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Monday, December 31, 2012

Coming Home - the Pileated Woodpecker

Pileated woodpeckers disappeared from Southern Michigan shortly after the logging and wildfires at the turn of the 20th century.  Pileateds prefer older growth, drier woods—a rare commodity in post-settlement Southern Michigan.   Five generations of Michiganders growing up south of Saginaw Bay lived in a world without the pileated, the inspiration for Walter Lantz’s cartoon creation “Woody the woodpecker.”  


I observed pileated woodpeckers several times in the Upper Peninsula in the 1970s, and later in the Northern Lower Peninsula.  But I had been waiting many years for my first Southern Michigan sighting.  Naturalists knew pileateds were moving eastward down the Grand River and Maple River systems.  In May I saw my first chisel-bill in the Rose Lake Wildlife Area (Clinton County).  And in June a pileated woodpecker entertained my wife and me in our own backyard (Shiawassee County).  His return ticket to Shiawassee County had been punched. 


The Great Lakes region was covered with primeval forests in 1800.  The settlers coming here all carried sharp axes and ambitions to make the wilderness productive.  The virgin timber they felled built their homes and provided heat for them.  The wildlife of these vast forests seemed boundless, enough to feed an emerging nation.


By the 1850s swamps were being drained and the forests cleared for the plow.  Animal species dependent on large trees would suffer the most losses, but none more than the saw-whet owl, marten and the pileated woodpecker.


The pileated woodpecker is North America’s largest chisel bill, if you discount the possibility of the ivory-billed still existing in southern swamps.  “Sir pileated” is almost the size of a crow and is known for its calling card—large, deep, rectangular diggings, usually low on dead and dying trees.  This is a place where you would find carpenter ants—the pileateds favorite food.


The early settlers and loggers knew the pileated well, referring to him by many names—log-cock, wood cock, great black woodpecker, cock of the woods, wood hen.  The loggers in particular referred to him fondly as thunder cock, owing to his raucous presence.  When they could hear “thunder cock” in the distance they knew big timber lay ahead.


When the big timber was gone so was the woodpecker.  By 1900 he was rare in Southern Michigan, probably limited to the rugged terrain of the Lake Michigan dunes and the lowland riverine forests of the Kalamazoo and St. Joseph Rivers, in Southwest Michigan.  Barrows in his 1912 book “Michigan Bird Life” recounted some of the last sightings in Southern Michigan: one taken at Bangor, Van Buren County, in the autumn of 1897, by Frank H. Shuver; one seen at Ann Arbor March 1, 1899 (Chas L. Cass); two taken near Greenville, Montcalm County, in 1896 by Percy Selous; and two taken near Okemos, Ingham County in 1905 (Barrows).  It is presumed “taken” meant killed.  Professor Barrows was the curator of the General Museum at Michigan Agricultural College (later becoming Michigan State University).  John Baumgartner, of Grand Ledge, has studied pileateds for decades.  He believes birds were killed in the late 1800s to be sold to museums and collectors.  This was a period before birds were protected.


No doubt pileateds were eaten by settlers because of their large size, like flickers, robins and blackbirds were.  My limited Michigan research uncovered no reviews of “thunder cock” as table fare, but the settlers ate everything.


In the Northern Lower Peninsula the pileated remained abundant until the lumber barons came for Michigan’s white pine to rebuild Chicago after the great fire of 1871.  Between 1870-1920 enough white pine was cut from Michigan forests to cover the entire state with a board 1” thick, and have enough wood left over to cover the state of Rhode Island with a similar board.  The loss of Northern Michigan’s forest treasure forced the pileated to retreat to the hardwoods and swamps that remained.


The Upper Peninsula pileateds fared better because of the vastness of the hardwood forests and swamps.  There they remained an uncommon bird, but known to all.  The Upper is probably where many Michiganders, like me, got their first glimpse of the pileated woodpecker.


The history of Michigan’s thunder cock is very closely tied to the management of our forests.  The bird went from being common throughout the state to disappearing in the South.  And while we anguished over the plight of Michigan’s wildlife the forest was re-growing. 


