Lots of pileated woodpeckers have been seen — and heard — around Mount Desert Island in recent weeks. PHOTO COURTESY OF SHANE DORR

Nature: Tree surgeons and cleanup crews 



Just seeing a pileated woodpecker is exciting. Usually I have seen them in their swooping flight or tapping away at a tree excavating for insectthat they can hear. They do not do exploratory surgery for they have excellent hearing and know there are insects in the wood and they just drill in to get themI have watched birds for many years, starting in childhood. My mother was the one who got me started and I heartily thank her for that! 

This week, a friend showed me a video he had taken of a pileated woodpecker high in a tree eating fruit off the branches with that big bill the birds have. The bird reached out and carefully and eagerly picked off the red fruit. couldn’t see the kind of a tree well enough to identify it. 

Some of their favorite foods are carpenter antsbeetlesfruits and nuts. Most sightings I have had of them have been their excavating a hole in a tree. When they get busy at this, they are great fun to watch. You would think they would have a headache after all the chipping away, but they do not for the bill distributes the shock. 

They also have a fuzzy nose with their nostrils covered in feathers so that the dust and splinters don’t bother them. When working on making their holes in the thick trunk of a tree, they cling to the tree using their strong tail feathers for support. They also have two strong back toes for support in that ‘leaning back position’ you see when they are working on a tree. 

Another unusual feature in this large, flamboyant bird is their super long sticky tongue. It’s actually twice the length of the bill. Inside the mouth it curls around the back of the head between skull and skin. 

I have great respect for this bird and love to watch it work. They really are tree surgeons! If a tree is generally healthy and just has minor infestation, the woodpecker helps the tree stay healthy. If the tree is ‘long gone’ or dead, the bird eats the insects and in so doing helps keep the forest healthy. These large woodpeckers commonly seen on MDI help our trees and they are great fun to watch. Look for their large oblong excavations in the trees as you hike. The holes do heal afterwards if a tree is basically healthy to begin with. Consider it a special day when you get to see one at work or hear its loud call. If one is tapping on your house or roof, go online for helpful suggestions, or contact the experts in fish and wildlife in the state to help solve the problem. They are federally protected. 

am often driving in the Hulls Cove area and almost every time I see several turkey vultures soaring over the roads and fields. Even with a quick view of these large birds you know they are vultures by their large wings slightly held upwards forming a dihedral. Their flight is slower than most large birds and they seem to be slowly floating around in the sky. Turkey vultures are very large birds with a 6-foot wingspread and a bald head. They are not pretty, but they are interesting. 

Their food habits are very helpful to humans for they consume anything they find dead on the road or along the shore. Drivers out early in the morning often catch sight of them on the ground as the birds eat a roadkill from the night before. Ravenscrows and vultures make a good cleanup crew for any creatures killed in the night by cars. 

Turkey vultures do not spend the winter with us for they head south when the weather starts to get colder. Island residents wintering in the southern states see them all winter. Birds with bald heads would not do well in a Maine winter. The head is bald so the bird can keep its head clean. Their habit of poking their heads into a dead deer carcass would give them a difficult problem to solve if the bird had feathers on the head.  

 A friend recently told me an interesting story about great horned owls in his neighborhood a few years ago. He and his sons built a tree house for the family to enjoy. After it was completed, they noticed one day that a great horned owl was sitting up there looking at them. A few days later, another owl was seen and eventually owlets appeared. It sounded like something in the Harry Potter books. Owls are interesting to see and watch and listen for on MDI. The regularlyseen owls here on MDI are the great horned owl, barred owl and saw-whet owl. Other seasonal owls do appear now and again, but these three are the regulars.  

Send any questions or observation to [email protected] or call 244-3742. Stay well! 

Ruth Grierson

Ruth Grierson

Columnist
Send any questions or observations to [email protected] or call 244-3742.

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