on tree trunks for their insect meals. Being as powerful as they are (more of a wood pounder than a wood pecker), they get deep into the wood and often leave large piles of wood chips at the base of trees. But I have noticed now as we move towards winter, they appear to tire from their diet and come to tree fruits as a change of pace. Their arrival at the trees is usually quite loud.

It seem like for the last couple of weeks, each afternoon, I will hear the repeated “wuck … wuck … wuck” calls as these big birds fly into a nearby crab apple tree. Here, they take on some strange acrobatics while hanging onto small stems to grasp and eat the frozen fruits. They appear to have a desire or need of fruit sugar to supplement their insect diet. Such feeding continues until they have completely depleted the crab apples. Then deeper in winter, we may see them at the feeders. But now, I enjoy seeing and hearing their afternoon arrivals and antics in the crab apple tree.

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Larry Weber
Larry Weber
MORE BY LARRY WEBER
Retired teacher Larry Weber, of Barnum, is the author of “Butterflies of the North Woods" and “Spiders of the North Woods," among other books. Reach him via Katie Rohman at krohman@duluthnews.com.
Retired teacher Larry Weber, of Barnum, is the author of “Butterflies of the North Woods" and “Spiders of the North Woods," among other books. Reach him via Katie Rohman at krohman@duluthnews.com.
Retired teacher Larry Weber, of Barnum, is the author of “Butterflies of the North Woods" and “Spiders of the North Woods," among other books. Reach him via Katie Rohman at krohman@duluthnews.com.
Retired teacher Larry Weber, of Barnum, is the author of “Butterflies of the North Woods" and “Spiders of the North Woods," among other books. Reach him via Katie Rohman at krohman@duluthnews.com.

Retired teacher Larry Weber, a Barnum resident, is the author of several books.
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