The often unnoticed phenomenon of forest-growth is called succession.  It occurs on every piece of land, but succession is defined on a given tract by the soil and water regimen found there.  Each piece of land is attempting to re-grow its most suitable vegetative cover.  The suitable cover for most of Michigan soil/water conditions is forest.  If man were to ignore a given tract of land long enough, the most suitable, best adapted, forest would grow.  After most of Michigan was cleared of trees by settlers and lumber interests the forests attempted to re-grow.  However, the forest was continually “set back” anywhere agricultural production was pursued.


Certain soil and water characteristics were good for farming as well as trees.  Highly productive agricultural soils stayed in farming while less productive soil couldn’t support a “family farm” and were abandoned by the mid 20th century.  These areas re-grew to the forest cover most appropriate for the site.  Fast forward 60 years, or more, and the forest recovery is obvious.  Michigan today is growing almost three times as much wood as we are harvesting, meaning the trees are maturing in many places.


Added to that, our forests today are being managed by a cadre of professional foresters, with an eye toward sustainability.  Foresters recognize the importance of the pileated woodpecker and all species.  Today, most strive to accommodate woodpeckers in the forest by leaving 5-10 snags and rotted trees per acre on timber harvest operations. 


We will never again make the mistakes of the past if we are wise enough to follow the principles of sound natural resource management.  Forests are capable of producing wood, recreation, wildlife and aesthetics, all at the same time.  And they also produce large amounts of oxygen. “Old growth” timber should be a planned component of our forest management system. 


The recovery of Michigan’s forests provided a one-way ticket back to Southern Michigan for the pileated woodpecker.  There may be other species just waiting to return home if given a chance.



Friday, December 14, 2012

More Action, Less Planning

U.S. and Canadian officials signed a new Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement in early September, updating the original document first signed in 1972.  The strategy to protect the water shared by the two countries now includes focus on climate change, invasive species and other emerging issues.  But not all Great Lakes advocates are happy.

“We were wanting real targets eliminating certain things, certain percent habitat restoration, things of that nature that are clear targets with guidelines,” said John Jackson, interim executive director and program director for Great Lakes United.  “Our frustration is that these planning processes can take far too long and we need action now.  Lake Erie can’t wait three years for you to decide what your targets are and for [another] five years before you develop an action plan.”

Lack of specifics, and the need for transparency and accountability are among the criticisms being leveled by many other advocates.  Negotiations between the U.S. and Canada on water quality management have historically been somewhat secretive and citizen groups like Great Lakes United want that to change.

Andrew Buchsbaum, co-chair of Healing Our Waters Coaltion (of which the Michigan Wildlife Conservancy is a member organization), noted that in the past four decades the Water Quality Agreement has played a major role in battling nutrient and sewage pollution, and other contaminants like mercury and polychoinated biphenyls (PCBs).

“The question is whether the Agreement can move us quicker toward action plans that really have a chance of working,” said Conservancy President Bill Taylor, of Duck Lake in Calhoun County.  “We don’t need any more vague problem statements.”

A week after the new Agreement was signed, scientists gathered in Cleveland to discuss the health of the Great Lakes, and in particular, Lake Erie.  Among the topics were toxic algae blooms, possible entry of Asian carp, and fish kills in July (near Cleveland) and September (in Canadian waters of Lake Erie).

Last year, scientists from both the U.S. and Canada monitored a huge toxic algae bloom that covered the western third of Lake Erie.  The bloom clogged harbors and fouled boat motors.  Less phosphorous entered Lake Erie this year, but biologists are discussing strategies for long-term phosphorous control to thwart re-occurrences of the bloom next year and beyond.  

“We hope all this discussion leads to prompt action,” said Taylor.

Friday, December 7, 2012

2012...Project Complete.

Since it was founded in 1982, the Michigan Wildlife Conservancy has served as a fiduciary, contractor, supporter, educator, and trainer of volunteers.  On occasion, the non-profit organization has even been involved in political and legal battles.  In 2012, the Conservancy served in all those roles while celebrating three decades of conservation efforts.

