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Pacific Northwest
Research Station
I n s i d e
Profiling the Pileateds ......................................... 2
A Landscape Transformed ................................... 3
Surprising Results ................................................. 4
Fuel Reduction Versus Foraging Needs ............ 4
Take-Home Lessons ............................................... 5

issue one hundred nine / january 2009

“Science affects the way we think together.”
Lewis Thomas


trees peppered with rectangular feeding holes,

Evelyn Bull

or spot a crow-sized, black-and-white bird

with a sinuous neck and pointy scarlet crest
hammering away—that would be the pileated The pileated woodpecker is a species of
woodpecker, the biggest of the tribe. Its quirky conservation concern and a keystone
looks and laughing call inspired that early species in mature and old forests of the
star of animation, Woody the Woodpecker. Pacific Northwest. In the Blue Mountains
However, in real life, this bird—whose Latin
of northeast Oregon, researchers from
name, Dryocopus pileatus, means “tree
the PNW Research Station in La Grande,
cleaver”—is no cartoon character, but a major
player in forest ecosystems. Its industrious Oregon, studied the effects of natural and
tree excavating and foraging benefit as many human-caused disturbance on pileated
as two dozen forest species and contribute populations and their habitat over a period
generously to the recycling of forest nutrients. spanning from 1973 to 2005. During this
These and other services have earned pileateds time, several pervasive insect outbreaks
the status of a “keystone” species. transformed the forest characterized by
predominantly live conifers with dense
Because the older forests inhabited by the
pileated are diminishing, it also is considered canopy cover (prime pileated habitat)
a species of conservation concern. Guidelines to one with increasing numbers of snags
for maintaining suitable habitat for the bird and downed wood. Logging for forest
were issued following the National Forest restoration and fuel reduction treatments
Management Act of 1976. Those initial also took place, further impacting habitat
recommendations were derived from limited for the birds.
knowledge gleaned from birds of eastern
deciduous woodlands. Subsequent studies led The researchers were able to compare the
by Evelyn Bull, a wildlife biologist with the effects on pileated populations at various
Pacific Northwest (PNW) Research Station in stages as their environment changed. They
Pileated woodpeckers craft new nest cavities found, surprisingly, that despite heavy
La Grande, Oregon, revealed that pileateds of
every year, sometimes trying out several sites
before settling on their final choice. the interior Pacific Northwest have somewhat tree mortality, the number of nesting
different needs and habits. These findings pairs, their reproductive success, and
have led to revised habitat-management home range locations remained fairly
“Nature is a language,
recommendations. consistent—provided that dead trees and
and every new fact that we
Forests are dynamic, constantly evolving logs remained abundant and extensive
learn is a new word.”
places, and in northeastern Oregon’s logging had not occurred. Conversely,
—Ralph Waldo Emerson
Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, where nesting pair numbers and reproductive

enture into a forest almost anywhere Bull began her work in 1973, a series of success decreased significantly where
across the country and you might events has radically altered sections of the extensive regeneration cuts eliminated
hear the distinctive drumming of a forest over the last 30 years. many nest and roost trees, as well as snags
woodpecker, 24 species of which live year- “The forests described in our earlier studies and downed wood where the birds forage
round in North America. If you stumble on have changed from large, continuous areas for insects.
of mature and old conifers with more than
70-percent canopy cover to relatively open K E Y FINDIN G S
canopies and an increasing number of snags
[standing dead wood] and logs, so we no lon- • Pileated woodpeckers occupy the same home ranges for up to 30 years and possibly
ger have the conditions that our guidelines for two to four generations.
had been written for,” Bull explains. “The
effects of natural disturbances have not been • Density of pileated woodpeckers decreased 80 percent after extensive harvesting.
described for most of our forest species,” she
adds. However, that changed for the pileated • Pileated reproductive success appears to be closely tied to the amount of unharvested,
woodpecker with the recent publication of closed-canopy stands, and reproductive failure appears tied to the amount of harvested
research spanning 30 years. stands.

