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Earth Notes - After the Fire Part II

A Three-Toed Woodpecker
A Three-Toed Woodpecker

Flagstaff, AZ – Earth Notes: After the Fire Part II

This month Earth Notes is looking at what happens after forest fires. Many people look at a patch of severely burned forest and think disaster. But for one unique woodpecker big swaths of charred trees are home and a feeding bonanza.

The three-toed woodpecker is a forest bird that ranges through the northern boreal forest and southward down the length of the Rocky Mountains. It reaches the southernmost limit of its distribution in the White Mountains and Mogollon Rim region.

True to its name, this forest bird is distinctive in having only three toes, not the usual four. Surprisingly, this adaptation gives it a much better grip on trees than nearly any other bird even other woodpeckers.

That grip helps the three-toed woodpecker in its specialty: flaking off firmly attached bits of bark in search of bark beetle larvae. Chewing their way through dead wood, these insects can become superabundant wherever fir and spruce forests have recently burned.

Three-toed woodpeckers wander widely in search of these food sources. In one study, individual woodpeckers consumed over 3,000 beetle larvae apiece on a cold winter's day.

Yet having such a narrow diet and being forced to roam in search of burned forests means that three-toed woodpeckers tend to remain uncommon and widely scattered. Forest management that cleans up after a fire by removing dead trees has the potential to deplete this woodpecker's only food source.

Next week, we'll look at how trees, and other forest plants, come back after a fire.

-David Lukas