Working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Conservancy played a key role in the St. Clair Reef construction, administering a $75,000 construction grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Coastal Grant Program.  The cost of constructing the reef was more than $335,000, with most of it covered by other federal grants.  The Conservancy’s effort allowed for the reef to be larger and more effective, and in spring of 2012 came the “proof in the pudding.”  Numerous sturgeon used the reef for spawning and divers were able to film the remarkable event.  To view some of the footage go to and click on “Sturgeon Reef Video” under Community Events.

Once common and widespread, the lake sturgeon dramatically declined around 1900.  It now has a limited distribution in the Great Lakes region, and is a threatened species in Michigan waters. 

The new reef is located at the head of the Middle Channel in the St. Clair River delta, where the water currents and bottom type are well-suited for reef construction.  The St. Clair River historically served as an important spawning grounds for many other native species as well as sturgeon.  But channelization, loss of coastal wetlands, filling/armoring shorelines, water pollution, and dredging limestone bedrock and gravel caused the sturgeon population to drop to less than one percent of its former abundance.  The St. Clair River reef will likely help walleyes, whitefish, the endangered northern madtom and other fishes in addition to sturgeon, and its success will be a catalyst for similar projects in the future. 

In August of 2012, the Conservancy received a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to educate landowners about wild boars and the problems caused by this invasive exotic species.  At least 22 meetings plus small-group informational sessions will be conducted by MWC over the next twelve months in many parts of Michigan.  The Conservancy has already conducted work sessions at multiple sites in the central Lower Peninsula.  The effort is part of a push for early detection and removal of Eurasian wild boars. 

The Conservancy has long been a leader in battling the species, which destroys crops, lawns, wildlife and a host of related resources.  In 2010, the organization launched the Michigan Wild Hog Removal Program, a partnership between the MWC and USDA’s Wildlife Services branch.  Private-sector groups that have contributed financially to the Program include the Michigan Pork Producers Association, the Michigan Corn Grower’s Association, and the Michigan Forest Association.

The aim is to increase the number of wild hogs killed annually, and thereby reduce damage to property and resources and/or slow the invasion of wild hogs into new areas.  A secondary objective is to obtain samples from free-ranging wild hogs to test for pseudorabies and other diseases.  The important features of the program include the purchase and lending of hog traps to landowners and other citizens, dissemination of information on wild hogs and trapping options, and training volunteers to work with biologists on monitoring and reducing wild hog numbers.

The Conservancy has teamed with USDA to conduct several group training sessions for volunteer hog trappers, and produced web-site training materials.  Wildlife Services has the traps made and delivers them to landowners and other volunteers.  The Michigan Department of Agriculture occasionally provides veterinarians to sample caught hogs for diseases, and recently provide funds for traps and two USDA employees directly involved in the effort.  In addition, a grant through USDA’s NRCS provides financial incentives for certain landowners to trap hogs in Arenac, Bay, Gladwin, and Midland Counties.  One (near Midland) has now trapped more than 25 wild hogs in an area of less than one square mile.

The new effort by MWC will boost landowner awareness and skills.  Given Michigan’s mix of private and public land, citizen involvement in hog control is critical.  Unless landowners can be quickly educated about the importance of rapid responses to wild hogs, private properties will continue to serve as “refuges” where hog numbers will build and then expand onto adjacent properties.

The Conservancy started to develop another citizen/landowner effort in 2012, one focusing on getting people to actively participate in the collection of information about wildlife.  The organization is emphasizing use of trail cameras to detect not only nuisance species like wild boars, but rare species such as cougars, and wolves in the Lower Peninsula.  For a good example of the kind of information citizens can collect see the MWC website and click on the “Training for Volunteers – Michigan Wild Hog Removal Program” under Community Events.

Conservancy staff were also very active in 2012 in political/legal arenas supporting Michigan’s ban on possession of live wild hogs, calling for the permanent separation of Lake Michigan from the Illinois River to stop the entry of Asian carp into the Great Lakes, and supporting measures to improve Great Lakes Water Quality.

“This has been a very busy year for the Michigan Wildlife Conservancy,” said President Bill Taylor of Duck Lake in Calhoun County.  “We are facing some of the most serious challenges in our state’s history, and citizen involvement in resource management has never been more needed.”