One of my favourite bird sightings has always been a pileated woodpecker. Despite working in the bush for many years of my career, my sightings of pileated woodpeckers were rare occurrences, although I often saw their excavations and heard their calls. However, since retiring and moving to Madge Lake, I see them regularly. Imagine my pleasure when I put up my suet feeder in the fall, and a pileated woodpecker became a daily visitor! It has certainly brightened up the short days of winter.
I nicknamed the woodpecker Big Boy. Not only did this nickname lack imagination, it got me wondering if it was appropriate from a gender standpoint. It did not take much digging to determine that the sexes are easily distinguished; the “moustache stripe” of the males is red, whereas the on the females it is black. Sure enough, my visitor is a male. My suet consumption has increased about 10 fold compared to previous winters.
The pileated is the largest woodpecker in Canada, frequently described as “crow sized”. This majestic bird is mostly black when at rest, but in flight has obvious white wing patches that are easily seen at a distance. The word “pileated” refers to capped, and specifically to a bird with a crest on top of its head from bill to nape. The red crest is striking, contrasting with the white and black markings on the head. With the markings and sheer size of the bird, there is no confusing it with other woodpeckers. The length of the body ranges from 16 to 19 inches, and the wingspan ranges from 26 to 30 inches. They do not migrate.
The signs that a pileated has been visiting your trees are easily recognized as well. Their feeding sites are most frequently the base of large spruce trees, often within a foot of the ground. The chips from their excavating are often scattered up to a couple of feet away from the tree, and the excavations often oblong or rectangular. And almost always their goal is clear – the galleries from ants in the rotten core of the tree is usually apparent in their excavations. I am surprised how often a spruce tree that looked healthy from outward appearances is in fact revealed to be in the late stages of its life with advanced decay in its core.
Research done in Alberta by a former colleague, Dr. Rick Bonar, revealed that pileated woodpeckers had a strong preference for nesting in large, living trembling aspen trees, high off the ground. The nest trees need to be very large at the base, to be large enough diameter at that height to support the size of cavity needed by these birds. The preference is for trees with some degree of heart rot, but sound sapwood to resist the tree breaking off at the point of the cavity. Cavities excavated and abandon become important homes for other species of woodpeckers, as well as birds that nest in cavities, but are unable to excavate their own. A major predator of pileated woodpeckers are goshawks.
The forest in Duck Mountain Provincial Park (DMPP) has become very old. Forest fires, the natural forest renewal process, have essentially been removed from this landscape over the past century. This very old forest is currently a “boom” situation for pileated woodpecker habitat, with abundant, large aspen trees with extensive heart rot suitable for nesting cavities, and advanced age white spruce providing abundant food. However, as these forests die and fall down, the future is likely headed for a “bust”. Aspen will not regenerate without larger scale disturbances and we will not have young forest regenerating that will eventually age and provide future habitat. The best analogy is to consider a human population that was only 70, 80 and 90 year old people. With no kids, the future would be bleak.
Saskatchewan Parks, Culture and Sport are being very proactive in the management of forests in DMPP by working with forest companies to renew areas of forest in the north end of the park through logging. The young forests that are regenerating following logging will provide a much healthier diversity of forest ages in the park landscape and will provide habitat for pileated woodpeckers and many other species in future decades.
For an enthusiastic amateur bird watcher like myself, the excitement of sighting a rare species is only understood by other bird enthusiasts. It is like non-fishermen trying to understand why we fishermen will sit for hours in a boat or in the middle of a frozen lake waiting for that tug on the line. The highlight of my birdwatching in recent years has undoubtedly been the frequent sightings of trumpeter swans at Madge Lake and other smaller waterbodies in Duck Mountain Provincial Park.
Trumpeter swans are truly magnificent birds. With an impressive wingspan of 84 – 96 inches, a neck length of 60 inches, and a weight of 21-30 pounds they are considerably larger than any other North American waterfowl. Their all white plumage also makes them distinctive in flight, lacking the black wing tips of pelicans or snow geese. The males are called cobs, the females called pens, and the young are called cygnets. The cygnets are greyish color when they are young, but become mostly white as they molt into their flight feathers by fall. Trumpeters will begin to pair up at about 3 years of age, but typically not nest until they are 4-6 years of age.
The only species with which trumpeters can be confused are tundra swans (formerly called whistling swans), the other swan native to North America. Large numbers of tundra swans migrate through Saskatchewan in the spring and fall and distinguishing the two species at a distance is difficult. The larger size of the trumpeters, profile of the bill, lack of yellow patch on the bill are all helpful in distinguishing the species. But what I find the most helpful distinguishing feature is the trumpeting call of the species for which they are aptly named! My iBird Canada app on my iphone includes amazing quality bird calls which aids in positive identification of species.
The history of trumpeter swans in North America is tragic, and is parallel to the demise of the bison. They share a remarkably similar, albeit less known, story to the bison. The population was severely depleted by subsistence hunting and over 125 years of commercial swan skin harvest by hunters and trappers for the Hudson Bay Company. Many thousands of skins were shipped to Europe between 1772 and the late 1800’s. Trumpeter swans which historically were widely distributed across North America, were extirpated from most of their range and on the brink of extinction.
Surveys done in 1929-32 in the United States accounted for less than 100 trumpeter swans and there was little hope for their continued existence. However, with increasing conservation efforts and more extensive surveys including Canada and Alaska, 1,914 birds were accounted for in 1959. 3,700 swans were accounted for in 1968. And an amazing 63,000 trumpeter swans were accounted for in 2015, with an equally impressive increase in distribution. Although swans are still missing from two thirds of their original range, and are a fraction of their historic populations, this is a little-known success story which should be celebrated. Early in my career while working in habitat protection with Alberta Fish and Wildlife in Grande Prairie, trumpeter swans had been one of our focal species. It is gratifying to have the innovative, creative, and persistent international conservation efforts of many agencies, organizations, and individuals reward us by having these magnificent waterfowl show up on our doorstep at Madge Lake.
We do not have a population estimate for swans in Duck Mountain Provincial Park as to the best of my knowledge no surveys have been done. It is also not known where trumpeters nesting in Saskatchewan spend their winter, but marked swans nesting in Manitoba migrate to Minnesota and Missouri for the winter, so it is likely our swans travel to similar habitats. These are future research opportunities.
The Trumpeter Swan Society, based in Minnesota and founded in the mid-1960s, has a great website from which much of this information was drawn, www.trumpeterswansociety.org. If you want to know more about swans this is a great resource to visit (and perhaps consider membership in TTSS). Birds of Saskatchewan edited by A. Smith et al provides a recent summary of trumpeter swan history in Saskatchewan. And another great resource, despite being published 41 years ago, is a book by W.E. Banko entitled The Trumpeter Swan.
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