• High tree mortality is not detrimental to pileated woodpeckers if abundant large

snags persist.


ver two periods of early fieldwork live at least 9 years, mate for life, and repeat-

Evelyn Bull
(1973–83 and 1989–90), Bull and edly occupy territories of roughly a thousand
her collaborators compiled a detailed acres year-round.
profile of pileateds and their habitat in the
“If one member of a nesting pair dies, the
Blue Mountains in northeastern Oregon.
survivor stays within the same home range.
Using aerial photos and ground survey data,
When the pair dies, the territory is likely to
they evaluated forest type, structural stage,
be occupied by offspring or other dispersing
and amount of canopy closure in seven study
birds,” Bull explains. The birds also frequent
areas, totaling close to 30,000 acres of forest
the same nesting and roosting areas over time.
interspersed with grasslands.
The studies underscored the importance of
The researchers used ground surveys,
snags, logs, and dying trees to the pileated’s
color-banding, and radio telemetry to track
lifestyle. “You need dead trees for many
woodpecker whereabouts to help determine
species to survive,” Bull says, “though the
population densities, delineate home ranges,
question has long been how many.”
and characterize their nesting, foraging, and
roosting habits. They learned that pileateds Chiseling holes into dead trees, pileateds
craft new nest cavities every year, along
with an abundance of roosts, which the
birds frequent at night and during inclement
Purpose of PNW Science Findings weather. Sometimes pileateds use living trees
To provide scientific information to people with hollow chambers created by decaying
who make and influence decisions about heartwood for roosts; these typically contain
managing land. multiple entry holes to allow for escape from
PNW Science Findings is published predators. “These cavities enable a range
monthly by: of other species to access tree hollows they
would otherwise be excluded from,” Bull
Pacific Northwest Research Station
explains. The secondary cavity nesters
USDA Forest Service
P.O. Box 3890 include numerous species of conservation
Portland, Oregon 97208 concern including the fisher, American Pileateds use snags such as this ponderosa pine
marten, bufflehead, flammulated owl, for nesting.
Send new subscriptions and change western bluebird, Vaux’s swift, northern
of address information to
flying squirrel, and several bat species. “Pileateds are opportunistic feeders and also
Rhonda Mazza, editor Likewise, by foraging for insects in decaying eat budworms, bark beetles, and other pests,” wood, pileateds accelerate the decomposi- says collaborator Jane Hayes, an entomologist
tion process. Bull’s research team observed with the PNW Research Station in La Grande,
Keith Routman, layout that the birds spent nearly 80 percent of their Oregon. “However, when environmental feeding efforts on downed logs and snags. conditions allow pest populations to reach
To analyze pileated diets, they collected scat epidemic levels, they overwhelm their
United States Forest
Department and ferreted out insect mouth parts to identify predators’ capacities to substantially reduce
of Agriculture prey that included ants, beetles, and other the population,” she notes.

Noreen Parks has written about science and the environment for more than 17 years. She currently resides in Port Townsend, Washington.

Evelyn Bull

Evelyn Bull
To forage for insects, pileateds drill numerous Pileated woodpeckers find their primary prey, carpenter ants, by foraging on downed woody material.
holes in dead wood, accelerating decomposition
in the process.


t was a series of such insect outbreaks, But as the insect outbreaks continued,

Evelyn Bull
beginning in the 1970s, that triggered a extensive logging for forest restora-
series of landscape changes in northeast- tion was carried out in some areas.
ern Oregon, affecting all the major tree spe- And, with the threat of wildfire
cies favored by pileateds. First, mountain pine looming ever larger, forest personnel
beetles erupted to attack mature ponderosa carried out fuel reduction treatments
and lodgepole pines. Then, during the 1980s to clear woody debris from sections
and 1990s, western spruce budworms and of the forest.
Douglas-fir beetles swept through the forest.
“The budworms’ repeated defoliation of the The overall outcome: a broad-scale
trees was a painfully slow attack on the for- transformation of the forest, and
est,” Hayes recalls. Large numbers of mature the rare opportunity to compare the
trees eventually succumbed, although the full consequences for a long-lived species
brunt of the devastation was not apparent until of concern, compared to the earlier
years later. findings. So in 2003, armed with
her data from more than a dozen
“Natural disturbance events such as insect previous studies, Bull, along with
activity, disease, wind, and fire are the pri- Hayes, Nicole Nielsen-Pincus—then
mary mechanisms that insure a continuum of a graduate student at the University
snags, downed dead wood, and live, decaying of Idaho—and others returned to the
trees, which pileated woodpeckers depend research sites to investigate how the
on,” Bull notes. Thus, the birds benefited to a pileateds were faring.
degree. For example, ponderosa pines killed
by beetles during the 1970s subsequently
became nest sites.

Although pileateds forage on snags all year, dead trees

such as this grand fir are particularly important in the
winter when logs are inaccessible because of deep snow.

Science Findings is online at:

The site also includes Science Update—scientific knowledge for pressing decisions about controversial natural resource and environmental issues.


