Dead trees, biodiversity, and the black-backed woodpecker

  • A black-backed woodpecker brings beetle larvae to its young, concealed in a cavity in a burnt tree near Camp Sherman, Oregon.

    Tara Tanaka

The ruins of scorched or beetle-killed forests may not seem like ecological havens. But myriad species depend on standing dead or dying trees, including the black-backed woodpecker, which haunts skeletal forests in the West, Alaska and Canada. Its ebony dorsal plumage blends in with the charred tree trunks on which the bird rummages for juicy wood-boring beetle grubs, its principle prey.

The beetles are also adapted to scorched forest habitat; some species, called "fire-chasers," can detect forest fires as far as 30 miles away, using specialized heat receptors. They arrive in droves, mate, and lay eggs under the burned trees' bark. When the larvae hatch, they freely chew away at the defenseless trees.

But fire suppression, thinning and salvage logging on federal lands may be destroying this unique snag habitat. Fewer than 1,000 pairs of black-backed woodpeckers persist in Oregon and California, and fewer than 500 in South Dakota's Black Hills. The Center for Biological Diversity and three other groups asked the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service this month to protect those populations under the Endangered Species Act -- the first federal petition to recognize the importance of post-fire habitat, experts say.

SOURCES: The Center for Biological Diversity; John Muir Project of Earth Island Institute;; Scott Sonner, Associated Press; Schutz, S., Weissbecker, B., Hummel, E. H., Apel, Karl-Heinz, Schmitz, H., Bleckmann, H. (1999). 

William V McConnell
William V McConnell says:
Oct 17, 2015 03:28 PM
Ms Kirst should be aware that the black- backed woodpecker has never been a "common" bird. Its
range is transcontinental, reaching from Alaska to Nova Scotia and it is neither threatened nor endangered. It is an opportunistic bird whose local presence is determined by the foraging opportunities afforded by recently fire or beetle-killed trees. The suggestion that snag habitat is scarce is laughable, considering the millions of acres of fire and beetle-killed timber available for foraging throughout the western U.S. and Canada. Ms. Kirst should also be aware that the annual cut and sold reports of the U.S. Forest Service show that 95 to 98% of the annual mortality is salvaged, while the rest remains in the woods to provide snag habitat and also heavy fuel loadings to provide heavy loadings of low-moisture fuel for the future fires that will inevitably occur.
William V McConnell
William V McConnell says:
Oct 17, 2015 03:31 PM
My just posted comment omitted the word "not". The vast majority of of the annual mortality is NOT salvaged