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This bird isn't always among the pines

"The uniquely patterned white-headed woodpecker is restricted to mixed coniferous forests dominated by pines..." So goes the text in the authoritative set of volumes entitled the "Birds of North America." This series summarizes all that is known about each species. The only problem with volumes like this is that birds can't read.

Not that there isn't considerable truth in the statement. White-headed woodpeckers are "uniquely patterned," with a coal-black body and a bright white head. The male also has a red mark on the back of its neck where the white head meets the black body. It's one of the few birds that is impossible to mistake for any other.

The part of the statement in the "Birds of North America" about being "restricted to ... pines" is also mostly true. If you travel east of the Cascades to Klamath and Deschutes counties, you can find them among mature stands of Ponderosa pine. You will find them in similar habitat from British Columbia to Southern California.

Like most woodpeckers, they drill into dead wood seeking beetle grubs to eat. They also occasionally fly out to take an insect out of the air and even feed on a little sap. What sets them apart from most other woodpeckers is their fondness for the large seeds encased in the cones of pines. They spend an incredible amount of time carefully dismantling cones to get at each of the seeds.

However, there is one exception to the rule, one area where they abandon the pines, and it's right in our backyard. To see these unique birds, take a drive up Mount Ashland.

As you leave behind the oaks near the valley floor, you first pass through the mixed conifer/hardwood forest dominated by Douglas fir. There are some pines mixed in, including scattered Ponderosa and sugar pine, but not many. There are no white-headed woodpeckers here. Keep driving up the mountain.

At about 5,000 feet in elevation, the Douglas fir and the other trees of the mixed forest give way to white fir. Higher still, near the ski area, Shasta red fir appears along with the white fir. It is here among the white and red fir you can find white-headed woodpeckers. They occur along the spine of the Siskiyous from Mount Ashland west to Preston Peak, and they are not rare. For several years a pair nested in a snag right next to the ski lodge.

If white-headed woodpeckers are "restricted" to pines, where are the pines? If you search real hard you might find a western white pine or two, but nothing to sustain a white-headed woodpecker.

Then why are they here? The experts have made the pilgrimage to the Siskiyous to try to make sense of the odd situation, but after chasing them about they have gone home without answers. These woodpeckers are simply different from the rest of their kin, with their own ideas about what makes a suitable home. It's observing small mysteries like this that keep me lacing up my boots and heading into the woods.

If you wish to read up on white-headed woodpeckers or another bird, you can find the "Birds of North America" series in Hannon Library on the Southern Oregon University campus.

Stewart Janes is a biology professor at Southern Oregon University. He can be reached at janes@sou.edu.

White-headed woodpecker