‘‘T he map of home ranges occupied by occupied,” Bull explains. “In the

Evelyn Bull
nesting pairs compiled between 1973 seventh area, extensive regeneration
and 1983 indicated that the study harvests had taken place in 1991. We
area had reached its carrying capacity in found that nesting pairs no longer
terms of the number of nesting pairs it was occupied home ranges impacted by
supporting,” notes Nicole Nielsen-Pincus, this logging activity, and the number
now a wildlife biologist, “and the population of nesting pairs had decreased from
appeared stable during the 1989–90 period.” the previous five, to one—a drop of
80 percent.”
By 2003, however, tree density in many home
ranges had greatly diminished. Fieldwork Similarly, a history of logging
and geographic information system (GIS) activity proved to be the major factor
studies showed that 75 percent of once lushly affecting pileated efforts in fledging
canopied grand fir stands had shrunk to less young—a critical measure in how
than 30-percent canopy closure. well the habitat is meeting their needs,
as Bull points out. “The amount of
“Going into the postdisturbance research,
unharvested area and forest with more
we expected to see that the birds had been
than 60-percent canopy closure was
most adversely affected by this loss. Instead,
considerably greater, and the amount
we found that even where mortality was
of area harvested considerably less,
high among grand fir and Douglas-fir, as
in home ranges occupied by pairs that
long as extensive logging and fuel reduction
successfully raised young, compared to
treatments had not occurred and an abundance
pairs that failed to,” she explains. None
of large live or dead trees and logs remained,
of the other factors evaluated—forest
the pileateds were still there,” Nielsen-Pincus
type and structural stage (young,
mature, or old-growth), differed
Specifically, “in six of the seven study areas, between pairs that were successful in Pileateds use a number of different roosts where they
producing offspring, and those that take shelter at night and during inclement weather.
the number of nesting pairs remained the Roosts typically contain multiple entry holes to allow
same or fluctuated by a single pair, and were not. for escape from predators—an advantage for secondary
the same approximate home ranges were cavity-users as well.


n 2004, Bull and colleagues also evalu- burned ones. “The lower occurrence of ants in opportunities in the short-term aftermath of
ated the short-term effects of fuel the burned areas suggests that burning either burns as well. If maintaining biodiversity
reduction efforts on pileateds. Focusing directly eliminated the ants or rendered the and wildlife habitat are objectives, it is
on foraging opportunities for the birds, habitat unsuitable for them,” Bull says. important to understand the consequences
they tallied the numbers of logs, snags, and of fuel reduction and restoration treatments
Other forest dwellers such as small mammals,
stumps in study plots where mechanical on individual species—particularly those
amphibians, rubber boas, martens, and
thinning and clearing had occurred—with dependent on coarse woody debris that is
bears may experience diminished feeding
and without followup broadcast burning— removed during these treatments.
compared to control plots in mature forest.
Then the researchers surveyed the areas
Evelyn Bull

for evidence of foraging pileateds and the

presence of ants, their primary food. The
data revealed that whereas thinning greatly
reduced the abundance of all forms of dead
wood, subsequent burning removed more
than twice as many logs and stumps as
mechanical treatment alone.
The contrasting effects on pileated foraging
were substantial. “Both the control plots and
those with mechanical removal treatments
provided significantly more foraging habitat
for pileateds, whereas the prescribed burn
treatments provided significantly less,” Bull
explains. Not surprisingly, although evidence
of foraging pileateds was most common in
the control areas, they were roughly twice as
A mature forest on the Starkey Experimental Forest in Oregon’s Blue Mountains prior
numerous in the thinned-only plots as in the to insect infestations in the 1970s that killed conifers favored by pileateds for nesting
and roosting.

Take-Home Lessons

he final leg of the pileated research Nielsen-Pincus concurs. “We now have a pileateds, feed primarily on ants found on
rounded out a long-running documen- better understanding of what the pileateds dead wood during at least part of the year.
tation of a key, long-lived species truly need. Thirty years ago, dense canopy Thus, an environment that supports healthy
of concern in its evolving habitat. “As cover in mature grand fir forests with old- populations of pileateds also ensures the
researchers, we seldom have the opportunity growth structure was considered critical to availability of shelter and forage for other,
for a multidecade study like this,” says Hayes. suitable pileated habitat. We now know that diverse wildlife.
“Mostly our studies provide snapshots of canopy cover may not be as important, as
Bull concludes, “While the future is hard
ecosystems. We often speculate on ‘what long as enough large trees and downed logs
to predict, one thing is certain: change is
would happen if?’ and seldom get to find out. are maintained.”
ongoing in dynamic forest ecosystems. With
However, the temporal scope of this research
With the fates of many other species tied to greater insight into the complex interactions
has provided a unique opportunity to watch
pileated woodpecker activity, lessons gleaned taking place, managers will be better able
forest ecosystem processes in motion and
from the research extend beyond habitat to strategically design restoration treatments
played out on a wider screen by revealing
requirements for the birds. For instance to enhance the resiliency of the landscape
more of the complex interactions among
as seemingly dissimilar as black bears while also protecting and maintaining
species as disturbance processes shape the
and western toads are, these species, like suitable habitats for numerous wildlife
forest they inhabit over time.”
species relying on large trees, snags, and
down wood.”

Evelyn Bull
“When we try to pick out anything
by itself, we find it hitched to
everything else in the universe.”
—John Muir

Bull, E.L.; Nielsen-Pincus, N.; Wales, B.W.;
Hayes, J.L. 2007. The influence of distur-
bance events on pileated woodpeckers in
northeastern Oregon. Forest Ecology and
Management. 243: 320–329.
Bull, E.L.; Holthausen, R.S. 1993. Habitat
use and management of pileated woodpeck-
ers in northeastern Oregon. Journal of
Wildlife Management. 57: 335–345.
Bull, E.L. 1987. Ecology of the pileated
woodpecker in northeastern Oregon. Journal
of Wildlife Management. 51: 472–481.
Bull, E.L.; Clark, A.A.; Shepherd, J.F.
2005. Short-term effects of fuel reduction
on pileated woodpeckers in northeastern
By the mid 1990s the majority of the grand fir and Douglas-fir had been killed by insects in some of the Oregon—a pilot study. Res. Pap. PNW-
study areas. RP-564. Portland, OR: U.S. Department of
Agriculture, Forest Service, Pacific North-
west Research Station. 17 p.
Bull, E.L.; Jackson, J.A. 1995. Pileated
woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus). In: Poole,
• Extensive tree harvesting rendered habitat unsuitable for nesting pileated woodpeckers.
A.; Gill, F., eds. The Birds of North America.
• Retention of abundant large, dead trees and logs in mature and older stands with Philadelphia, PA: Academy of National
high tree mortality provided sustainable habitat for pileated woodpeckers. Sciences and American Ornithologists’
Union. No. 148.
• The same home ranges can be managed for pileated woodpeckers for decades, if large Nielsen-Pincus, N.; Garton. E.O. 2007.
snags and logs exist or are retained. Responses of cavity-nesting birds to changes
in available habitat reveal underlying
• The home ranges of pileated woodpecker can be mapped and subsequently monitored determinants of nest selection. Northwestern
with relative ease due to the high degree of fidelity. Naturalist. 88: 135–146.
• Protection of relatively easily identified nesting stands is important for the
sustainability of this species.

U.S. Department of Agriculture
Pacific Northwest Research Station
333 SW First Avenue
P.O. Box 3890
Portland, OR 97208-3890

Official Business
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scientist profileS
EVELYN L. BULL examines arthropod biological and ecological she continued to collaborate with scientists
is a research wildlife interactions at the stand level and across forest at the PNW Research Station in La Grande
biologist with the landscapes. Her studies focus on the role to further investigate the pileateds.
USDA Forest Service, of disturbances in ecosystems and how the
Pacific Northwest desirable and undesirable effects might best be
Research Station. She managed.
received her Ph.D. in
Bull and Hayes can be reached at: COOPER ATORS
wildlife ecology at
University of Idaho at USDA Forest Service/PNW Research Station Barb Wales, wildlife biologist,
Moscow. Her research 1401 Gekeler Lane Pacific Northwest Research
focuses on the effects of natural and human La Grande, OR 97850-3368 Station, La Grande, OR
disturbances on western toads and Columbia Bull:
La Grande Ranger District,
spotted frogs and on old-growth dependent Phone: (541) 962-6547
Wallowa-Whitman National Forest
species, including pileated woodpeckers and E-mail:
other cavity-nesting birds, great gray owls, Hayes: North Fork John Day Ranger District,
Vaux’s swifts, and American martens. Phone: (541) 962-6549 Umatilla National Forest
E-mail: Starkey Experimental Forest and Range,
a research biological Pacific Northwest Research Station
scientist with the Richard Holthausen (retired), National
received her M.S. in wildlife
USDA Forest Service, Wildlife Ecology Unit, U.S. Forest
resources from the University
Pacific Northwest Service
of Idaho. After completing a
Research Station.
thesis on habitat selection in a
She received her
suite of cavity-nesting birds in
Ph.D. in entomology
northeastern Oregon, includ-
at University of
ing the pileated woodpecker,
Kansas. Her research

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